1. HEARING VOICES, A NEW PODCAST

I know one thing many of us are lacking at the moment is… the sound of other grownups! So I decided it would be a pleasant diversion to launch a simple podcast in which I talk with other folks in food and food media about the present situation, called Fooditor Radio Is All Dressed Up And Has No Place To Go. The first guest is John Kessler, fellow writer, former food critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and contributor to Chicago magazine (and author of that piece). We talk about where we’re ordering from, what we’re cooking, and what we hope the restaurant scene to be like when we come out the other side of this.

You can play it right here, or find this first one* here at Soundcloud, or search for Fooditor Radio at iTunes/Apple Podcasts and subscribe.

* Yes, it’s listed as episode 29 under Fooditor Radio, because I included all past Fooditor audio as well as the old Airwaves Full of Bacon series in the feed. But it’s episode 1 of this Coronavirus-era series.

2. WHO’S IN/WHO’S OUT

Wow! Restaurants getting into the takeout game this week included Schwa (serving a po’boy in collaboration with Kimski; instantly sold out); The Loyalist doing burgers for a weekend popup (sold out, but maybe they’ll do it again this week); J.P. Graziano (reached capacity almost as quickly, but they’ll be back; order here or by calling 312-666-4587‬), and Michelin-uncomprehended Kyōten doing rolls and bowls like he first did in his sushi trailer in Austin.

Out, unfortunately: Daisies, Honey Butter Fried Chicken, and Fat Rice. The latter, worrisomely, talks like they are anticipating being closed for good (support their staff here).

Ashok Selvam at Eater Chicago finally got more info on why One Off Hospitality shut down all its restaurants so quickly. The situation at Avec sums it up: “Avec’s success was a double-edged blade in West Loop. One Off needed to hire staff to accommodate orders. But the restaurant’s tight quarters made social distancing difficult, and it was the first to close… ‘Avec was insane, like 300 orders a night,’ [co-owner Paul] Kahan said. ‘We just didn’t think people were safe.’”

Meanwhile, The Fifty/50 Group keeps on feeding Chicago food and beverage workers, so much so that they’ve opened a second location—they’re now handing out meals and groceries from West Town Bakery as well as from the original location at The Fifty/50 on Division.

Rick Bayless tells here how his restaurants, with an anonymous gift and the support of US Foods, are preparing produce boxes for hospitality workers twice a week.

If you’re a hospitality worker, Plate has a list of similar resources for you nationwide. And Chicago mag tells us how to send food to workers at local hospitals.

3. COOKING LIKE CHEFS

We’re starting to get local chefs doing cooking instructional videos online, and Jonathan Zaragoza of Birrieria Zaragoza fame has done several on Mexican cuisine including mole manchamanteles, salsa macha, and tepache.

Anthony Todd asked Bill Kim and others for pantry-scraping meal ideas. He also points us to a Facebook group for our most over-the-top quarantine cooking.

Baking sourdough? Nick Kindelsperger talks you through it: “I became a bread baker by accident. I initially got into making pizza at home, before realizing that I should probably learn about bread first. After some simple overnight loaves, I decided to try one made with a levain. Each loaf looked like I swiped it from an adorable French bakery, with a gorgeous crackly crust and a tender, almost custardlike interior. Yet, nothing about the cooking process took much effort.”

At ABC 7 Steve Dolinsky goes to Aya Pastry to buy biscuit dough, and shows off the resulting masterpiece: the McSteven.

Huge Galdones does kitchen magic. No, really.

4. LORD BUSINESS

Hear Nick Kokonas talk to Advertising Age about how the very sitdown Alinea and the reservations-oriented Tock became a fast-growing, restaurant-sustaining takeout business.

Many have speculated that we’ll have more chains and fewer independents when this is over—Edward McLelland explores that notion at Chicago: “Their bigger balance sheets allow them to absorb a loss of business. They’re also set up for takeout and delivery, the only way Illinois restaurants are allowed to serve food right now. The chains have drive-thru windows, and they’re hooked into Uber Eats and DoorDash.”

Restaurants are finding that their business interruption insurance doesn’t cover pandemics—and they’re going to court to argue the point. Crain’s talks about Billy Goat Tavern suing their insurer here, but you’re going to see lots more of this.

What does it take to keep a restaurant clean? Dave Miller of Baker Miller explains.

And Eater says the restaurant loan program from the city is going well—as long as you’re not really, really new.

5. CHEFS TALKING

David Hammond talks to three chefs from NewCity’s 50 in Food about how it’s going. Alisha Elenz (mfk., Bar Biscay) on transitioning to Bodega Biscay: “The first day [at Bodega Biscay], I was like a giddy little kid. As a chef, I’m able to give people this good, fresh product that they may not be able to get at a grocery store. And there’s no waiting. We want to keep doing it. It’s an opportunity to give the community a new way to look at our food. I think it’d be cool, when this is over, for people to come in, have a drink at the bar, do their grocery shopping and go home.”

6. CANNABIS DOC

Cannabis cooking seems so late 2010s, like TV show-themed popups and Salt Bae, but Mike Sula has an interesting story on a paramedic and novelist who cooked a soul food cannabis cookbook up in memory of his grandmother.

7. LOVE AND MONEY

Michael Nagrant has disbursed his first donations from subscriber revenues from his newsletter Love in the Time of Coronavirus. Check it out and subscribe.

8. OLD WORLD PROBLEMS

Amuzed talks to Dan Pilkey, sommelier from Sixteen and other past Chicago restaurants, who competed for the title of Master Sommelier and won it—only to have it snatched away when the competition suffered a cheating schedule (in which he was not involved, but they invalidated everybody that time). He is not happy about it.

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9. TACO TRUCK ON EVERY BLOCK

Texas Monthly taco editor Jose R. Ralat has his book on American tacos out in a few days—and he can’t do a book tour. But he talked to Thrillist about why tacos will survive: “I’ve had other owners say this is the best possible time to be selling tacos because they’re quick, they’re healthy, they’re affordable, and they’re portable. You can grab and go. And to a certain extent that’s true… That’s where tacos come from — as a quick snack for workers and the urban masses. But now we depend on delivery and curbside pick up because of the pandemic.”

10. BOOKENDS, AN ANNOUNCEMENT

My career as a food writer has a curious but definite beginning. My second son had serious health issues when he was born, and my wife and I traded off staying with him overnight at Children’s Memorial Hospital. The only diversion was to pop out quickly and eat around its Lincoln Park location, which soon persuaded me that when that was over, I needed to get out and get to know the rest of the city, because someplace had to be more interesting for food than there. The day came that he seemed on the mend, our worst fears averted, and the next day I went to give blood in the donor center as a kind of thanks. They have TVs to distract the donors while they give, and that morning they were all tuned to the same thing: an airplane had just hit the World Trade Center.

What followed for me over the next 18 years was discovering Chowhound (via a Calvin Trillin piece in The New Yorker), roaming the city, including with my two healthy sons, to eat, launching LTHForum and Sky Full of Bacon, writing for the Reader and Time Out Chicago and Grub Street and others, and eventually Fooditor. The beginning of it was long ago, yet in some sense my food writing career and life have been clearly marked off and shaped by the times we lived in, the post-9/11 era.

I have a new project, and at first it, too, was part of that era. I am doing an oral history of Chicago dining since roughly, the time of Banchet and Trotter—the modern dining era in Chicago, it seems to me. It’s for Agate Publishing, the estimable Evanston-based firm who published Iliana Regan’s Burn the Place, Doug Sohn’s Hot Doug’s: The Book, and other books of regional subject matter for a national audience. (It’s a food world analogue to this one they recently published.) I’m a big champion of the idea that not all media needs to be centered around New York, and so I couldn’t be more happy to be doing this for such a great midwestern-focused press.

I signed the contract in February, and I’d spent several weeks, with the help of friend of Fooditor Gary Adcock and others, getting up to speed on shooting video in the streaming era (recognizing that the run-and-gun style of Key Ingredient and Sky Full of Bacon wasn’t going to cut it today). The idea behind shooting most of the interviews on video was that they could also be the basis for video projects, after the book. I was just about ready to start going out and interviewing people… when suddenly none of us could visit anybody else, for any reason, including camera in hand.

Not just that, but suddenly I had to face the possibility that my book had just been given its ending: the fall of Chicago as a great restaurant capitol. I can do phone interviews (and am), but I was kind of afraid at first to do too much of the work for the book in such a time of uncertainty—because it could color everything before it. And the story of dining in the 80s or 90s, or even the 2010s, shouldn’t be completely cast in the shadow of 2020, of looming disaster. That’s not how we lived all those years.

Still, this new phase of my life is defined, as the last one was, by the clean break of a macro historical event. And at first, as other food writers raced to cover a radically changed food scene on a topical level, reporting on who was serving what this week, I hesitated—my focus had already shifted a great deal to the long view, to looking at things in terms of 40 years of history. That’s a responsibility—now, suddenly, the responsibility of a monk in the Dark Ages, to preserve the old knowledge for a future renaissance.

Because I do think we’ll come back—I have to believe it, but also, the lesson of 40 years of creativity and innovation from so many chefs and restaurant groups on our scene is that it can’t be stopped. It takes hits, and this is one, but even as everyone is sure the downturn is around the next corner, five new places open in the West Loop and Logan Square. As John Kessler and I talk in the podcast above, it’s a question of how we’ll change how we eat out, not what we’ll do for fun instead of eating out.

And so I begin a new era—for me and for all of us. I couldn’t really announce it when I wanted to, because it seemed gross to pump up my personal good news at a time of widespread bad news—something I have experience with, walking around beamingly happy that my baby was getting better, in the days after 9/11. So this is my way of putting the word out there, quietly and not too egotistically, not like Balzac (who interrupted a friend bemoaning his own daughter’s death to discuss some plot points in the book he was writing, Eugenie Grandet). The months will pass, our restaurants will come back, if you’re a figure of our city’s food history, I will likely contact you about an interview—and as we come back, I’ll be working on telling that story, not just for the moment (though Fooditor will continue, too) but for history.

WHAT MIKE ATE

Fried chicken from Duck Inn— crispy fat chicken thighs and buttery biscuits and mashed potatoes and greens. Happiness.

My son and I were talking about food (imagine) and he brought up Spanish toast, pa amb tomaquet—and I suddenly remembered a place I’d meant to try after reading Mike Sula’s review, The Little Madrid Tapas Cafe, in Andersonville. Opened right before the lockdown, could already be gone, scarcely noticed. So I checked and they were hanging on, making authentic Spanish food, including paella on weekends. I traded emails with owner Francisco Bolanos and arranged for a feast of paella, a tortilla (not the Mexican kind but an egg and potato sort of pie), pistou (ratatoille with fried eggs), bacon-wrapped dates and more. We have cheffy Spanish restaurants, but this is the kind of neighborhood food you’d get at the bar at the end of your street in Madrid, rustic and old-fashioned and that surprises you with how satisfying it is.

Sparrow Black 2019