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Celebrated chef, champion of at-risk youth Evelyn Cheatham dies at 66

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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.

At 16, Cheatham got pregnant and lived for a time at a home for unwed mothers. She gave birth to a daughter, Erica Renee, now a teacher in the United Arab Emirates.

Always a fan of good food, Cheatham as a young mother worked at restaurants while studying at Cal State Hayward.

She moved north in 1985 and talked herself into a job at chef Bruce LeFavour’s Rose et LeFavour restaurant in St. Helena. From there she moved in 1987 to pastry chef Lindsey Shere’s Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg.

In the early 1990s, Cheatham struck out on her own, opening Tweet’s on Santa Rosa’s Mendocino Avenue, just south of College Avenue. It was at her cozy cafe that many of her future friends and fans first encountered her welcoming smile and love of feeding people.

In 1998, Cheatham’s parallel passion for teaching, caring for and seeking to inspire young people with tough lives led her to take a job teaching culinary arts to teen boys sent by Juvenile Court to the Sonoma County Probation Camp.

“I thought they were going to be a group of naughty boys,” she told The Press Democrat in 2013. “But they were sweet as could be.”

She recounted in a 2007 interview her discovery that a change comes over angry, defiant kids when they begin to work in a kitchen.

“When people work with food, they start to become tender,” she said. “I’ve had members of opposing gangs stirring tomato sauce in the kitchen.”

Cheatham’s work, and her life, took a sudden turn when, in 2001, she witnessed out in public something she couldn’t ignore. She saw a 37-year-old female Probation Camp counselor kiss a 17-year-old boy who’d been detained at the camp.

Cheatham reported the encounter to her supervisor. An investigation led to the counselor being convicted of statutory rape and jailed.

But Cheatham wasn’t finished. She insisted to higher-ups in the Juvenile Probation Department that more needed to be done to address failures in the proper care and protection of boys at the camp.

After she spoke with camp co- workers about details in a police report that she reasoned was public information, and was important to discuss so that the sexual misconduct wouldn’t happen again, she was reassigned — as a cook at juvenile hall. She believed she was being punished for having been a whistleblower.

She sued the county. The suit ended with an agreement that the county would pay her $75,000 and she would resign.

Cheatham used a chunk of the settlement money to found Worth Our Weight, a culinary and life skills program for teens and young adults.

She said in the 2013 interview with The Press Democrat, “A lot of these kids are society’s throwaways and they’re precious. They are funny and they’re sweet and they’re smart and they’re kind to each other. I’m just so proud of them. They’re worth their weight in gold.”

WOW began with teaching the apprentices how to do catering. The program expanded with the move into a former bakery on Hahman Drive, near the Montgomery Village shopping center and Montgomery High School.

Under Cheatham’s direction, the apprentices learned to prepare and serve breakfasts on the weekends. Many went on to careers in restaurants and hotels.

For years, guests of WOW were not charged set prices but asked to pay what they could, or what they thought the meal was worth.

Two prominent friends of Cheatham, author and radio personality Marcy Carriker Smothers and Clark Wolf, the food and hospitality consultant, helped to raise dollars for the program by hosting, every third Thursday, a Visiting Chef’s Dinner at WOW.

Every Christmas, a small and spirited army of volunteers helped Cheatham prepare and deliver holiday supper to hundreds of Sonoma County individuals and families in need.

Friend Shaw said Cheatham treated everyone she mentored or served as family.

“She lived her commitment to love,” she said. “She was guided by love, it was the biggest value in her life and she acted on it.”

In October of 2018, Cheatham announced that following the disastrous fires of 2017 patronage of the WOW Cafe fell off, and it became harder to find young people interested in becoming apprentices. She said the time had come to close Worth Our Weight.

“There’s no more money,” Cheatham said. “That’s a hard place to be.”

She said that after closing WOW she would rest a bit and visit her daughter overseas. She made that trip this past summer.

Besides her daughter, Cheatham had three goddaughters.

Friends said that in recent weeks, as Cheatham dealt with her health problem she was also savoring her life at Walter Byck’s hillside home.

“She loved to sit in the sun,” said sister-like friend Jeanne Oliver. Each morning, Oliver said, Cheatham would watch as members of a resident flock of wild turkeys that find refuge in a tree each night flew down and began looking for food.

“That was the best part of her day.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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