‘Queens Chef Project’: Queens native photographs local chefs to honor their work during COVID-19 pandemic

Chefs of Philomena’s in Sunnyside and La Adelita in Woodside. (Photos courtesy of Drew Kerr)

Drew Kerr has been dedicating his time to photographing Queens chefs and compiling their stories to commend them for overcoming difficulties brought on by the pandemic. 

Kerr, a Queens native, decided not to focus on their food but instead asks each chef to pick an object in their kitchen or restaurant to be photographed with.

“The pandemic is still a really emotional thing, and instead of focusing on the food, let’s focus on something that’s more meaningful to these chefs and restaurant owners,” said Kerr, “and that’s an object that they can tell a story about.”

The project, dubbed the Queens Chef Project, started in February with Kerr’s intention to photograph 50 chefs in their kitchens, restaurants or homes if they don’t have a storefront. Kerr sets up the chefs to pose with their chosen object and then shoots photos of them having fun in their environment.

“I’m looking for pictures that show joy; I’m not here to show sadness,” Kerr said. “I’m here to show that these people came through. They love what they’re doing and they have fun with these objects. I wanna bring people up.”

Dave Acocella of Philomena’s Pizzeria in Sunnyside. (Photo courtesy of Drew Kerr)

Kerr said he works with chefs of all different nationalities, making varying kinds of foods, over vast areas of Queens.

“Because the pandemic and surviving the pandemic was such an emotional episode for all of them, I wanted to do something that went deeper than the food,” Kerr said. “I wanted to get good stories. When I tell the chefs what I’m doing, they love it, because it’s a whole different expression for them.”

The project is expected to finish at the end of July, with an upcoming website launch in the fall that will showcase all of the photographs.

Along with the photos will be an audio recording of the chefs explaining the story that goes with their chosen object.

The project has been sponsored by Queens Together and QEDC, and has received support from popular Queens-based food writer Joe DiStefano.

Maria Iglesias (l.) and her daughter Cynthia Shephard, of La Adelita in Woodside. (Photo courtesy of Drew Kerr)

Kerr is also planning on holding an opening in the fall to raise funds for Queens food workers and families facing food insecurity. 

Kerr — who grew up in both Flushing and Howard Beach and later lived in Briarwood for 10 years — said this experience has been so rewarding because of the people he has met and the stories he has heard.

One chef that stood out to him was Tom Lo of Spy-C Cuisine in Forest Hills, which has received three Michelin stars. Lo is a 9/11 survivor, went to medical school, became a partner in Spy-C Cuisine, was a frontline worker during the pandemic and won a Food Network reality cooking show.

“What makes it for me are the stories,” Kerr said. “If there’s a common theme: perseverance … from all backgrounds.”