1. FOODITOR RADIO IS ALL DRESSED UP AND HAS NO PLACE TO GO

The goal of this series was to get away from the Coronavirus hassles in our own lives and chat with other people about how they’re getting along. But then came the protests, and we couldn’t just chat fun foodie food. So I decided to talk with two people I know fairly well in the industry who are in very different parts of town: Connie Simms-Kincaid of the wonderful 5 Loaves Eatery on the south side, and Ethan Lim of 2020’s surprise hit Hermosa on the west side, for their perspectives. Listen here or here:

2. I GAWRONTEE

Just a few weeks ago, Fat Rice was recognized as one of our best and hippest restaurants. Its switch to a meal kit model (as Super Fat Rice Mart) for the run of Coronavirus was hailed as innovative by Louisa Chu in the Tribune and Mina Bloom in Block Club Chicago.

This week, both publications published pieces talking about alleged persistent abuse of employees at Fat Rice—one by Grace Wong in the Tribune, and one by the same Mina Bloom in Block Club Chicago. A one-time (very recently) media darling is now reviled for its work atmosphere.

Bloom’s piece describes the allegations of verbal abuse that were made in the extensive (and confusing) Instagram Stories posts described by Fooditor last week, tracking down ex-employees who verified undeniably serious occasions of being yelled at or insulted by chef Abe Conlon—though not of instances of physical abuse, as was alleged at points in the Instagram posts (and cited as something I’d supposedly overlooked then). What’s not transparent in the piece is whether Bloom actually managed to talk to the two ex-employees who were primarily responsible for collecting and posting the Instagram material, “Flavorsupreme” and “Zed.aer”:

In long Instagram threads and in interviews with Block Club, former employees described instances when Conlon screamed and swore at workers — one such incident resulted in him being banned from the restaurant. Conlon also made racially insensitive remarks and used racist imagery in Fat Rice promotional materials, the former employees said.

One of the concerns I raised last week about the Instagram material was that it ranked abuse with alleged racism—the sort that is very much in the eye of the beholder, like a New Orleans-themed Halloween party that used cultural imagery, music and/or language from the heritage of the African-American community in that town. Bloom repeats the viewpoint of the Instagram posters that equates all of these things:

In social media posts and interviews with Block Club, former employees have also accused Conlon of making racially insensitive remarks and appropriating Black culture.

Conlon threw a haunted New Orleans-themed Halloween party in 2017 and asked an employee who spoke to Block Club anonymously to dress up as “a Black banjo player from back in the day,” the former employee said. The employee is Black.

“I was like, ‘This doesn’t look anything like me.’ He was like, ‘You sure you don’t see it?’ I’d be like, ‘Bro, you can’t say s— like that. You can’t act like that,’” the employee said.

Which looks to me like Conlon made a tasteless suggestion, the employee said it was a bad idea and to cut that s— out, and… it was dropped at that point. It’s hard to see this as a major offense, and if it is, then chefs need to carefully scrutinize any themed event—St. Patrick’s Day! Cinco de Mayo!—for the potential for someone to report it to the media three years later:

Conlon said he now realizes the haunted New Orleans marketing materials were racially insensitive. He said he wrote the post to sound like the Southern cook Justin Wilson, of whom he was a big fan. The image he used was of Baron Samdei, a figure in Haitian Voodoo.

Well, maybe nobody should be using Haitian voodoo imagery in restaurants, just to be safe. But you know what gets used in restaurants a lot? Loteria, a bingo-like game involving Mexican tarot card-like imagery. It’s all over a wall at Logan Square’s Tacos Tequilas, to name one. Is that racist? Check back next month, I guess—or wait until employees at a Mexican restaurant get pissed on Instagram.

The Tribune piece takes a broader view, looking at (and lumping together) allegations that have been made online against multiple restaurants, often by pseudonymous accounts with names like “HoneyButterFriedPlatitudes.” These range from the claim that Dove’s Luncheonette is appropriating black food (it is? It seems more Mexican/Tex-Mex to me) to the bizarre meltdown of Nini’s Deli (which seems in a category of its own). “Flavorsupreme,” who is Joey Pham, did talk to Grace Wong:

Pham, who uses the pronoun they, was angered by the lack of public support Fat Rice showed for the Black Lives Matter movement, which added to a long list of complaints Pham already had about the restaurant. Pham left Fat Rice after less than a month [in 2014] because their time there “completely scarred” them. Like multiple other posters, Pham directly called out Fat Rice’s chef and owner, Abe Conlon, accusing Conlon of appropriating from minority cultures and creating a culture of fear.

Again, little distinction is drawn between actual abusive behavior—which Conlon admits to in the piece—and things like “appropriating from minority cultures” (ie, Cooking Asian While White). If you think that that might lead to other white chefs who cook Asian food having their turn in the barrel, like Stephanie Izard…

Izard, who is chef of Girl & the Goat, Little Goat Diner, Cabra and more, said in an email that she has been reflecting on “any and all places where I’ve failed as a leader by not providing a work environment where everyone felt welcome and cared for” and that she has been using this time to listen and take action, including starting diversity, equity and inclusion programs for management.

Funny, what’s the one Izard restaurant that Wong doesn’t mention there? Duck Duck Goat, the Chinese food concept which plays with lots of classic imagery of Chinese-American takeout. I find it charming personally, but how does that not open Izard up to the same kind of “appropriating from minority cultures” charges talked about in regards to Fat Rice? It just takes one or two short-time ex-employees with Instagram accounts to bring down an award-winning restaurant under these new standards—and for the press, which revered it just weeks ago (and may well have turned a blind eye to things widely known in the food community), to suddenly make it restaurant non grata. Again, maybe that’s appropriate for the abuse, but it’s blithely dismissive of the respectful, well-researched cooking at Fat Rice—and over the top for the music played, or a Halloween party.

For me, accepting such an extreme, race-driven viewpoint on who can cook what will not only restrict current chefs. It could have a devastating impact on the ability of young people of color entering kitchens to master a wide range of skills and cuisines, and advance in the industry. (See this Fooditor piece on that topic.)

When I said something like that on Twitter when these articles came out, friends of mine said I was exaggerating. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m just imagining a puritanical crusade to greatly restrict what chefs can cook, what concepts on our wonderfully polyethnic dining scene are allowable now. Maybe we’re talking one extreme example and nobody else has to worry…

“The only reason I’m speaking about Fat Rice is it’s my personal experience,” Pham said. “I’m not saying this doesn’t happen at other restaurants. … The bigger question is why is this OK at Fat Rice and why is it OK at other restaurants. They’re paid and they’re awarded for profiting on and operating this kind of model. … Accountability looks like the individuals taking a stand and taking responsibility and taking it upon themselves to make those changes.”

Coming soon to a restaurant near you!

3. CHOCOLATE CITY

Bizarrely, at the same moment that we’re ready to declare racism about cooking, a video of the racial spectacle held late nights at Wiener’s Circle—in which drunken bros make crude remarks at the black staff and the black staff hands them their hats with sassy comebacks—has become hugely popular. (Watch it here.) I admire the black women for giving it back ten times as good as they get it, but it still seems a disturbing kind of racialized entertainment to me. Which means that I am now leading a crusade on Instagram to… leave it alone, I just don’t go there at night.

4. MAKE LEMONADE

An African-American figure on Chicago’s food scene earned a major (posthumous) distinction—and so far, Fooditor seems to be the only one in Chicago who has noticed. Well, at least the barbecue world has noticed that the late James Lemons of Lem’s Bar-B-Q was made a legacy member of the American Royal’s Barbecue Hall of Fame, and Robert Moss’s Cue Sheet newsletter has a good capsule history of this now 70-year-old barbecue stand and the last brother of three who ran it:

James Lemons started out as a dishwasher and quickly worked his way up the ladder in restaurant kitchens, taking a rather unconventional route to the barbecue pit. For almost two decades he led the kitchen at Mama Batt’s, a Jewish restaurant on the ground floor of the the New Michigan Hotel downtown, famed for its blintzes and fried kreplach.

“Me being black, and [owner Nathan Batt] being Jewish and white made no difference,” Lemons told the Chicago Tribune in 2011. “He hired me for my skills — for what I could do and how I could cook. Got to the point he’d say I cooked Jewish food better than most Jewish people!”

In other recognition of African-American entrepreneurship in Chicago, NPR’s Weekend Edition had a piece this week on Hecky Powell, talking with his widow, Cheryl Judice.

5. LIFE ON MARZ

Mike Sula has a piece on an experimental program launched by the Marz complex of businesses in Southport called Marz Community Kitchens, which will make meals for residents of the south side, provide a market for farmers and the produce, and along the way, serve as a test run for the upcoming Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream business. As Ed Marzewski puts it with Bridgeport eloquence, “There’s a fuckload of people who aren’t eating food… We’re stabilizing our businesses, trying to work with our buddies, but we gotta do whatever we can to help people out.”

And speaking of Marz, here’s a guy with a YouTube food show who visited Kimski and tells us about it. Won Kim gave him high-for-Won praise: “No clue who this guy was. He was just a really down to earth nice person who like other good influencers didn’t demand free food to barter or flaunt his insta numbers. Just asked nicely and we did a little segment with him.”

6. EVER MORE

Chef Curtis Duffy’s Ever is on its way to being our first big opening since Coronavirus started, at the end of July. Phil Vettel has the details here. Time Out has a couple of pics.

7. GALITZY

Michael Nagrant is putting more content during this time than many major publications, and the latest is this fun interview with Zach Engel of Galit, who I haven’t really talked to in depth since he had just come to Chicago; now he’s an old Chicago hand, as Nagrant finds when they talk about why Galit landed in Lincoln Park: “The families are not moving to suburbs, but also not trying to be trendy. There are a lot of strollers. These families are gonna be here for 10-20 years. It’s obvious when you say it, but I don’t want to open a restaurant just to close it in a few years.”

8. HIP TO BE SQUARE

Steve Dolinsky talks about Chicago’s new favorite pizza shape: square Detroit style, with mentions of Table, Donkey and Stick and Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream (cited above).

WHAT MIKE ATE

I did something really novel this week—I ate at a restaurant! I was invited for… friends and family, I guess? For a test run for the reopening of Daisies. We started on the back patio, though rain came as soon as our drinks did, and we were moved inside by the front window. With the dining room still set up mainly for takeout (and partly for the market they run on the weekends), it felt a little like dining in a vacation town in the off season—it’s going to take a while to come up with the socially distanced equivalent of the vibe that a busy restaurant has. But the staff was trying really hard to make the weirdness of service in masks work, and the food is so fresh and handmade and good at that place. It was such a pleasure to experience dining out again.

Otherwise, this wound up kind of being old favorites week for me. My sons and I picked up birria and tortillas at Birrieria Zaragoza and took it to a nearby park for a goat picnic. (John Z. talked about some plans he has in mind for a special dining experience—I really hope they happen.) We got Smoque one night and talked to Barry for a moment, too. We got Scooter’s one night when the line (with its six foot distancing) stretched past the library. And we picked up Cambodian dinner from Hermosa. (Nothing too unrecognizable for anyone who eats Thai food, but full of fresh, pungent flavors.) It was a good week to spread the love to the little places that make our food scene so memorable.