Our Stories: Aleem Syed

Chef Aleem

Aleem Syed

In 2008, I sustained a spinal cord injury due to a gunshot wound to the L1/L2 vertebrae in my spine. Cooking is my passion and I was a junior sous chef at the time. With my injury, I was wondering how I would be able to get back in the kitchen again. I would like to honour Chef Pascal Ribreau because he is the reason that I got back in the kitchen so soon after my injury.

I spoke to some of my cousins and one of them introduced me to Chef Pascal Ribreau. He came into my room at the hospital and asked me if I was ready to work service next week at his restaurant. At first, I thought to myself, “you own a restaurant?” I didn’t realize that was possible for someone who was in a wheelchair. Intrigued, I agreed to go and see how it would work.

Two weeks later, I went to Pascal’s restaurant and worked the dinner service. I remember that he had asked me to make the crab bisque soup. I was able to make the food preparation work by having my cutting board on my lap and having everything I needed close by. After seeing me work in the kitchen and being impressed with my knife skills, Pascal reassured me that I didn’t have to worry about being able to work in the kitchen again. I was already doing it.

After that experience and once I got out of the hospital I started a catering business. My first big break was with Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. They were organizing a Bollywood fundraising gala and had asked me to do the catering. It was a success.

Because of that opportunity and the confidence I got from working with Pascal and seeing him run his restaurant, I was pushed to pursue my passion. They had laid the groundwork.

Along the way, I definitely had to adapt and learn to be able to work as part of the food service. Often, you’re at a station for two to four hours, focusing on what needs to get done. Now I set my station so that all the ingredients and tools I need are accessible to me. There’s also a lot of physical strength required as well, whether it’s the long work hours or the muscle needed to be able to pick up and move ingredients. I hit the gym to strengthen my body so that I could still be able to do that. It wasn’t just about preparing my body, though. I had set in my heart and mind that this is what I wanted to do.

That’s the reason why I have the Holy Grill food truck today. It is North America’s first wheelchair accessible food truck. The food I create is eclectic urban cuisine that happens to be Halal. The truck is based in Toronto and we do private and corporate catering, as well as concerts and food festivals.

Being in the kitchen, I feel like a free spirit. Even though I can’t use my legs to get around, I’m still able to channel my passion and energy into the food. All of the recipes that have been taught to me and handed down to me are still in my brain. They’ve never left my head or my heart.


Stay tuned for exciting news about Chef Aleem in the future. In the meantime, keep fit and keep eating!