Celebrated chef, champion of at-risk youth Evelyn Cheatham dies at 66
Widely beloved Sonoma County chef/restaurateur Evelyn Cheatham, who could have gone the crystal-and-silver route but devoted herself to feeding the souls of young people at risk of lives of misery, died in her sleep Thursday night.
A soulful woman of 66 with a room-warming smile, Cheatham just one year ago closed her renowned Worth Our Weight cafe in Santa Rosa that taught culinary and life skills to teens and young adults who’d had harsh childhoods and were adrift.
“This was a shock. I think it was a shock to everybody,” said Sonia Byck-Barwick, a friend and a member of the family that owns Paradise Ridge Winery. Cheatham died at the Santa Rosa home of Byck- Barwick’s father, Paradise Ridge co-founder Dr. Walter Byck, a steadfast supporter of Cheatham and her mission who earlier this year invited her to live in one of his spare rooms.
Cheatham, well known regionally not only as a culinary master and mother-like mentor to underserved youth but as a champion of social justice, had struggled for months with a stubborn health problem.
A rare tumor on her adrenal gland sharply elevated her blood pressure. She was scheduled for surgery in December and was undergoing treatment to tame the hypertension.
“Her health had caught up with her in a sense,” said Susan Shaw, who knew Cheatham more than 30 years and considered the two of them sisters.
“She worked so hard,” said Shaw, a justice advocate who heads the North Bay Organizing Project. She said a guiding principal of Cheatham’s life led her to tour her kitchen apprentices across maps of the world, take them to a Slow Food festival in Italy and treat them to meals at restaurants offering cuisine from across the nation and the world.
Shaw remembers her friend telling young people who commonly grew up with little and hadn’t traveled, “It’s a big world out there, rich and creative — and there’s a place for you in it.”
Though Cheatham resisted being in the limelight, she was presented many awards and honors for her work with at-risk teens at her cutting-edge Worth Our Weight, or WOW, culinary apprenticeship cafe. Included in the recognition she received: In 2016 Rep. Mike Thompson named her a “Woman of the Year.”
Friend Byck-Barwick remembers Cheatham saying of the honor from Thompson, “That’s the one I’m proud of.”
The congressman was hit hard Friday by news of Cheatham’s passing.
“What a loss,” Thompson, D-St. Helena, said. “What an incredible loss for the community — and for humanity.
“She chose to help people; she helped so many people. She was always so positive, so happy. And she had a great smile.”
In early 2011, Cheatham and her apprentices and the WOW Cafe co-starred in an episode of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Santa Rosa resident Fieri and Cheatham became great friends and partnered often in community projects.
“Evelyn was everything we all should be about — our community, our kids, our food, our families,” Fieri said Friday. “We will miss her.”
Cheatham grew up in San Francisco and did well at its prestigious Lowell High School, playing the violin and joining both the debate team and the Black Student Union. After two visiting members of the Black Panthers shamed her and her fellow African-American students for being privileged and “not being good black people if we didn’t do anything to help the community,” she secretly signed up to cook at a free breakfast and help with an after-school program for disadvantaged kids in west Berkeley.