Every morning we awake and turn on the TV or listen to the radio news on our way to work, where we are overwhelmed with stories about the devastation around the world due to the coronavirus. Tabloid papers are posted at the check-out lines in supermarkets, pharmacies and department stores with other negative or questionable news. They are placed there to catch our attention with some of the most salacious headlines and photos meant to capture our curiosity.
Not all news is bad, however, and many positive efforts are being undertaken within Southwest Florida to assist residents within our communities, as those most in need seek assistance during these dire times.
In Collier County, we are fortunate to have a number of outstanding organizations and philanthropic groups assisting citizens during these difficult times. It’s heartwarming to see these organizations and volunteers step forward to help where they can.
One of the groups most heavily impacted by the layoffs exists within the restaurant and hotel business sector. They have seen many of their employees laid off or furloughed due to closings to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
Chef Asif Syed, the owner of 21 Spices by Chef Asif in East Naples, was deeply concerned about the many people he knew that had lost their jobs. Syed had come to America after receiving his degree in hotel management and spending time traveling and working through Europe.
He originally came to Southwest Florida after accepting a position with the Marriott Hotel on Marco Island. After 2 years there, he took on a position as a sous chef within the Marco Island Hilton Hotel where he was shortly after promoted to Executive Chef. He spent almost 15 years there before opening his own award-winning restaurant known today as 21 Spices by Chef Asif at 4270 East Tamiami Trail in East Naples.
“What my staff and I saw here was a community that was hurting, and we wanted to see what we could do to help,” said Chef Asif. He would go on to point out that many of the residents in East Naples work within the service industry such as restaurants. It was from there that he and his staff began providing 150 meals on Monday’s, Wednesday’s and Friday’s at no cost. All one had to do is come by the restaurant and they provided the meal free of charge.
Through the generosity of his partner and Chef Asif, they began assisting out-of-work restaurant workers and it expanded from there. “We see many of our former colleagues and friends that work on Marco and other restaurants in the area that are sitting at home,” stated Chef Asif. “We hoped we could provide something of a positive nature in their life by providing a high-quality meal for their families maybe once a week. From there the process has continued to grow. Last week we even sent meals to NCH.”
Last week alone, Chef Asif and his staff provided 300 meals for the “No Kids Go Hungry” effort in Naples and another 300 was planned for this week. In addition to that, they will be feeding approximately 300 staff members at the Physician Regional Hospital Staff last week. That was in addition to their drive-up distribution of meals to those in need.
“Chef Asif is one of the most genuine and caring individuals I’ve had the privilege to have met,” said Vip Grover and his wife Melissa—both longtime Marco residents who are heavily involved in both Naples and Marco charitable efforts.
“I’ve known Asif since he came to work at the Hilton on Marco and he has always been one of the most unpretentious individuals I’ve ever met,” said Grover.
You may even recognize Chef Asif from some of his guest appearances on various local and national food shows, the most impressive being when he beat nationally acclaimed TV Chef Bobby Flay on his TV Cooking Contest during an episode in 2018 of Flay’s Food Network show.
The premise of the show is to bring well-renowned chefs from throughout the country to take on Chef Flay on his show. Chef Asif’s winning dish of mustard crusted lamb with mint and mango chutney propelled him into the final round against the master himself, Bobby Flay.
In the end, the panel of judges chose Chef Asif’s chicken tandoori, marinated in a blend of spices and yogurt over that Bobby Flay’s presentation of grilled chicken and a prepared toasted coconut and lime yogurt with mango mint chutney. Chef Asif was declared the “King of Spices” that evening.
“Chef Asif has never let it go to his head. He drives his two children to school and stays grounded and a contributor to our Collier County community,” said Grover as he spoke about his friend, a man he describes as having a big heart.