ROOTS HANDMADE PIZZA SPECIALIZES IN a rare breed of pizza rarely seen outside the Quad Cities; its signature pizza crust is puffy, malted, and sweet. West Town Bakery & Diner excels in pastries, cakes, and laminated dough products like croissants and breakfast buns. And Homestead on the Roof is a fine dining restaurant that specializes in summery farm-to-table food—and by farm-to-table, they actually mean rooftop-to-table, as it really is on the roof and there’s a vegetable garden right next to the dining area.

What a lot of people don’t know is that these three different businesses all share a complex on Chicago Avenue, like a tiny car into which the fancy chef, the surly pizza cook and the meticulous baker are all crammed in together. Greg Mohr and Scott Weiner’s Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, which also has the ever-busy Fifty/50 sports bar on Division and a downtown bar called The Berkshire Room, owns all three of these restaurants and the two connected buildings they occupy.

1916-1924 W. Chicago

1916-1924 W. Chicago

To be honest, I can’t stand the Fifty/50, but that’s not surprising since I generally hate sports bars. It’s around the corner from my apartment on Division, and it replaced a lousy tapas restaurant that never seemed to do well. On game nights, it’s filled with guys whose entire existence seems to revolve around doing shots of terrible Jameson. When it first showed up I knew my neighborhood was at a tipping point from hipsters to white collar guys who work in finance or some nebulous consulting job, and it turns out I was right.

But compared to its loudmouth jersey-wearing brother on Division, the Chicago Avenue complex has a kind of modesty to it—not only is there a variety of food being pumped out of this building, but to me, at least, it fits into the neighborhood without screaming for attention at the top of its lungs.

Dave Andrews, an operating partner for Roots and The Fifty/50 Restaurant group, tells me that there’s someone working in the Chicago Avenue building nearly 24 hours a day. “There’s maybe an hour or two that nobody’s in there, working on something.”

That piqued my curiosity, and made me want to see the inner workings of this mini-empire. Many food writers scarcely step foot into restaurant kitchens; I mostly write about food that comes out from behind those swinging doors, the clatter and clang of pots and pans shielded from my view. At one point I considered going to culinary school, but I knew that standing on my feet for 12 hours in a windowless room, sweaty and tired, wasn’t the job for me. I love cooking, but frankly, I’m a wuss.

Instead I asked if I could be embedded into that building for the full work day, 18 hours, to see just how these interconnected restaurants operated, from baking scones, fine dining, to nitty-gritty office work—and what kind of people make it work. It was as much research as it was a personal challenge to see if I could unwussify myself a little. If I didn’t know what restaurant life was like, well, I was about to plunge in, not dip my toes into the water.


Pat setting up the donut display.

Pat setting up the doughnut display.

6:00 am

DAVE WAITS PATIENTLY OUTSIDE WEST TOWN Bakery for me at 6 am. We’re both bleary-eyed and tired. As soon as I walk in the front doors, I notice the wide-eyed bustle of people prepping for the day. Every employee is alert and moving quickly. The first food I see is fresh maple bacon doughnuts, ready to be shelved in the display case. Someone had to have made them pretty early if they were ready to go by 6. I wondered if I’d meet that night owl later.

“Pat works really hard,” Dave says, motioning at the bearded man behind the coffee counter. “He’s our head barista. There’s a guy that comes every morning around 7. He always orders the same thing. If Pat’s not here, he’ll just leave.”

The bakery serves coffee from a roaster, Dark Matter, about a mile away. I know one of the roasters, Marc—we write music together along with my friend Ryan, on Tuesday nights. Their coffee packs a ton of punch, and I have a feeling Marc roasted some of the beans that are behind the counter. Chicago’s food scene already feels a lot smaller.

roo4 - Nick

Line cook Nick preps for the morning diner crowd before the doors open at 7 at West Town Bakery. What most people don’t know is that this kitchen is converted into the Homestead on the Roof Kitchen around 3 pm each day. All of the fine dining meals are cooked in the diner kitchen space at West Town Bakery and are carried up the stairs, which are connected to Homestead’s dining room above. It’s an unusual idea, but two kitchens for three restaurants, each with its own hours, makes sense in a practical way.

West Town Bakery’s recently revamped diner menu is dressed-up comfort food, not just a plate of greasy eggs and bacon. Roberto’s Shrimp and Grits, named for Chef Rob, sous chef at both Homestead on the Roof and West Town Bakery, is one of my favorite items; it features huge pan-seared snappy shrimp on a bed of locally-sourced grits from Baker Miller that have a hearty bite to them. They’re dressed with a Dark Matter coffee-laced red eye gravy, which is bitter, salty, and sweet.

Buzz 2


I dive straight into the kitchen, which unbeknownst to Dave might be a bad idea since I’m insufferably curious, and I’m immediately slammed with the tart smell of yeasted dough baking in the oven. I’m already intrigued, and now I’m determined to power through the day.

A giant industrial stand mixer churns away, developing structure for the dough balled up inside. I asked the baker timidly what it is, and she simply says, “Brioche.” She tosses in enormous sticks of butter, and I watch the dough swallow them up. I’m mesmerized.

roo6 - Brioche Mixer

As I stand near the mixer, I constantly worry about getting in people’s way. There are giant racks of finished goods being carted around. I’m kind of small, so getting steamrolled by a cart of bread isn’t really out of the question. It would make for a pretty good epitaph.

roo7 - Jess

In the next room, pastry supervisor Jess scoops out cupcake batter. She has bright red hair and works quietly and efficiently. I try not to bother her too much since nobody knows me quite yet. And that’s a metric shitload of cupcakes. The bakery constantly pumps out wholesale orders for cafes and stores across the city, so I never see the ovens empty the entire day.

Outside, a pigtailed Kristin sets up patio tables. As employees filter in, everyone says, “Hi, Chop!” She is easily one of the most cheerful people I’ve ever met.

“Why does everyone call you Chop?” I ask. I hope for a good story, like she slapped someone in the face with a pork chop or something.

“It’s my last name,” she says. So much for that.

roo8 - Chop

I chat with her for a little while about her time at the restaurant. Chop points at her hair and tells me a story. “I had my hair in pigtails once, you know, like this, and a lady came in with her daughter. She said, ‘My daughter likes you because she wears her hair the same way. One time they came in and I had my hair down, and the lady came in again with her daughter. Her daughter was disappointed, so I just wear my hair like this to work now.”


roo9 - Carlos Van

8:45 am

DAVE ASKS ME IF I WOULD like to go for a delivery run with Carlos. Like Chop, Carlos is one of the most affable people I’ve ever met. I wonder why everyone is so nice and if they’re just playing nice to the stranger in their midst.

On our way to our first stop, we wait in the parking lot at Plenty Grocery and Deli. It’s 8:55 and Carlos looks at the clock on the dashboard.

“He’s usually here by now,” Carlos says. “He’s almost always on time.” So we chat in the van to kill a few minutes.

Carlos says, “I wish you were here to see a downtown delivery, those are always crazy. One time I was delivering a three-tiered cake for a wedding reception and I got cut off by another driver, and the cake started falling. I tried to grab it, but the frosting got all over my arm.” He gestures all the way up the length of his arm. “The top two parts were messed up, but the bottom one was okay, so I went back to the bakery and they remade it fast. We got it to the place 15 minutes early. Man.”

Gallery: Ian makes chocolate pumpkins

We get back to the shop after the short delivery run and I see a new face in the kitchen, Ian. “Ian’s pretty shy,” Dave says. “Let me go back there and ask if you can talk to him.”

Ian previously worked downtown at Sixteen in the Trump Tower as a pastry chef, in that grandiose building branded with an eyesore of giant letters on it, and he is now the chocolatier at West Town Bakery. He’s soft-spoken and meticulous, and I watch as he assembles caramel corn-filled chocolate pumpkins. He starts with a shell, filling one half with caramel corn, while he uses a torch on the bottom of a cake pan. After the pan is heated, Ian slides the other half of the pumpkin over the pan, melting its hollow rim, and places it delicately on top of the other half.

Once the pumpkins are put together, Ian places them on a chocolate pedestal and airbrushes them with edible paint. When the pumpkin base is finished, he adds a final decoration of leaves and vine, and they’re ready to be packaged. The photos really don’t do them any justice. I look at my shaky hands. Good thing I’m not a surgeon. Or a chocolatier. My pumpkins would probably look less like they came from Trump Tower, and more like they were dropped from it.


roo18 - Fooda

9:30 am

DURING TWO SHIFTS BETWEEN 9 and 10 AM, the party room at Roots Pizza starts filling up. Fooda is a food delivery service that specializes in sending lunch out to cushy offices around the city. Organizing the dishes to be picked up and delivered gets hectic pretty quick.

I walk into the kitchen while the line cooks are prepping an endless quantity of salads. It’s loud and raucous, and I hear one of the cooks say in Spanish,  “There’s a fucking Chinese guy in the kitchen taking fucking photos of us.”

It doesn’t occur to them that I might actually understand more than a handful of Spanish. I stared at the wall for a minute, thinking, Should I say something now, or should I wait until later and let the hammer drop?

“Fuck it,” I muttered to myself. I turned to the guy and said, in clear Spanish, “First of all, I’m not a Chinese guy, I’m Korean. And second of all, I understood every word you just said.” Everyone stops moving. That’s when I pull a verbal uppercut.


For a split second, there’s silence. Then the kitchen explodes in laughter and applause. One of the cooks looks at me and says in English, “That was awesome.” For the rest of the day, nobody gives me any more shit and I have a terrific story to tell people later.


roo16 - Melinda

10:25 am

MALINDA IS THE GENERAL MANAGER at Roots, responsible for training future managers, and she arrives mid-morning. The manager training process is surprisingly grueling, ending with a test that spans hours, including written and practical portions. Underneath that smile I get the feeling she can be a hardass, which is why she’s a manager.

The Fifty/50 Restaurant group is opening a new Roots Pizza on Lawrence Avenue, and she plans to move to that location to get everyone up to speed before it opens. The restaurant was supposed to be open months ago, but since they’re getting custom metalwork done for their tables it’s taking forever. Roots feels like a place that is coiled to strike and create clones across the city.

One of the things that most restaurant customers don’t know about is the sheer volume of paperwork that must be done every day. Every time I turn around, someone is working on paperwork, whether it’s chefs, bakers, or managers. If anyone is sitting down, it’s always with a clipboard or with a spreadsheet in front of them. The paperwork is endless, covering anything from walk-in refrigerator inventories, menu planning, wholesale grocery orders, to wholesale bakery orders. None of this is glamorous, and frankly, it’s boring to watch, but I’m not surprised.

roo17 - Paperwork

Chef Martin (left), head chef at The Fifty/50 and Roots, and Jeff (right), a manager, fill out weekly event sheets. The event at Roots tonight is an engagement party. I’m allowed to scan over the order, and I see it includes appetizers, salads, and various pizzas, all with specific quantities of each dish listed. My hypercharged chef’s fantasy lifestyle is already getting holes poked into it by the tediousness of office work.

Chef Martin started as a line cook but eventually worked his way up the ranks in the kitchen to become head chef, and is now a partner at Roots and The Fifty/50. Dave later shows me an email from Martin and points at the timestamp. “3:20. That means Martin was here last night until then.”


roo20 - Tess

11:45 am

TESS, A HOSTESS AT ROOTS, is also a student at Loyola, working on her Master’s degree in Digital Media and Storytelling. She greets customers with a bright smile as they come in for lunch.

In her spare time, she works on a fashion blog called Neutrals For Breakfast. During the slow moments during service, Tess helps decorate the dining area with Halloween decorations. The dining area is already full of skeletons, pumpkins, and cobwebs, and I’m wondering how much more it can take before the building turns into Frankenstein.

At 11:45, Dave and I sit down for my first bite of the day. I munch on a big salad (which people give me shit for later) while Dave eats a plate of ravioli. Normally I’d be shamelessly eating an entire pizza, but I want to stay alert because I’m only six hours in. So far, I’m doing all right, but my lack of sleep is already starting to show.

I ask Dave if every restaurant is a separate business entity. “They are,” he says.

“But what if, say, Roots needs to borrow a pan or some vegetables from one of the other restaurants?” In my mind, it’s an easy process, someone just goes over from one kitchen to another and simply borrows a pan or ingredient and brings it back later.

“If we need another item from a different restaurant in the building, people have to fill out transfer sheets.” He looks at his plate for a second and turns to me. “By the way, we have some secret things you can do on the menu at Roots. If you get a plate of pasta, you can ask for half meat sauce and half alfredo. It’s really good that way.”

I make a mental note to remember that for another day. It doesn’t sound half bad.

roo21 - Natalie Aimee Kassie

Natalie (Manager at Homestead), Aimee (Wedding and Specialty Cake Sales Associate, West Town Bakery), and Kassie (Sales Account Manager, West Town Bakery), have a quick chat about their day. Everyone in all three restaurants is in constant communication with each other, peppering others with questions about almost everything. All conversations are rapid-fire, and everyone seems to know what everyone else is working on.

I’ve worked in corporate offices before, and despite all the emails, meetings, and conference calls, people always seemed to have their heads up their own asses and would never understand what the next person was working on, even if it was the same project. Here, people actually work together, and I find myself starting to be impressed.


roo22 - Office

1:15 pm

THE EARLY AFTERNOON IS MAINLY filled with more tedious-looking paperwork and phone calls, so I sit in the corner and recharge the battery on my camera. It’s about 1 in the afternoon and I am already feeling a little low. My back aches and I curse myself for not wearing better shoes.

In the tiny office, I listen to Aimee arrange for a wedding cake tasting over the phone. She started as a waitress at Homestead on the Roof and moved to bakery sales for West Town Bakery. Aimee still takes shifts at Homestead for some extra cash and because she likes it.

“So our wedding cake tastings are a little different,” Aimee says. “We bring out all the different samples for people to try all at once.”

“That sounds like a lot of cake,” I say. “I’d get diabetes.” She laughs.

“It is a lot of cake,” she says, with a smile. “But it helps making a decision a lot easier. You’d be surprised at how stressed out people get!”

“But it’s cake!” I exclaim. “That should be the best part of planning a wedding!” I’m not getting married (at this pathetic rate maybe never), so I won’t be stressing about cakes anytime soon.

Even in the relatively quiet office space upstairs, everyone is still managing themselves with a quiet sense of determination. Not one single person is micromanaged, unlike how I imagined. For the most part, everyone in the building seems to get along and does their job. I’m sure there is friction I cannot see, but that probably happens when there isn’t a food writer nosing around the restaurant all day. I feel like I’m missing something.

In the bakery and kitchen, it’s just more endless baking and chopping of ingredients of which I take a ton of pictures of, but it all starts looking less like food porn and more like repetitive work.


roo23 - Pre-Shift

4:30 pm

AT 4:30 PM SHARP, THE HOMESTEAD on the Roof staff, including waiters, food runners, and bartenders, get together for their pre-shift meeting. It’s a small crew. The meeting is over in approximately 10 minutes, but Natalie covers items like how many seats are reserved through the evening. There’s chatter that one of the partners will be dining at Homestead tonight with a bunch of buddies, including a former professional athlete, so the staff has to stay on their toes. It’s a beautiful fall day, so the staff anticipates a decent amount of walk-ins, but there are no guarantees.

roo24 - Garden

Since it is the end of growing season, the rooftop garden does not have much produce left. A few tomatoes remain dangling on the vine, but vegetables like kale are still going strong. All along the opposite wall are fresh herbs growing through the trellis. It’s a pretty sight, but I remind myself that it’s almost a requirement that fine dining restaurants have their own garden now.


Homestead Alternate 2

6:00 pm

Service at Homestead began at 5 pm. Tonight, there are 40 reservations. The Homestead space is intimate and cozy; you would never know it existed if you were just passing by on the sidewalk. There are a few couples on romantic dates, as well as families and friends gathering for a comfortable dinner. About an hour after this photo was shot, a heavy rain began to fall. Most people opt to stay out beneath the awning, but a few diners decided to come back into the indoor dining area. 40 reserved seats seem like a lot, but when it comes down to it, the whole place feels strangely quiet.

My theory is that Chicago natives, at the first sign of fall, start getting ready to stay in for a month before they realize winter is a terrible monster that’ll come no matter what. That’s when they start coming back out to get drunk and stuffed. Since the weather is barely starting to get cooler, people are probably opting to stay at home and make frozen pizza while drinking shitty Old Style until they cave into the weather.

roo27 - Tex

Chef Chris Teixeira, simply addressed as “Tex,” fills out even more damn paperwork. Tex serves as the executive pastry chef of West Town Bakery, Homestead on the Roof, and The Berkshire Room. He’s also a partner at West Town Bakery. I mainly see him in front of a computer or in front of a clipboard for most of the night. He is a 2015 James Beard Award-nominated “Rising Star Chef.”

As a diner, it’s very easy to fetishize the fact that you are eating food conceived by a James Beard nominated Chef, but the truth is, these are simply hard-working people who actually give a shit about their job. Now, I’ve seen a lot of shows about restaurant kitchens, and I was hoping to see at least one Gordon Ramsay-style meltdown from someone, anyone, but so far, nothing. At least there could have been a wadded up towel flung at someone else’s head.

roo25 - Steve

I wander around a little as dinner progresses. Steve is at the packing station downstairs at West Town Bakery; I watch as he tears through entire racks of pastries and bread, packing them up for wholesale deliveries early the coming day. Every time I walk by, he’s working on a new giant rack of delivery boxes. He seems portioned off and I never hear him say anything to anyone.


roo31 - Pizza

6:30 pm

I WANDER INTO THE ROOTS kitchen again. Bea and Kathleen coordinate deliveries at Roots Pizza. They come in before the delivery rush and are already busy at their tiny station, taking phone calls and confirming that each delivery order is correct, going so far as to open and inspect toppings on pizzas. It’s refreshing to see, since I’ve gotten countless fucked up orders from other places that didn’t have their shit together. Complicated coordination is done via touchscreen that cycles through delivery drivers. These two never leave their station. The delivery drivers buzz in and out all night until the orders slowly die down after 10 PM.

roo28 - Dispatch

“On the weekends there’s always that one guy that calls in drunk at 11:58 right before we close, and it’s like, come on, really?” Bea says. I laugh because it was probably me, trying to stave off a hangover.

The pizza oven rotates non-stop. It must be swept out regularly so that the remains of cornmeal dusting on the bottom of pizza crusts do not burn onto the next pizza. The guy with this responsibility performs this task with precision, and it reminds me of that frantic scrubbing motion an Olympic curler does on the ice. Maybe that’ll be the next step in his career.

roo30 - Mozz

One of the biggest sellers is easily the mozzarella sticks. The fresh mozzarella is made in-house. One line cook is dedicated to assembling them, and he fills gigantic trays with the prepped product, ready for the fryer. I’ve had them before, and they’re huge calorie bombs of drinking food, but then again, these days, what isn’t?

I’m a native of the Chicagoland area, having grown up on Chicago thin-crust pizza, so I’m always surprised at how much I now love the Quad Cities-style pie. Unlike the cracker-thin crusts served at many local Chicago institutions, Roots Pizza’s dough foundation is fortified with malt, which imparts a fair amount of sweetness. Instead of huge hunks of fennel sausage, Roots serves a crumbled version with a decidedly different spice blend that I can’t quite place.

One of their signature pizzas is their taco pizza, covered in taco-kit seasoned sausage, tomatoes, lettuce, and an absurd amount of taco-flavored corn chips. Taco sauce from packets is served on the side, and if you want, you can get a cup of sour cream on the side. If it sounds insane, it is, but the taco pizza is really something to behold. It helps if you’re drunk before you eat it so you don’t feel as guilty later, but really, you don’t need an excuse to try it at least once before you die. Think of it as a glorious unholy Taco Bell-flavored pizza.


roo32 - Three Chip

7:17 pm

Since there are multiple people named Chris at the restaurant complex, it’s almost a requirement that each is assigned a nickname. If you shouted “Chris” at the top of your lungs, at least three people would turn their heads at you. Chris (left) is the food runner for Homestead on the Roof, and is recently engaged. His bachelor party was earlier in the week, and I’m surprised he’s not still hungover. He’s the only veteran of the crew that’s been around Homestead since it opened three years ago. His nickname is “Three First Names,” since his full name is comprised of three first names. I hear people address him as “Three-First” through the night and I start calling him that too. He looks young for his age and I resist calling him McLovin’ (from Superbad) all night.

Chef Chris Davies, who everyone calls Chip (right), is the executive chef at Homestead on the Roof. He has a broken ankle from taking a bad step off a truck and is sidelined with crutches. Chip is frustrated at the fact that he can’t stand and work in the kitchen, so he ends up working on paperwork through most of the evening in front of his laptop, though he sporadically helps expedite dishes and cleans up plating of final products, which is especially important since one of the partners is upstairs.

It’s 7:17 PM, about 13-½ hours into my embedding into the restaurant, and I want to go to bed. Like I told you, I’m a wuss. I still have a long ways to go, so I ask the barista for a shot of espresso. I’m caffeine-sensitive, so this shit nearly makes me hallucinate.

“Damn,” I say to Chip. “This shit is strong. I could bust through that wall like the Kool-Aid man.”

Dishes stream out of the diner kitchen as soon as they are ready. Since Homestead on the Roof is mainly family-style dining, not all orders come out at the same exact time.

As the food comes out, I do the annoying food writer thing where I ask to take photos of every dish. Three-First wordlessly complies and automatically sets each dish in front of me before it goes out. I secretly wonder what the diners think if they knew I was taking racy shots of their dinner.

roo33 - Mussels

These Egyptian Mussels are bathed in a Ras el hanout-spiced broth, along with Calvados infused apples. A large loaf of bread is added on top so you can sop up the rich mussel broth, but frankly, I’m the kind of person who is just as happy lifting the bowl up to my face, broth dripping all over my chin and onto my clothes. I find out later that Chip spent some time in Egypt as a child, and that influences a large portion of his cooking.

roo34 - Duck

This dish, one of many, features duck on cranberry beans, along with a tomato salad and cured duck breast ham.

At some point during the day, the food stops being an object of desire, and it becomes a product, since it is a constant presence throughout the restaurant. It doesn’t take long for me to fall into this mindset, but I now understand why the idea of being surrounded by a work-related product all day can lose its luster. My guess is that most chefs hardly eat at their own restaurants, which I’m starting to understand.

roo35 - Agnolotti

During the shift, line cook Maureen tests a new agnolotti dish. The little pasta satchels are filled with pumpkin and ‘Nduja sausage. They are dotted with ricotta cheese and pumpkin seeds. She lets all of us try a little and we conclude together that the dish needs some form of acid or bitterness to offset the richness of its filling. Maureen toys with the idea of adding pickled raisins for an acidic and sweet bite. I know I’m not actually a part of the crew, but it secretly feels pretty good giving input to a dish that might make it onto the menu.


roo36 - Cocktail

8:30 pm

The chefs gently pester me to try and get some food in while I’m working. I finally relent and wait for orders to slow down so I don’t look like a total dick. At 8:30, when dessert starts streaming out, I head up to the comfortable Homestead bar upstairs, shouting “Corner!” around the bend in order to avoid a collision with a server. It pays off as I see a grinning head poke around the door. I’m starting to get the hang of this.

Finally seated at the bar, I ask Dino, the head bartender, to pour me a drink. He makes me an espresso-laced bourbon cocktail called The Weston. I take a giant sniff off the top and am hit with the intoxicating smell of cinnamon, espresso, and cured tobacco, which are all components of the beverage. The first sip hits me like a bag of bricks.

“I’m a bartender,” he says, during our conversation about his job. “I don’t really like being called a mixologist.” I can understand that. I don’t like being called a journalist, since I’m not really a reporter, but people do it anyway. I prefer being called a food writer. I don’t correct them.

roo37 - Lamb

Chip sends up some dishes, including a bread basket, salad, mussels, papardelle, and grilled lamb. The lamb chops are impeccably soft, cooked to medium-rare, and all it takes is the slight pressure of a butter knife to slice off pieces. The merguez sausage underneath them is heavily spiced and the grits are a rich and starchy foil to the slightly gamy meat. Before I know it, I’m gnawing on the bone, trying to get the last of the meat off. I probably should have eaten more than just a salad all day, because that cocktail kicked my ass and suddenly I can’t get enough food.


roo38 - Panna Cotta

9:30 pm

After my meal I stumble back down the stairs to the diner kitchen. Chef Jeff, a friendly bearded giant whom I’ve been trading jokes with on and off, works on dessert and I watch him carefully hunch over a plate of fig panna cotta.

roo39 - Cheesecake

The standout is the butternut squash cheesecake that I mowed down with some employees at the bar before I ate my actual dinner. The cake is soft, airy, and not overly sugary, with the fall flavor of subtly sweet squash present in every bite. The crust crumble beneath the ice cream adds a much-needed crunch to go with the pillowy dessert. It’s damn good.


roo40 - Polish

11:00 pm

At the end of the night, a small group gathers to polish silverware and to chat about their day. It is 11:00 pm, and I’m feeling nearly delirious, having been on and off my feet for about 17 hours now. I don’t do all-nighters, ever, because I start getting crazy towards the end, so I’m trying to suppress the urge to start saying weird things to the staff. The chefs begin wiping down all the surfaces in the diner kitchen.

Aimee turns to me as I watch them and I’m feeling like I just took Ambien.

“So, Dennis, what was your favorite part about being here?” she asked. I muster up a decent smile.

“I liked meeting everybody,” I said. “I can’t get over how nice everyone has been to me. And you guys all look like you genuinely enjoy being together. I’ve never felt so welcome.” Even at the end of the night, I still can’t get over how little shit anyone ever gives each other here. In my mind it was supposed to be balls to the wall crazy, but it was the exact opposite, a barely simmering, tightly controlled system. But then again, I came on an unexpectedly quiet night.

I gather all my belongings, and quietly get ready to leave.

“How did you like it?” Chef Chip also asks.

“I had a terrific day, but I’m fucking exhausted,” I said, my mind feeling more than a little hazy.

“Well, you put in a much longer day than any of the chefs here, so I’m not surprised. I’m going for a beer at Roots, if you’d like to have one with me.” I politely decline; a single beer would put me under at this point and I still have to drive home. I watch Chip navigate his way through the kitchen with crutches, slipping slightly on some water on the floor.

“Have you seen the Donut Lady?” Three-First asks. “She’s making donuts right over there.”

“Is that really what you call her?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says, sheepishly. “There’s three of them, but we just call each of them ‘The Donut Lady.’

For some reason I like that, but it seems a little impersonal.

roo41 - Donut Lady

The Donut Lady is easily the quietest person in the entire complex. She never utters a single word as I flutter around her with my camera for one last shot, and I don’t interrupt her. I watch as she deftly flips over the yeasted donuts with the flick of a wrist. These donuts will be ready to deliver by 4 AM, which isn’t very long from this midnight hour.

As my day started with donuts, it only seems fitting that it ends with them. Despite the fact that I haven’t been this weary in ages, part of me thinks that I could get used to this in some strange way. I make it home, sip on some bourbon, and crash.

I’ve popped my head in since to say hi, and Chop greeted me with a big hug. The chefs all nodded at me, the servers gave me friendly waves, and I wondered what my life would be like if I’d pulled the trigger on culinary school a decade ago.

When he’s not freelancing, Dennis Lee is the culinary trainwreck behind The Pizzle.

CORRECTIONS: A few minor corrections (including that the next Roots will be on Lawrence, not Montrose) have been made since publication.

Sparrow Black 2019


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