Daisies is the only restaurant I’ve eaten in so far. After that event, I talked with chef-owner Joe Frillman, who’s done a lot of interesting things in the Logan Square restaurant, like start a market featuring the produce he uses in the restaurant (some of which comes from his farmer brother). We also talk about things getting nasty on social media toward restaurants. Listen here or here:


I think my time scale for large events like Coronavirus was set by experiencing Watergate as a news junkie child, so I expect about two years for a major event to play out and go all the way to the top.

Blackbird closing is like Nixon resigning three months after the break-in. No, we’re supposed to work up to Blackbird, through Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Dean… Jumping straight to Blackbird among the closings just seems too fast. It’s getting the full bleak horror of what we’re going to see, way too goddamned soon.

I’m going to have more to say about this in the next Fooditor Radio with Anthony Todd, but like everyone, I have my Blackbird stories. I don’t think Blackbird, which opened on Randolph Street in late 1997, was necessarily the first of anything—Marché and others were already in the frontier territory of the West Loop, Paul Kahan had learned farm to table stuff from Rick Bayless and Erwin Drechsler, and so on.

But strict firsts are overrated, anyway. Blackbird turned out to be something better than first—it was perfect for its moment. Decisions it made mainly out of a tight opening budget—white minimalist decor, tables squeezed close to each other, food built on creativity with less than prime cuts, like pork belly—all proved to be not just prophetic but downright clairvoyant about how people wanted to eat and be seen. The scene was chic; the food was hearty; the atmosphere buzzed with city energy. (And the price was a fraction of Trotter’s.) You didn’t go to Blackbird for an intimate dinner for just the two of you, or to propose, at least not without the table next to you witnessing it all; you went to Blackbird to get out of just being a couple, hermetic and house-bound, and to be part of your city’s jangling, vibrant life again.

The greatest food crossroads of the city, I think, is Manny’s, cops and city workers and attorneys and tourists and tables of old guys shooting the shit. And for a long time that was my line about Blackbird, that it brought the feel of Manny’s to fine dining. I didn’t know how true that was until a dinner party, I think thrown by Tasting Table somewhere in the 2010s when food startups still had money to burn, featuring dishes from earlier Blackbird menus. What I learned that night was how Jewish the original Blackbird had been, something obscured by the time Mike Sheerin or David Posey was in charge.

This should not have been a surprise, Kahan’s father had run a smoked fish business in the Fulton area where his son would eventually be a Publican, but it was. Fish tightened with cures and kissed with smoke and cream, vegetables pickled for the long winter… Blackbird lasted when many others had a season and disappeared, because there was a Jewish mother’s deep understanding of food for the soul in its DNA.

For me Blackbird had a huge place in my so-called career as a food writer. First, being involved in Mike Sula’s Mulefoot pig project, doing these two videos for it, gave nobody-me instant credibility as someone who did journalism about name chefs in town, which I exploited immediately—my base of knowledge about and access to chefs in Chicago began there.

But much more than that, hanging around Kahan and the people who worked for him in the kitchen (my memories, I will admit, undersell the Donnie-Ricky-Eduard side of the business), I saw how a restaurant was a kind of community very different from the workplace ones I had known in advertising. Which tended to be hypercompetitive, a lot of look out for number one and on some level, not really a shared enterprise with common goals. Restaurants I’m sure had all those human traits—competition and backbiting and so on—and yet what I saw in Blackbird’s extended world seemed collegial and supportive in a way I had almost never known in my own career, and had had to find outside of work in my own life. Those crews were families, if you worked for Paul Kahan and you showed skill you’d be pointed in the way to advance, and that was one of the things that made me want to have more to do with that world, even if I’d always be an outsider to it (and properly so, as a journalist).

(That said, before I get too mushy, there was a moment I treasure during the shooting of the video when I asked Paul Kahan a question… I should say, sometimes you have to ask basic or even obvious things, to get the interviewee to supply basic information so you don’t have to intrude with it as a narrator. And in the second video, I ask such a question, and you can pretty much see “Who is this dumbass?” flash across his face. Some journalists might be offended or embarrassed by that, but I always have appreciated that even as he’s a good company man who will tout the company line—that’s why when I asked him to name a favorite dish in his Publican cookbook, I had to tell him not to say “Publican chicken”—he’s not a bullshitter, he’s never going to tell you something he doesn’t believe. And sometimes he’s going to be brutally honest about your dumbass question.)

Anyway, every once in a while someone does a family tree of Chicago chefs, these came from Trotter, these came from Bayless, etc. Blackbird or One Off always has a place in that, of course, but I can say that it’s really the only group where you don’t have to ask people if they worked there. You might be surprised to learn that somebody worked for Everest, say, but you always know if they’re Blackbird or Publican graduates, they wear it on their sleeves and on their plates.

Fresh ingredients bought locally if you can, wherever they’re really good if you can’t. Cooked simply and directly, nothing dressed up beyond its nature—a consistent thing in interviewing Kahan’s people is finding angst about how much is too much for a particular restaurant, whether that’s Dana Cree rejecting some ways of plating desserts as being too fancy for the Publican, or Ryan Pfeiffer trying to figure out when a tasting menu stops being honest Blackbird food (when he knows the boss doesn’t really want to do tasting menus at all). There’s a Blackbird ethos that sticks with people who’ve been there—which means by now it’s somewhere in most of the kitchens in the city. At least the ones that last.

But nothing lasts forever, and 22 years is a hell of a good run. As that Ryan Pfeiffer piece of mine shows, there had been concern about Blackbird’s ongoing viability in a world that seemed to be splitting between the high high end and the hipster high/low middle, if that makes sense—a point that is exactly where Big Star sits. In that regard, it’s not surprising that they decided that it made better sense to turn the space into a bigger kitchen for Avec’s carryout, which offers things that can travel better and have more mass appeal. Blackbird changed our world—but I fear that Coronavirus changed its world, and our future is going to look more like beer halls and Bakersfield taco joints than that chic white place, glowing from within on a Friday night, with beautiful people inside… eating pork belly.


The definitive piece on Blackbird, of course, was Chandra Ram’s oral history at Plate. If you haven’t read it… do! She offered new thoughts on the closing here.

Michael Nagrant has his memories:

In some ways I don’t become a food writer if Paul Kahan and Blackbird do not exist. He was a hero before I grew old enough not to believe in heroes. The inspiration from what he and Donnie and Rick and Eduard did made me want to somehow work around this industry, whatever form that would be.

He also points to this 1998 piece by Ray Pride that captured it at the very beginning.

Mike Sula has thoughts too:

Out of the gate, Blackbird offered something for the green and insecure that could inspire a lifelong obsession with restaurants: it was cool without being cruel, stylish without airs, and casually confident in the world-class cuisine Paul Kahan and the many chefs that followed him at the pass were putting on plates.

Most of my interviews with Kahan are in Sky Full of Bacon videos like this one, but here’s one from Fooditor about his Publican cookbook.

Here’s the original story on the closing, from Phil Vettel.

Buzz 2


An actual restaurant review! Geno Bahena (Ixcapuzalco, Chilpancingo, and many other spots over the years) has opened Mis Moles in the Little Bucharest space: “It was the mole that drew me out of my hole. It was as good as ever, and as good a reason as any to visit a Bahena spot during a world crisis. If you’re comfortable with that. Bahena says he’s instituted all the recommended safety protocols for the dining room, including distanced tables, relentless wipe downs, and a QR code so you can read the menu on your filthy phone.”


Hey, an exciting new opening… if also a bit of support for the theory that we’re going to be eating high/low middle food for the foreseeable future: Noah Sandoval (Oriole) is joining with Bruce Finkelman (16′ On Center etc.) to do Sicilian/Detroit style pan pizza in the former Bite Cafe space. The name is Pizza Friendly Pizza, which makes a trend with the soon to open Pizza Chicken Ice Cream. (Tribune)

From zero Israeli restaurants before Galit opened, we go to two. Fiya replaces a Jerry’s Sandwich under the same owners. (Eater)

I once had the idea of a restaurant that would open for only one night—for one diner, and then close, never to return. The idea was to see how high the bidding would go for being the only person to ever eat at this place. Anyway, word is that Kyoten is now serving $600 per person dining strictly limited to a single party of two to four. (The $120 to-go Bento boxes continue.) Hey, it makes sense for a one man operation. “A Mister Michel Inn on line 1…” (Eater)

And speaking of interesting concepts. Dine Daba is a service that gives you exactly one option every week—a single chef doing a mealkit for two for $50. The most recent one was Lawrence Latrero of Bayan Ko; hopefully we’ll know who the next one is on Monday.


Chicago mag has a quick history of tavern pizza, most of which you’ll know, but there are some good bits of info—and the usual hotheaded comments.

Nick Kindelsperger is eating gastric distress amounts of Italian beef for a future piece in the Tribune. I have my doubts about the longterm viability of the Chicago classic, and I find it significant that he’s mostly hitting blue collar burbs, which are Italian beef’s strongholds as it gets rarer in the city. Nevertheless, I am not concerned about the viability of his piece when it appears—people can’t get enough of reading about Italian beef! Anyway, follow him on Instagram to see the story develop, beef by beef, giardiniera heartburn by giardiniera heartburn.


If you need things to listen to, David Hammond has your food podcastsand illustrates them with a pic of me. Yikes!


Named with the rhythm of a John Wayne character, John T. Edge helped found the Southern Foodways Alliance in 1999 and over two decades vastly expanded the field of Southern food studies, along the way taking a lily-white field and exploring the multiethnic reality of Southern cooking—a quick look at the most recent episodes of its podcast Gravy reveals not just shows on black chefs but on Lebanese Southern cooking, Latino and Lenten cooking in Louisiana, and on issues of social concern like prison food and sexual harassment in kitchens.

Now the New York Times reports on a growing campaign to get Edge to step down, in a piece ominously entitled “A White Gatekeeper of Southern Food Faces Calls to Resign.” Let’s see what it reveals about this white gatekeeper’s white power agenda…

No racist images of the sort that led to the recent and speedy exit of Adam Rapoport as the editor in chief of Bon Appétit have surfaced. There are no homophobic texts or reports of sexual harassment. By many accounts, the work around the intersection of race and food that Mr. Edge, 57, has spent 20 years attending to has been crucial.

A chorus of voices is rising, though. Mr. Edge, they say, is a statue that needs to come down.

Hey, you made the analogy to mobs blindly tearing down slaveholders and abolitionists alike, not me…

It’s certainly legitimate to say that other groups should have representation within the organization—and they do, though the extent of that is debated, but never answered, in the article. (My one content-related interaction with the SFA was being interviewed for a piece on African-American barbecue chefs in Chicago. The producer of that segment was a black woman.) Edge hired a black woman editor named Osayi Endolyn as a deputy editor a couple of years ago. She eventually left, and is now among those demanding he step down.

Is that a sign of the kind of bad boss problem that led to Peter Meehan’s resignation from the LA Times this week, or Adam Rapaport’s from Bon Appetit? Or is it… one editor and another editor who didn’t work out, as sometimes happens in publishing? Who knows, but it hardly matters when people smell blood in the water on social media. Stephen Satterfield, who has his own publication, Whetstone, devoted to African-American food culture, offers an example of the fury with which activists like he and Tunde Wey approach the issue in his Twitter feed. When Wey suggested the SFA throw money at Whetstone, Edge demurred—and so Edge must go for the racism of not agreeing to the “contribution” instantly. (Jesse Jackson is more subtle.)

The irony is that Edge, a highly skilled fundraiser for the group, has already been raising money to ensure his successor has an endowed salary—and given the SFA’s ties to the University of Mississippi, what are the odds that that will be a person of color when it happens? But this is not a moment when anyone can take yes for an answer, but has to ratchet up their demands or lose face. We will see if the SFA, one of the best things to happen in America food studies particularly for chefs of color, is given a chance to evolve before it is forced to accede to its own implosion.


Let’s end on a more optimistic note about race and Independence Days than one can have in the hothouse of social media. This (h/t Cue Sheet) is from Soul Food author Adrian Miller, who tells the story of how African-American barbecue traditions—and skills—have been central to the celebration of the Fourth going back to days when such celebration was deeply stained with irony… and eventually were taken up in defiance:

After the Civil War, Southern whites who supported the Confederacy harbored sore feelings about being on the losing side. Independence Day celebrations in the South dropped off because they reminded white rebels of their defeat. Some commentators feared that the holiday would disappear altogether in the American South. In 1874, the Louisiana Democrat editorialized, “[T]he glorious Fourth of July has come again and gone again, unhonored, unsung.”

But African Americans in the region continued to vigorously celebrate Independence Day with barbecue and fried chicken. In 1901, the Atlanta Constitution newspaper reported, “[T]he [Fourth of July] is here, as in most places in the south, given over to the negroes, who celebrate [it] in truly royal fashion.”

Read all the way to the end.