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

We’re starting to go back to restaurants—a good time to talk with one of the city’s most assiduous (and recognizable) professional diners, Steve Dolinsky. We talk about how you do food TV when you can’t come within 6 feet of anybody, what the dining scene is going to look like, what award shows are going to be like and why none of the awards likes Chicago. Listen here or here:

2. BEST OF 2019, LATE ENTRY

And as restaurants begin to reopen, we finally get the online version of Chicago mag’s Best New Restaurants of 2020 issue, which hit newsstands in March but didn’t make it online before Coronavirus hit. It’s still relevant because as the revised intro points out, everyone on it is now offering takeout in some form at least. (The entries are annotated with more specifics, such as that the only thing you can get from Kikko are Julia Momose’s cocktails to go.) I kind of said all I had to say when Jeff Ruby and I talked about it on Fooditor Radio, but it’s a good list.

3. WHISKEY-A-GO-GO

To-go cocktails are a go! They were approved, quickly and without much fuss (amazing for anything liquor-related), June 17; Eater has more on how it will work.

4. RICE REDUX

A few weeks ago they wrote about how great Fat Rice was as it transitioned to a meal kit model. This week, they wrote about charges of abuse. Stop me if you’ve heard that before, but this week it was Brett Anderson in The New York Times:

Nearly all of the 20 former Fat Rice employees who spoke to The New York Times in recent days described Mr. Conlon, 39, as an extreme example of a restaurant-business archetype: a tantrum-prone chef who rules by fear and bullying. He ended one staff meeting, they said, by dumping a can of garbage onto the floor, and flew into fits of anger so severe onlookers feared they would lead to violence.

As someone who’s been a close student of Fat Rice stories over the last couple of weeks, it is striking to see how really solid reporting is done—note the transparent statement above of how many ex-employees they talked to, for instance, versus the fuzziness in past stories about where the allegations were coming from. In terms of verifying claims of abuse, Anderson’s piece radiates credibility. But what’s really strong about Anderson’s reporting is that he doesn’t accept the claims of racism (music played, hair restrained, etc.) at face value, but puts them in a context of 2020’s social media focus on Black Lives Matter:

Two weeks ago, Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo decided to declare their solidarity with the fight for racial justice… They were immediately condemned on social media as shallow acts of self-aggrandizement, particularly by former Fat Rice employees, who took to the internet with a barrage of complaints about a culture of verbal abuse, rage and racial insensitivity they said had flourished at the restaurant…

At a moment when restaurants across the country have made efforts to align themselves with protests over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, the furor surrounding Fat Rice shows there are dangers for businesses that try to turn their names into symbols of virtue. Last week, the owners of Mission Chinese Food in New York and of the California restaurant chain Boba Guys issued apologies for the racist behavior of staff members — accounts that had emerged earlier but resurfaced after the restaurants declared public support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

This points to what I consider the social media shakedown aspect of this story—not the only aspect it has, obviously, but one that has been overlooked as everyone seeks to make sure they’re on the right side of the mob in a heated moment. Everyone but me that is, so here goes. A lot of people who a month ago showed no sign of caring about Black Lives Matter—or more specifically, Black-owned restaurants such as those on the south side of Chicago—are now going on social media and demanding that businesses declare their unequivocal support for Black Lives Matter (or other causes, they’re kind of fungible), and when they do… well, it’s never enough. Then the restaurant’s failure or hypocrisy (as perceived by them) is used as a pretext for coming down hard on the business, with the evident intent of bringing it down like the statue of a Confederate general.

Two have fallen already—Fat Rice’s and Nini’s Deli—and if others like Honey Butter Fried Chicken haven’t yet, it’s only because the case hasn’t been made as adroitly. You can see an example of someone trying to run the precise Fat Rice playbook by following a new Instagram account called Boycott_Robey_Chi, which has a grudge against The Robey hotel and its restaurants. Though honestly, it seems unlikely to take off in the same way, because they’re not restaurants anyone cares much about.

So this is now a 2020 thing, and congrats to Joey Pham, who even manages to get their picture in the New York Times, much like the two women who ginned up a Washington Post story about a nobody who wore blackface (hey AP Stylebook, is that Blackface now? serious question) to a party two years ago, and were rewarded with a glamour shot straight out of a J. Crew catalog. There’s no question that Pham, largely unknown a month ago, is now a star and leads a movement that will no doubt take on other targets. (Italian restaurants, what’s your take on Columbus statues?)

The one part of the story that even Anderson’s story doesn’t tell—that news stories almost never tell—is their own story, of how the story came to be told. Maybe at some future date, when half a dozen well-known restaurants have been taken down in the middle of Covid-19, someone will look at this and ask: how did it happen that two people, one of whom worked at Fat Rice six years ago, for a period reported as “less than a month” (I have heard precisely three days), and another of whom (“Zed.Aer”) never worked there at all, took on the mantle of crusading against this restaurant in particular in 2020?

In this case, they tapped into a body of disgruntled ex-employees and the charges succeeded wildly with the media. We’ll see how often they can make it happen again. But for now, no question, they are the restaurant workers of the moment, and Fooditor salutes them for achieving the fame in the New York Times that those who merely write about Black-owned (or Mexican-owned or Chinese-owned) restaurants, in an effort to bring the city closer together, will never achieve.

5. AITA

Speaking of getting out in front of the mob, Mike Sula has a Fat Rice story-slash-mea culpa in the Reader. Sula also works on a marijuana-and-food magazine called Kitchen Toke, and he set up an article and shoot for the magazine with Fat Rice chef-owner Abe Conlon. As he notes, it came at a time when Conlon was a busy guy, and so were they:

[Kitchen Toke founder Joline] Rivera and I were busy putting together the rest of the issue, and working our other jobs, and communication became erratic. But in late June, Conlon proposed a menu of five dishes, and per his specs, I purchased a few hundred dollars’ worth of cannabis for him to play with in his recipes.

Things got off to a bad start when Conlon had to lug his gear by himself from a parking spot two blocks away, and objected to the presence of two small dogs in the kitchen where he was supposed to cook:

Conlon became increasingly agitated as he set up his mise en place, complaining about what a shitty week he’d had, how the whole process had been fucked up and a huge pain in the ass for him, and how he wasn’t getting paid for all the trouble he’d taken. That subject had never been broached—Kitchen Toke, like any journalistic endeavor, doesn’t pay its story subjects. So I finally spoke up: “Abe, when Food & Wine does a feature on you, do they pay you?”

This stunned him into momentary silence before he schooled me: “But I get the equivalent of $30,000 in free advertising! And you know what, Mike, you guys aren’t Food & Wine.” But the question set him off. He began pinballing around the kitchen, slamming ingredients around, and bellowing about the things we promised and never delivered, all punctuated by numerous salivary F-bombs. I couldn’t help but notice his knife kit was open on the counter.

At that point Rivera ended the shoot.

Sula ends by blaming himself for having contributed to the fame of such a monster: “Maybe I’ll end up regretting writing this story, but not as much as I regret using my platform to boost a media darling who turned out to be no darling at all.” (A recipe of Conlon’s still appears in the fundraising cookbook the Reader put out, despite its new attitude toward him.)

I’ve taken enough grief lately for supposedly defending Conlon’s admitted abuse that I wanted another read on this story before I commented on it, so I asked a level-headed friend if he’d read it. His response was blunter than mine would have been: “It sounded like they didn’t have their act together and jerked around a really busy chef.” We agreed that with as many ambiguities as the story presents as to who dropped the ball or was being misused, it would be amusing to send it to Reddit’s popular “Am I The Asshole?” forum, and see which side that crowd felt was more in the wrong. (“Get the freakin’ dogs out of the kitchen!”)

I had an experience once, too. A chef had agreed to do an article for me, he sent me the photos, he talked a bunch and I wrote up the piece from what he said. I heard back that there were some things he wanted to change, but he was busy, he was busy… I exerted a little subtle pressure through their then-PR rep. But when I was finally given a window, I raced to his restaurant with everything together to make it easy as possible for him to correct and approve it quickly. I could tell he was harried, but we made the changes in about 20 minutes, parted happily, and Abe Conlon’s piece appeared here in Fooditor… which is not Food & Wine, either.

5. CUPID DRAW BACK YOUR BOW

Here’s a win-win story about African-American life in Chicago: Cupid Candies, an old time ice cream and candy shop with three locations on the south side, is selling its factory to Fooditor-Son-#2-Recommended caramel cake star Brown Sugar Bakery, which will bake cakes for its locations (75th street, Navy Pier) there—while also still making Cupid Candies for its two remaining locations. A city grant is behind it, but also the genuine friendship of Brown Sugar’s Stephanie Hart and Cupid’s John Stephanos, says Louisa Chu.

6. CLOSINGS

The best curated list of closed Chicago restaurants, albeit in the dreaded Instagram Stories format, is one called Covid Closures that I believe is run by the @Chicagoismyboyfriend account, though I can’t be sure. One that needs to be removed, though—Eater reports that The Delta will reopen after the principals patched things up.

Two Taylor Street restaurants owned by Scott Harris, Davani Enoteca and Francesca’s on Taylor, have closed; the Sun-Times tells more (though they attribute them to a nonexistent “David Harris”).

FOODITOR NEWS

A longer version of this appeared at Fooditor’s Patreon, but in short: Fooditor is not publishing any new stories for the time being, as it hasn’t really since the lockdown started, in part because it’s hard to do them the way I liked to do them, hanging out in somebody’s business and getting a real feel for the place. And the Covid-era substitute for that, the podcast, will be wrapping up in the next few weeks before it gets too repetitive. I reserve the option, though, to bust out a new entry in either category, if something seems fun to do.

Buzz List will continue though it may take some weeks off. The Fooditor 99 will not have a 2021 edition—things are too uncertain and change too quickly for me to be able to do all the research/eating and write it all up for publication in November. Hopefully, 2022. What I mainly need to be working on is my book, so I’ll be more focused on that for the time being. Thanks for your support for and readership of independent food media.