I thought I had a very timely episode—Kelly Cheng of Sun Wah BBQ on reopening this week—but events overtook it. Still, it’s well worth a listen to understand how a neighborhood restaurant, not a big downtown restaurant group, has dealt with Coronavirus over the last few months (they were following the news in China before most of us). Listen here or here:


You don’t subscribe to a food newsletter for deep sociological takes beyond food, but I’m going to give you one anyway.

Nobody is ever going to lock down the whole country and wreck half the businesses for two and a half months, ever again. The frickin’ zombie apocalypse could come and the most we’ll get is, Wear a mask at the grocery store!

Turns out, if you make us stay in for two and a half months, Americans have a lot of pent-up energy by the end of it.

This is not in any way to diminish the reality and the importance of the protests over the police murder of George Floyd or the history of racism in America. But if there was four feet of snow, they’d be different right now. And being the first thing Americans can do right after being cooped up in their houses and working on Zoom and eating a lot of comfort food for ten weeks gave them a particular character, too.

Sometimes it’s beautiful, that character. There have been inspiring moments of peace and brotherhood captured on social media.

Sometimes it’s at least useful. It has been useful to learn who in government is not very competent, has no control over their own police force and can’t see with their own two eyes. New York City. Buffalo. Louisville. Vallejo. (Oh, and that Trump guy, but he’s not the one who bought your local parking-ticket-writers the firepower of a tactical strike command in Fallujah.)

But sometimes we’re rats gnawing on each other in a too-small cage.

Shrinking back down to the world of food, there was a particular incident on Instagram out of many that struck me. Landbirds, the most excellent spicy chicken wing hole in the wall on California, posted a picture of chicken wings on Wednesday and was immediately taken to task for its silence on Black Lives Matters:

Is Landbirds in solidarity for Black Lives and against police brutality? Just wondering since Landbirds has been silent all week and I haven’t seen a single post. Seeing as Landbirds has Black clientele and the Black staff who work the kitchen. 😄

…it doesn’t matter if you said Black Lives Matter then. You need to say it NOW. More than ever. This whole interaction is looking funny and your responses have been condescending.

…do you see how silence online can make people assume that you are complicit. Especially, during lockdown. We cannot interact with you during lockdown, you need to interact with your customers.

It. Is. A. Spicy. Chicken. Wing. Place. Unless I have reason to believe someone is actually a Maurice Bessinger type actively supporting awfulness, this is more than I care to think about what my spicy chicken wings stand for.

Owner Eddie Lee shortly thereafter posted a Black Lives Matter graphic, but that just got him more complaints and demands. Because that’s how this works; every acknowledgement of your sins just ratchets up the accusations. Because that’s how social media work; nobody ever gets status for saying “Hey guys, I’m sure Eddie means well and he’s just been busy, you know, running his business.” You prove you’re even more right than the last person by saying:

Thank you. Now, DONATE! In the future don’t expect us to take care of you and your business when you won’t do THEE LEAST and stand with us. Hope you come back from this.

Nice little chicken wing place you got there, shame if anything were to happen to it… There have been more of these than I can count this week. Honey Butter Fried Chicken, the most earnestly make-the-restaurant-world-better people in town, gained a heckler on Instagram named Honeybutterfriedplatitudes and others who took them to task for… the restaurant world not being better already, basically. Stan’s Donuts gave doughnuts to the police station on Addison in May—as a way of supporting frontline workers in the Coronavirus epidemic—and its IG filled with comments asking when it was going to stop supporting cop murder. A lesser-known chef attacked Michael Nagrant for posting about feeding his family Olive Garden, calling him racist and asking when he was going to say something about the police (no, I don’t quite get the connection, either) and do something for those affected by Coronavirus layoffs. (Nagrant had to explain that he’s given away $3000 raised with his writing to this not-well-informed fellow.)

And don’t get us started on Nancy Silverton!

It is hard to look at this and not think that we’re all just gone a little Jack Nicholson in the house for two and a half months. That’s part of it. But there’s also a character to a lot of it that is being seen in other spheres—like the New York Times when it publishes a piece by a sitting U.S. senator, and inspires an in-house uprising of millennials/Gen Zers, because to them some viewpoints must not be shared—even when there’s a good chance you’re going to be running against them in November (and thus, it might be important for you to know about them now).

Look, as the dad of a very woke young man myself, I’m not bashing the youth of today—they’re super-sweet kids in so many ways, supportive and nurturing of each other in ways that would never have flown in the thuggish days of my youth (see Dazed and Confused for a documentary on that). When I see that, I feel they really are making the world a better place. But cancel culture does exist in their numbers, too, the idea that if you disagree with them on certain things, you’re not just wrong… but irredeemably so, and must be driven from the debate for the safety of all.


NOTE: Update on this post! A lot of debate on this today online, some of it merely insulting and cancelling, some of it thoughtful. I’m going to try to clarify without wussing out.

First, I’m not for abuse in kitchens, or evil old school brigade kitchens. If you look at this piece I gathered for Chicago magazine, so much of it is about what’s wrong with kitchens and how we can make them better. I’m for that!

But it’s still going to be a tough life and parts of it are going to aim for the highest heights and be very demanding of people doing so. And that is not necessarily wrong, any more than it is necessarily wrong to dance ballet till your feet bleed or neglect your loved ones while you write the great American novel. Is it healthy? Not exactly. But it is a choice that some will freely make. I do kind of believe, in Kinky Friedman’s words, that the best life is to “find something you love, and let it kill you.”

I found a lot of what was described as abuse, or racism, or colonialism or violence or whatever in the documents I describe below, to be more like differences of opinion. And you know, sometimes you just gotta leave that job and find another. I worked at ad agencies where the real work started at 5 pm and ended, drunkenly, at midnight. I left those jobs. I probably even said those people were dicks (thank God Instagram Stories didn’t exist then). But I didn’t try to change their corporate culture, I changed my life.

Some people, whose opinions (and style of debate) I respect, have made the case that there are real instances of physical abuse described in there, albeit with few specifics. With everything described in such dire terms, it’s hard to know what really might be dire. I tried to contact both of the primary authors and they would have had the chance to explain their main case more clearly than on the godawful Instagram Stories format. They turned that chance down.

Others are working on stories. We’ll see where they go. My point—I think it was made below, but who can tell—was that much of the case was rooted in weak examples, and some are things I find genuinely offensive, like barring black music from being heard in white-owned establishments. That’s more racist to me than playing hiphop in a restaurant, because there is an American popular culture that either black music is part of, or it isn’t, and who asked you? Likewise, the idea that a white guy cooking Chinese food is a crime—even if Abe has managerial things to apologize for, he has been a serious researcher and an influential chef. Their case lost a lot of credibility with me by refusing to recognize that in any way.

So this was my reaction to it, over the weekend. The point of this newsletter is such honest reactions. They cost me a few subscribers and, a bit weirdly, gained me a few Instagram followers (I’d prefer the other way around). It was amusing to read that I was making a fortune and exploiting the food scene because I’m a white male today, since Fooditor has exactly zero revenue right now and is entirely done for love of a much-suffering food scene. If you like that, even if you think I’m dead wrong in this instance, thanks for being here. If you think I’m history’s greatest monster, feel free to unsubscribe. I will be me either way. Now here, unaltered in any way, is the original post.

Which brings us to the biggest social media kerfuffle of the last few days… which means, I admit, that it’s small dumplings next to the actual protests in Chicago.

Two people on Instagram—Joëy Pham, whom I wrote about a couple of times for their then-underground dining activities, and a woman with the account name Zed.Aer, who works at Passerotto—began posting long accounts of the allegedly abusive atmosphere at Fat Rice, on Instagram stories. Which honest to God is the worst possible format for 20,000 words of anything, it’s like trying to read a Dr. Bronner’s Shampoo bottle while driving. So I know, despite my best efforts, I haven’t read everything—I came across a reference to a “second meeting” and I have never found the first meeting.

But the gist of it is that Fat Rice had a toxic atmosphere—and the restaurant industry and no small part of media have conspired to cover that up for a media darling. First reason being chef Abe Conlon yelling at people, being a tough, at times sarcastic people manager. Now, I’ve witnessed some of this, it’s pretty widely known, and ultimately Conlon apologized for it, so Fat Rice does seem to be one of those places that was run like a high school football team, demanding (and also paternal and supportive by turns). A lot of quotes where someone complained about something and Abe basically said, “Toughen up, kid, this is how it is in a top kitchen.” Is that toxic masculinity? You could call it that. Would you want to work there? Maybe not. But even as kitchens change, there are plenty of kitchens like that. And some of them are great restaurants, and nobody ever cut slack on your plating all the way to greatness.

I kept looking for something really bad, though, and… sorry, I don’t see it. What I see is that people complained about things and the owner of the restaurant disagreed with them:

• Abe insisted that English be the language of the Fat Rice kitchen, which is racist. Or, it’s sensible management for a chef identified with the cuisine creatively—which he wouldn’t be if his kitchen was full of Chinese cooks only speaking to each other and doing what they knew from past Chinese restaurants.

• Abe plays hiphop with racial words in it in the restaurant, which is racist. We had a whole controversy about this about a year ago, and though I don’t care for hearing F-bombs and N-words at dinner, I really dislike the idea of telling black artists that white people are not allowed to listen to and play their music. Imagine the kind of authority figures who told white kids in the 50s that they were not allowed to listen to Little Richard or Chuck Berry because it had nothing to do with their culture—is that really whose side you want to be on?

• The tipping system at Fat Rice was unjust, back of house got less than front… Look, most restaurateurs would agree with you that tipping systems are unjust and make it harder to compensate the kitchen fairly. There are a couple of things they describe that might be sketchy (or might not), but most of this is America, not Fat Rice.

• Abe thought he knew better than women and people of color; they brought ideas to Fat Rice which Abe didn’t always respect, or took credit for. Well, that’s a description of the chef’s job right there—you decide which ideas hit the menu, and when the doors open, it’s your restaurant to the world. This is where I start to see, in the complaints, the kind of person in advertising who just knows his ideas are all brilliant, and why is the creative director too dumb to see that? Sooner or later, they always leave and start their own place, and sometimes do very well at it. Such is life, but as the “second meeting” reference shows, apparently Abe and co-owner Adrienne Lo took concerns seriously enough to sit down with them on occasion. They didn’t have to do that.

What seemed missing in all this is what its authors wanted—besides the catharsis of tagging Fat Rice with graffiti and posting a video of burning a Fat Rice uniform (which was starting to get into boiled bunny territory for me; in any case, Zed.Aer appears to have removed her account entirely). I asked them that directly and never got an answer myself (hint: when you’re ragging on the press for not being interested in the story and the press shows interest, don’t blow them off). But in a post addressed to Abe Conlon after his posted apology, Joëy offered two solutions:

I genuinely wish you would just remove yourself from the restaurant industry

The cultures’ history from which you stole were not yours to tell. It would be the sincerest apology if you could return the money you made off their ideas, recipes and labor back to them.

Well, give cancel culture this, it doesn’t make small demands. The James Beard Award-winning chef should just go away. But reducing Conlon and Lo (remember her, his partner in the business? His Chinese-American partner?) and the research they’ve done into Macanese and other foods, as well as the creativity they brought to making it come alive in a unique restaurant, to the cultural theft of POC dishes they had no right to cook… well, I guess you can guess how much I think of that concept when it’s applied on racial purity grounds. And who’d be next—Johnny Clark? Rick Bayless? Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader, for culturally appropriating suburban Chinese-American? All of them. You can never be a serious enough student to overcome not being born to the culture.

Anyway, Conlon did issue an apology—which totally sounds like him and not his PR!—and it followed the model of a bunch of them over the weekend, knowing that you’ve done wrong and acknowledging the pain you’ve caused and promising to do better. And to judge by the hundreds of prominent chefs (and even lesser-known ones) who liked it in the court of Instagram, I think he’s gonna survive. But this was a new thing this weekend, the proclamation of white guilt by a lot of chefs, which reached queasy levels of Chinese Cultural Revolution self-condemnation. When I see Jason Hammel, who’s made Lula Cafe a place that has nurtured artists and built community and probably made him half the money it could have if he cared more about money than people and farmers, bowing and kowtowing and uttering these words of his guilt… it’s kind of gross that this is the price of being a publicly active chef now. (Though his is, as always, more thoughtful than the genre.)

*  *  *

There’s another story like this going on right now—in the world of poetry, believe it or not. A bunch of poets, some of whom have been published by the only poetry journal that pays decently, Chicago’s Poetry, put out a letter demanding that the (old white) chairman step down and Poetry take steps to start amending for the harm it has done to poets of color, etc. (FWIW, Poetry published Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lord and many other black poets in their lifetimes.) This may seem silly—surely you can be published somewhere else and get the same 30 readers—but in fact, the Poetry Foundation has a lot of money, so it is about taking control of one of the few treasure chests in the field. (In poetry, always follow the money.)

But in 1912, a critic from the Chicago Tribune named Harriet Monroe looked at the world of poetry and didn’t think, how can I become poetry editor of McCall’s and spend all their money on modernists instead of James Whitcomb Riley. She started a journal called Poetry, and promptly published Eliot and Pound. The thing that seems striking about this generation is that they want to take over existing institutions—not create their own. You want to see more black poets? Get a couple of hiphop millionaires to underwrite your new journal and make Poetry look tired, like Harriet Monroe did to Lippincott’s in 1912.

This is only moreso the case in the restaurant business—your boss isn’t buying your ideas? Start your own place and steal all the media buzz. Success is the best revenge and it happens all the time. I’ll be happy to write about you—after all, I’m always on the lookout for the new media darling in the world of food.


And yet after all that, the prize for the worst social media experience of the week goes to a long shot coming around the turn, Nini’s Deli. Juany Riesco and his brother Jose, both of the family that own the West Town cafe, set up speakers and began ranting about the protestors (against), the cops (for), Muslims (against) versus Christianity (for), and so on. You can see a clip of it here.

Condemnation quickly followed on social media, they quickly lost vendors like Bang Bang Pie, and there are claims on social media that they have shut down for good (and that people are paining the pink exterior black). What surprised everybody about this is that Nini’s had a reputation as a kindly, nurturing community institution, as in this piece by Nick Kindelsperger last January.

Well… not everyone was surprised. A couple of years ago another food writer and I popped into Nini’s on the way to hitting some south side spots, and let’s just say we saw the wound-too-tight side of Juany come out then.


I’ll be talking about all this social media craziness, and no doubt adding to the evidence for my own cancellation, on Michael Muser’s Amuzed podcast, with Chandra Ram (as an old white guy, I said that I was set up to be the Bobby Riggs to her Billie Jean King). It goes up Monday night.


Lots of people posted various lists of black-owned restaurants in Chicago, and I’m all for raising awareness of them. The best tools are probably these compiled by the blogger Black People Eats—he has an interactive map here, and a full list here. (Also check out this story on the relief funds he’s raising.)

That said, a list is just names. We need to make sure black chefs—and not just the great Erick Williams!—are incorporated into stories, that black-owned restaurants that open get opening coverage just like white-owned places on the north side, that ones that have been around get commemorative coverage, and so on.

In the meantime, the Sun-Times’ Evan F. Moore has a good piece on what it’s like for south side black-owned businesses reopening amid both virus and protests, and Nick Kindelsperger has one on how to support black-owned businesses.


When I wrote that above about the young’uns being so nurturing and supportive, the first ones who came to mind are Eve Studnicka and Alexis Thomas, of Dinner at the Grotto and Black Cat Kitchen, who’ve been teaming on doing quarantine meals and also raising money along the way. Mike Sula has a piece on them this week: “They sold out the next day, and the next week, and the next, and the next. As conventional supply chains weakened, they increasingly sourced more from their farmer friends, and the menus became progressively more appealing and wonderfully midwestern-strange: pork belly potpie with Publican oat porridge; Chicago mix popcorn-infused drinking chocolate; venison summer sausage and duck heart cassoulet; ramp potato chowder.”

Amy Cavanaugh chronicles a great Hayekian free market moment last week: Chicago Public Schools bailed on feeding the hungry because of the protests. So restaurants from Mi Tocaya to Paulie Gee’s fed the citizens CPS was afraid to. (I said Hayekian, not Randian, before you feel the need to come at me.)

Want to mellow out? Tom Van Lente has summer picnic suggestions at NewCity.


I already noted the passing of Hecky Powell of Hecky’s BBQ in Evanston, but the New York Times offered an extended obituary in its series on COVID-19 victims.