Chef Aleem Syed’s accessible food truck is breaking barriers

Syed dishes on eating local, giving back and the inspiration behind his global comfort food

It took Aleem Syed two years to recover from what he refers to simply as “the accident.” (Something of an understatement: he was shot in 2008 during a robbery and is now paralyzed from the waist down.)

“It took me six months to feel comfortable enough to wheel myself in a wheelchair; and it was another year before I was brave enough to fall down from the chair so I could pull myself back up again,” he says. “Still, I’m just happy I got to wake up the next day—a lot of people don’t get to do that.”

But Syed doesn’t want to talk about the “accident.” He wants to talk about food.

The worst part of his recovery was being told he’d never walk again. The best part? Learning he could still cook. For Syed, it’s always been about food and, more importantly, feeding others. He grew up learning his mother’s Hyderabadi cuisine in the kitchen of his parents’ catering business. (They immigrated to Toronto from Hydrebad, India in 1967 and his father opened the city’s first halal butcher shop.)

Syed studied at Cordon Bleu in  Ottawa and was working his way up in some of the city’s most celebrated kitchens, with stints at Canoe, Sopra and North 44. After his recovery, it was another paraplegic chef in Toronto, Pascal Ribreau, who convinced Syed to prop a cutting board on his knees and get chopping again.

“Life is funny—you get to see a lot more when you’re sitting down,” Syed says. “I didn’t want to be another statistic. And I didn’t want to just be sitting at home in my wheelchair. When my back hurts, I go to the gym and work out until it hurts more.”

Chef Aleem Syed from food truck the Holy Grill

Four years ago, Syed, who is 37, opened the Holy Grill, a catering business and the GTA’s first wheelchair-accessible food truck. From his truck, Syed preps and serves his signature “global comfort food,” everything from Peking duck tacos and Moroccan Chicken on Rice to Philly Cheesesteak Fries and the Holy Burger. “It’s all comfort food, the things people like to eat on their days off,” he says. And it’s all halal.

While the menu is global, the ingredients are local. Syed sources everything himself, travelling from farm to farm. “There’s this one farm in Caledon and they only grow three things: peppers, rapini and onions. I buy it all. Their onions are still covered in dirt and they taste better than any onions you’d get at a grocery store.”

Following a tradition instilled by his parents, any leftover food is donated to the Parkdale Community Food Bank. Syed has also collaborated with Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, creating kitchen-hack videos, and every year cooks a giant Thanksgiving feast at the Yonge Street Mission. Giving back, he says, is good for the soul. “It’s good for you, and it’s good for the people you’re helping. Even just feeding other people is a great feeling.”

Syed’s favourite feedback from the people who frequent his food truck is, “Your food is amazing, but you need a restaurant because the lineups are too long.” He’s working on it.

Not only is he customizing a second food truck (it will be ready by next year), he’s writing a cookbook (Indian street food with a twist) and is planning to open a new restaurant (top secret, but it’s in the works). I’m still hungry, I’m still yearning for more,” Syed says. “I want to use my ability and see how far I can get—and I’m not there yet.”