“After I was paralyzed, I thought I’d never be a chef. Now, I own a successful restaurant and food truck”

“After I was paralyzed, I thought I’d never be a chef. Now, I own a successful restaurant and food truck”

Aleem Syed worked with top-tier restaurateurs like Susur Lee, Matty Matheson and Didier Leroy before he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. He thought his career was over—until he opened The Holy Grill food truck

Aleem Syed sitting in a wheelchair in front of a wall painted with a chili pepperI spent the late ’90s working at Taj Banquet Hall, my parents’ catering and event space in North York. My mom, Afzal Syed—the biryani queen of Toronto—taught me everything she knew. I learned how to make butter chicken, biryani and an array of other Indian and Pakistani dishes. Most importantly, though, she taught me to prepare food with love. I was in high school at Vaughan Secondary, but cooking was the place where I felt most confident and comfortable. When I was 16, one of my teachers suggested that I join the culinary co-op program. I was thrilled.

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As luck would have it, that same teacher lived right next door to the legendary North 44, a fine-dining institute run by Mark McEwan, a judge on Top Chef Canada. The place was a huge deal—it was the most revered kitchen of that time. Suddenly, I was working beside bona fide kitchen legends like Rob Gentile and Sash Simpson. Those guys were hardcore. If someone’s station wasn’t set in time for service, they were gone. It was a high-pressure environment, but I loved it. There were people of all ethnicities and walks of life working together—it was beautiful. I knew right then that I had to get myself into the industry.

When I graduated, I signed up for Le Cordon Bleu and moved to Ottawa with one chef’s knife. After a short stint at BLT Prime in New York, I moved back to Toronto and started working insane hours. It was what all the chefs did in those days. I worked at Le Sélect Bistro with Matty Matheson during the day, and I worked nights at Canoe with Anthony Walsh and Basilio Pesce. I stayed at Canoe for two years before I was fired for leaving too much meat on a tuna carcass. My bad.

Eventually, I landed a job interview with Susur Lee. He asked if I had a girlfriend, and when I said yes, he told me it would be hard to maintain a relationship while working at Lee Restaurant. The job was demanding, and every ounce of my passion had to go toward cooking. Lee was tough, but if you cooked with precision, dedication and heart, he noticed. I respected him, but in the end I quit to work at Eagle’s Nest Golf Course and apprentice for Didier Leroy on my days off. He was also severe, but he taught me so much proper French technique that I didn’t care. I was intent on opening my own restaurant, and I wholeheartedly believed I was on that path.

Then, in September 2008, I was leaving a friend’s house in North York when a man in a mask shoved me from behind. I heard a loud bang and felt him try to grab the gold chain around my neck. I realized he had fired off a gunshot. I was full of adrenalin, and I wasn’t thinking rationally. He ran, and I bolted toward him. Then he fired again. The bullet ricocheted off a nearby wall and went in my arm and through my ribs, hitting the sacral base of my spine. I remember my legs feeling like they were balloons filling with air. I haven’t felt them since.

It took two months at Sunnybrook Hospital to know for sure, but eventually I was told I would never walk again. The bullet had shattered bone, paralyzing my lower half. I’ll never forget that day—the words were like boulders crushing my hopes and dreams. I was devastated. I just lay in my hospital bed and started crying. All I could hear was my mother saying, “You are very strong, Aleem. You will continue to be strong. You have no choice.”

I was moved to Lyndhurst Rehabilitation Centre, and about six months into my stay there, a friend took me out for lunch. We happened to run into Susur Lee. When he saw me in my wheelchair, he was horrified. He told me to reach out to Pascal Ribreau, a paraplegic chef who owned a popular uptown restaurant called Celestin. I wasn’t prepared to start thinking about my future, but I did call Didier later that day to tell him what had happened. He knew Pascal very well and immediately suggested I get in touch. I didn’t follow up. As far as I was concerned, my career was over.

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I’d told my cousin about the conversation with Didier, though, and she took it upon herself to call Pascal on my behalf. Weeks later, I was surprised to see him wheeling into my hospital room. I was in such a dark place. I couldn’t think of myself as a chef. I was just a guy who couldn’t walk. I was taking dozens of medications every day, and I hadn’t been able to sit up in my wheelchair for more than two hours at a time. But Pascal, whose paralysis is even more extensive than mine, was determined to get me back into the kitchen. He asked me to come to his restaurant and cook with him. “My crab bisque won’t make itself,” he said. “I need you.” After a while, I agreed. My doctor gave me permission to go to Celestin the next day.

When I arrived, it was clear that Pascal had no intention of going easy on me. He basically threw me a knife and told me to dive in. I got to see how he worked, using a wheelchair that propped him up vertically so he could stand up behind his counters. No one did anything for him. It was so inspiring that I cooked for eight hours straight. It’s impossible to explain, but for the first time in months, all the pain just stopped. I completely gave myself over to the kitchen. Before I left, I asked Pascal if I could come back and work for him when I was out of the hospital. “Of course you can,” he said. “But you’re not going to need my help.”

Four months later, after spending a full ten months at Lyndhurst, I moved into a wheelchair-accessible condo at Yonge and Eglinton. I had to relearn everything—how to take care of myself, how to drive, how to cook, how to clean. Mostly, though, I was determined to reclaim the person I’d gotten a glimpse of that day in Pascal’s kitchen. There was a huge hill near my condo. I couldn’t go anywhere without overcoming it. Getting myself up that hill was a challenge, but once I made it, it was satisfying to see how much easier it was to go down the other side.

When I was ready to work again, I was contacted by the Canadian Paraplegic Association. They asked if I could help with appetizers at their annual gala. So I made samosa-inspired spring rolls and arranged to have a few of my friends on standby in case I needed help during service. To my surprise, I didn’t call them once. I was able to manage the gig myself, and the spring rolls were a hit. I started landing more and more private catering gigs, and eventually, with the help of family and friends, I was able to scrape together the money to buy a food truck and add a ramp to it. I also modified the countertops so that they were accessible to me in my wheelchair.

In 2011, I launched The Holy Grill out of that truck. I didn’t know how to run a business, but I knew how to run a kitchen and make top-notch comfort food. I started doing pop-ups and driving to festivals and events to serve Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, sloppy cheeseburgers, tacos and my mom’s butter chicken poutine. It was a success. Customers loved the food, and I was making enough money to live. I was even able to go on my first vacation.

The Nashville fried chicken sandwich from The Holy Grill

I did that for a decade, but when the lockdowns began in March 2020, I needed to pivot. There weren’t going to be any festivals, and I didn’t know how long that would last. So I asked my cousin if I could pay him to park my truck in front of his unit on Shorting Road in Scarborough and set it up for service on weekends. It’s a sleepy area, but I used social media to advertise. Everyone was cooped up, so when word got out that there was a food truck open every weekend, they came. We blew up right away. Every day the lineups grew, and eventually I had people waiting around the block. After two and a half years, demand for The Holy Grill became so high that it was impossible to handle out of a truck. I knew it was time to expand.

So, last year, I opened my first bricks-and-mortar location of THG’s Hot Chicken on Sheppard Avenue East, where we serve some of the hits off the The Holy Grill’s menu, including, of course, our stellar hot chicken sandwich. I love being right in the heart of Scarborough. It’s where my family is, where I grew up. The restaurant has been so well-received that, in the new year, I’ll be opening my second location, in the west end. After that, I’m planning to offer franchising opportunities.

Sometimes, life presents you with challenges that seem insurmountable, and it’s up to you to get creative—everyone has to learn that one way or another. I’ve been able to accomplish so much since my accident. I’m proud that I’ve been able to build a franchise that represents who I am, who my family is and the city that I love.