How Aleem Syed Returned to the Kitchen After a Life-Changing Tragedy

In September 2008, chef Aleem Syed was the victim of gun violence. He had to let go of his pain to find peace — and so much more.

Chef Aleem Syed
Photo: Ivy Knight

At the age of 27, Aleem Syed was holding down two cooking jobs: one at an Italian restaurant and another at a golf course. He'd already worked at Canoe, arguably one of the best restaurants in the country, and had his sights set on big things. Then, on one of the last warm nights as summer turned to fall, and just a month before his birthday, Aleem was shot, and his life changed forever.

Syed's parents, Jeelani and Naeem, emigrated from Hyderabad, India to England, and then to Canada in 1967. They settled in Scarborough, a district in the fourth largest city in North America, and recognized by the UN as the most diverse city on the planet, with over half of its population born outside of Canada. Scarborough is home to the largest Muslim population in the country and the family quickly became part of the growing Muslim community. "Our family is a social butterfly type of family," said Aleem's brother Waseem.

The 10-year gap between Aleem and the next-eldest of his three siblings makes him the undisputed baby of the family, and though his brothers and sister were never that interested in cooking, his mother couldn't keep him out of the kitchen.

"From when he was five years old, he was always looking over her shoulder to figure out the mechanics behind what she was doing," said Waseem. "It wasn't just a little kid phase; he was really interested and he wanted to replicate everything she did."

"My mom's biryani is legendary," Aleem said, referencing the dish that built the Taj Banquet Hall his parents ran for 13 years. They sold it in 2013. "She's the biryani queen. She's catered events in Jacksonville, Chicago, Atlanta, New York."

A popular student with a tight circle of friends, everyone at Vaughn Secondary High knew Aleem as the young prince of that social butterfly family, whose mom was the chef behind the greatest biryani any of them had ever tasted. After graduation his parents encouraged him to go to culinary school and were thrilled when he started his career as a chef.

On that night, September 18, 2008, Aleem finished his shift at the Eagle's Nest Golf Course and visited friends in his old neighborhood. As he walked back to his truck two men approached. Aleem sensed something about one of the guys — the way he was holding himself — was off. He gave them a wide berth as they passed. Moments later he heard a loud bang.

Aleem didn't think, didn't look, he ran. Even if he didn't clock it, his brain sounded the alarm and he instinctively took off. Another loud bang. He was surprised to find himself falling. Face down on the road he felt the shooter grab the gold chain around his neck and yank it off.

He didn't expect it to go down the way it went down.

"He was just trying to grab whatever he could I guess," Aleem recalled. "I felt how scared he was. He didn't expect it to go down the way it went down."

The assailant took off and left Aleem on the ground bleeding. He dragged himself from the street to the grass. He was yelling for help. And water. "I didn't know why I was so thirsty," he says. "I found out later that being in trauma like that, with an open flesh wound, makes the body extremely dehydrated."

Melissa MacDonald was in her room getting ready for bed around 10 p.m.

"It was a hot night so my windows were open and I heard this voice yelling for help," MacDonald recalled. "Wailing. And calling for water. I ran down to my kitchen, grabbed a bottle of water and tried to follow the voice."

Outside she quickly spotted a body on the ground, people standing around. She rushed over to realize it was not just anyone, but someone she'd known her whole life: her neighbor, her high school buddy. "I was like oh my god it's Aleem." She knelt beside him, pulled his head into her arms and gave him water.

"He said, 'They shot me,'" MacDonald said. "'I can't feel my legs.'"

MacDonald couldn't determine where Aleem had been shot but she knew there was a lot of blood. Her hands were covered in it, her white tights turning burgundy in the moonlight.

Waseem got the call at 1 a.m. He raced to the hospital to see his baby brother. "He was literally screaming in pain. He was feeling every bit of what was going on." Waseem woke his parents at 2 a.m. to tell them their son was in the hospital. Unable to find the words to explain why, he drove them to the hospital in silence while Jeelani prayed in the back of the car. In the hospital lobby he finally told them Aleem had been shot.

"From that moment on she was with him; she was stuck to my brother's side for the next year. Everything that was going on in her life took a backseat," Waseem said of his mother.

Two days later a doctor walked into Aleem's room with news. His mother and brother were with him. Waseem remembers vividly, "He said, 'Well we ran the tests and we saw the X-rays and you're paralyzed from the waist down.' He just kind of said it like in passing, there was no empathy behind it at all." Wasem cringes at the memory.

At that moment Aleem, his head in his mother's arms, broke. "I've never seen my brother break down like that ever in my life," Wasem recalled. "My mother's holding him and trying not to cry. And I kept asking the doctor if there was anything, a surgery, something."

The doctor explained that surgery was risky, that it might further complicate the paralysis, said Wasem. "They're just thinking it's another gunshot victim and move on to the next patient."

But they weren't dealing with just another gunshot victim; they were dealing with a chef. A lot of people are drawn to the kitchen, only a certain type stays. And for Aleem, the kitchen is where he was born and raised.

A lot of people are drawn to the kitchen, only a certain type stays.

"I was born in the sink," said Aleem. "My mom went into labor while she was cooking. She always says, 'You should have been born in the sink.' That's my roots. I was always around amazing food and talented people. My parents both have a huge passion for cooking and always took care of the community."

"I think stubborn is a beautiful word, and he's extremely stubborn — in the best way," says chef Roger Mooking, an All Star Chopped alum and one of Aleem's mentors.

But in the hospital Aleem slipped into apathy.

"Just think about it, you're walking your whole life and you wake up one day and you're not fucking walking. That's not fun."

Aleem didn't want to leave his bedroom for a year. "I was so pissed off with everything." That's when he met Pascal Ribreau. It was Aleem's cousin, Sarah Syed, who found out about Ribreau, a French chef who was running his Toronto restaurant, Celéstin, from a motorized standing chair. Sarah knew he had to meet Aleem. She was right. It was Pascal who got Aleem out of bed and into chef whites. He put a cutting board on Aleem's lap and told him to start prepping. "At that point I could only handle being in the chair for two hours max." Aleem remembered.

Eight hours later there was no doubt Aleem could work in a kitchen. He felt his hope renewed and began applying for jobs. Offers started coming in, but nothing panned out.

Chef Aleem Syed
Farham Syed

"Once they saw me in my wheelchair, I got the runaround. Nobody wants to roll the dice on someone with a disability. They think, 'This guy can't work the line.' They only see this part of me," he said, gesturing to his chair. "They don't understand – when you give somebody a chance you can change their life."

No one gave him a chance, so he bought an old decommissioned Purolator delivery truck and did it himself. "I don't want to sit at a desk just because I'm in a wheelchair. That's not how it's going to be," said Aleem.

He took the Purolator truck to a company that customizes food trucks. "Canada Food Truck is owned by a bunch of Brown guys, Pakistani guys. I just wheeled in there and said, 'Okay, this is what I need, here's my pass, here's my fryer.'"

"Cooking a chicken in a wheelchair, or cooking a chicken as a non-disabled person, it's essentially the same thing," said Mooking of Aleem's customized kitchen. "You have to move, and maneuver differently, but the chicken isn't different, the pan isn't different, and the oil ain't different."

Aleem has two businesses right now; The Holy Grill and THG's Hot Chicken, both operating out of the food truck. In May he opened his first brick and mortar in Scarborough, a Hot Chicken outpost. He drew up the plans from his hospital bed in August 2021. "I had to get surgery, and while I was in there, I just banged it out," he said, guiding this reporter through the space that's been customized precisely for his wheelchair.

The kitchen crew around Aleem Syed is tight. He has their respect, but there's something more.

"Given the fact that I'm in a wheelchair, my team is family," he said. A lot of people say that about their crew, but it's evident that this isn't just talk. These cooks are always on, they clock his every movement like the security guards you see around celebrities. At THG Aleem is Drake, and these guys aren't going to let anything happen to their star. And THG is no stranger to the star-studded world, having done the halal catering for backstage at Drake's OVO Fest two years running, as well as events for The Weeknd, and Justin Trudeau.

"There's a respect there with his team," Mooking affirmed. "His staff staying with him like that is a testament to who he is."

We don't rush, rush, rush; we pump, pump, pump.

Aleem has never had to change his staff. "I'm not strict, I like to keep things simple." He laughed; "The only thing that stresses us out is the lineups; we get [unbelievable] lineups." The longest was 750 people deep. He has a mantra for the crew as they power through: "We don't rush, rush, rush; we pump, pump, pump."

Jaleeni was finishing up a biryani lesson for a friend as she reminisced. "This is the biryani popular in Hyderabad, where I was born." Aleem has told her to collect her recipes and write a cookbook. "I don't know how to do all that," she laughed, "But if anybody wants to learn from me, I can teach them, no problem."

She remembered that night in the hospital and started to cry. "I can't explain it to you, how hard it was. He was so young." She didn't know if he'd survive, let alone continue working as a chef. "Honestly, we were very nervous. How can he do it? But if we are scared, we can't help him. We have to be strong."

But Jaleeni brightened as she remembered him in the banquet hall kitchen as a kid. "He's so little, but he's so interested. He would say to the chefs, 'How you making?'"

Perhaps, from the outside, a chef using a wheelchair makes for a compelling story; the guy who got shot and came right back into the kitchen, running things from his wheelchair like a boss. But Aleem's story is a different reality: the guy who took over a decade to come back. He'd been working away in his food truck, and he'd never told his story, never shared the details. It's only now that he's ready.

"I would pray all the time, that would help a lot." Aleem prayed until he felt something change. "I had to go through the emotional cycle, where I had to learn how to accept what God gave me, or the situation that I was in, and how to be able to work with it. And I had to figure that out by myself. There's no other way to put it. Somehow, with a leap of faith I was able to accept the situation. And there was freedom in that."

You've got the juice.

For most of the time he was furious. When Aleem returned to cooking, he still had to present a new version of himself, to face his friends and family while using a wheelchair. It took a long time to let go of the rage, he said, but he did, he's made peace. He had to get right with God; in the mosque and in his heart. Now, 13 years later, at 40 years of age he can say with no hitch in his voice, that he forgives the guy who shot him. That he let go of his enormous pain in exchange for peace. It was the only way he could heal. And it was the only way he could open his restaurant.

It took Aleem a long time to come into his own. He fought like hell to stay in this business and he's never been more ready to level up.

"Not everybody is supposed to be doing the same thing," Aleem said. "You can't be a Marcus Samuelson or a Matty Matheson, but you can be you. You're just as fucking talented, you have just as much energy, you've got the juice. You just need to figure out who you are."

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