This is a story about the former Fat Rice. Maybe you feel you don’t need to hear anything about that place and that chef, that you heard all you need to know back when the media and social media mobs were all over them for… what were their crimes again? I’ve seen people say that on social media, about their Noodlebird pop-up, Really, we’re still supporting those people? Easy enough to skip this item if you feel you must, but I think there’s something here to think about, about how restaurants (don’t) work these days, that’s interesting—and not what you heard last summer.

“A year before we got canceled last summer, we canceled Fat Rice,” Abe Conlon says. He explains what that means. Fat Rice opened in 2012, and after half a dozen years in business, the strain was showing. “Everything is just chaotic, 100% busy all the time. There’s pipes breaking, there’s trays of glasses being dropped on the ground, people call off [work] every day.” He and his business and then-life partner Adrienne Lo were expanding the business—opening a bakery and a bar within the space on Diversey, working on a book (The Adventures of Fat Rice). “In that time is where our personal relationship deteriorated because of money, expectations. Also not good communication, also not holding each other accountable. Not having meetings, winging it.”

Conlon won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Great Lakes in 2018. “You think that’s the thing that’s finally going to make it all work, people will be flocking to work at the restaurant and we can finally make it all make sense. You get these like, glimpses of glimmers of hope, this is gonna be all good. And then like, a year later, everything is still all fucked up. We weren’t taking care of ourselves. Our staff didn’t have the opportunity to take care of themselves because they had to work so much.”

“We still weren’t making money [personally],” Adrienne says. “Up until year 5.”

“Five years in, we started paying ourselves a combined salary at that point of like, $60,000. Just stupid,” Abe says. (They had servers making more than that.) “We started thinking, there has to be more sustainable ways of doing this. And that is partially why  we started establishing the management teams, we got an HR company, which we never had before. Because these are luxuries in an independent restaurant.” In 2019 they did leadership and staff training through a program run by Zingerman’s. They also tried to bring in outsiders, and promote from within, to create a better management and leadership structure—but in doing so ran into some of the fundamental aspects of restaurant culture.

“There would be a barrier, they wouldn’t let them in.” Abe says. “Like a lot of people, I’m an only [child], I come from a not great family situation. Like many, I found within restaurants that camaraderie, that connection with in a community, I dug a little bit more on the craft aspect of it, but people have different motivations for being and doing the things that they do. And within that we had, you know, our team again, we would have been nothing without them. But they are protective of that. We brought in this this guy with service experience because he had Michelin starred experience. They didn’t gibe.”

This was at a time when the lack of health care for staff in independent restaurants was a wide topic of discussion—a lack Conlon felt personally. “I’ve had Lyme disease for 20 years, and never really got treated and you know, I thought it was like, okay, anxiety of having, like, shit going on the restaurant or like, depression, like, why is my leg twitching today? And why is my ear on fire?” Belatedly, he began pursuing health care for staff in part for himself, but it led to other changes in the restaurant’s culture. “Like after you go through the shift, the tradition is beers or shots or whatever. We don’t really know if we’re appreciating our team and so we’re like, everybody gets a beer at the end of the night. I think it wasn’t till after we launched the new health initiatives, and we started doing more balanced family meals, we started offering non alcoholic drinks, we’d have non-drinking competitions.”

Conlon knows that bringing up his Lyme disease will instantly be viewed as an excuse—I wasn’t the asshole they said, it was the Lyme disease. “I’m not saying I wasn’t an asshole. I was a totally natural, equal opportunity asshole. I didn’t have it out for anybody, but I’m going to call people out who suck. If you’re not getting a job, I’m gonna tell you that, you know, especially if I’m paying you to teach you, or if I’m working with you, and I expect something from you. And you’re not being fair.” He’s about to work himself up again about old grievances—the guy who was offended when he was told he had to actually wash the dirt off the celery before cutting it up—and then suddenly it deflates and he’s philosophical, more-in-sorrow Abe again.

“I’m not trying to have that be part of the story. I think moving forward, I’m all about anti-inflammatory diets, no sugar, no trans fats, no animals, no dairy product. And that food is medicine. And what we put in our body directly affects us because our gut is our second brain. Sometimes it’s our first brain. If it was up to me, I’d change the restaurant to a vegan, gluten free, sober, sugar free restaurant, and give X amount of dollars to Lyme research. Because where I went to school [the Culinary Institute of America in New York] is where I got it. It’s one of the highest concentrations. I’d be very curious to know how many chefs who are in high, impactful, high stress environments, have it, and are immunocompromised.”

Fat Rice had just signed a new five-year lease on its space when the lockdown happened. Like a lot of restaurants they were scrambling to find ways to keep the business afloat; but most restaurants didn’t have ongoing protests from people who had worked there briefly, years ago—or not at all. Whatever they did—playing hiphop music in the restaurant, letting a staffer start a GoFundMe for worker relief, shifting to a meal kit model, posting a Black Lives Matter square on social media when everyone was doing it—came in for criticism, making it hard for them to experiment in an atmosphere of instant suspicion and condemnation.

It was the accusations of racism that hurt Abe the most, because to him, his entire career was rooted in something fundamentally anti-racist—sharing and celebrating the food of Macao, specifically the food of certain older women cooks whom he had come to know, written about, and felt he was honoring. But he understands how he might have set off even his most dogged critic, a cook with Vietnamese heritage who had worked there for two shifts a few years earlier, Joey Pham. “I was particularly excited about having Joey in the restaurant, right? I was excited because they— at the time, Julia, so we wanted to have more women in the kitchen. We wanted to have gender diversity in the kitchen. I think I wanted to impress them, and I kind of maybe came off aggressive, letting them know I grew up eating Vietnamese food.”

In the end, Fat Rice closed and Abe tried to pay their lease with money he made as a consultant. It was more than a year later when Noodlebird started selling grilled chicken and shrimp dumplings. If you think it’s a kind of Fat Rice Lite (or maybe an attempt to avoid a tarnished name entirely, though since it was Noodlebird at Fat Rice, you didn’t have to look hard to find it), in fact, it’s quite a bit more than that—the end of a wedge aimed at transforming what kind of business they’re in.

That goes back to the early days of lockdown—”We saw the financial instability of it, by having, you know, a substantial but not an adequate amount of money in the bank,” Abe says. “So we saw the vulnerability of that, we saw the vulnerability of the food system, and the uncertainty of the public. And we said, there has to be other ways of diversifying the business to be able to sustain and to give people a better way of life. People were always asking us, Hey, what’s this sauce? We did the hot sauces, but we couldn’t sell them retail or wholesale. Because we could only make money when the doors were open.”

Adrienne says that between baking for the bakery in the early morning, and cleanup after dinner service, there was usually someone in the building all 24 hours of the day—but they were only bringing in revenue a small part of that time. Meanwhile, what did it mean to have a restaurant when food was more likely to be takeout or a meal kit than something brought to you on a plate by a server? They reconceived Fat Rice as Fat Food Productions, with three production lines so far—takeout food from Noodlebird, bottled cocktails from The Chicago Spirit (“we had a lot of liquor when we closed, so we just started playing with it,” Abe says) and Unbelievable Hot Sauces, flavors branded with different cryptids (imaginary creatures, like the Mothman), for which they got HACCP certification—allowing them to move into more areas of production down the road.

But more than new product lines, they went into Fat Food Productions determined not to run it like a restaurant. Instead, Conlon calls it a “platform”—”It’s a food, beverage and hospitality platform that empowers our team, and works within our means. It’s having a fast casual content that is generally open throughout the daytime, that is based on simpler food that can be executed by people who have less experience.” Simpler execution, but at the same time, run in some ways that are more livable and equitable than a conventional restaurant. The first step was eliminating the tip credited wage, and with it its restrictions on how you pay your staff. “Everybody gets a base salary of 18 to $20 per hour depending on their skill set, and we guarantee people $25 an hour within our model. The idea is that the tips get them to that 25, but if there aren’t enough tips, we subsidize it. We are thinking that through diversity of offerings and cross training and good quality product, that we will be able to get a point where we won’t be subsidizing that extra $1 or $2.”

Which you can do if you’re Charlie Trotter and your daddy is rich, but neither Abe nor Adrienne is in that position—so for now the difference is made up by PPP and other governmental aid funds for restaurants. So Conlon and Lo are still continuing to experiment with models for sustainability in food production—and still finding that people in media have their minds made up about them, and aren’t interested in what they’re doing. They tell me stories about journalists they’ve approached about what they’re doing—but it always comes back to, racist music, cultural appropriation, yelling at staff, white guy making Asian food (never mind that Lo is Chinese-American).

They’re doing it anyway. “I think it’s about establishing that food and food service workers need to be valued more,” Adrienne says.

“People need to pay more for food,” Abe says. “And people who haven’t been [paid properly] for years need to be because we’re losing them. It might not work for us right now. But it might work for somebody else down the road.”

Buzz 2


Chicago mag didn’t do a best new restaurants issue this year, but you can kind of get the idea from their list of the 27 Best Things We Ate This Year, which has many of the places that have had us excited this year—I just had #14 again because older son’s girlfrirend loves halloumi, and I can’t argue with, say, charcuterie at Lardon or the Spanish tortilla from mfk. (not strictly speaking a new dish but I hear that chef Matt Ginsburg is doing a lot of new twists on the favorites there).

I do notice one thing—the list is very mid-pricepoint. As to some extent it should be—the great strength of our scene is that street food has hints of fine dining to it (see the duck carnitas at Taqueria Chingon, #11) and tablecloth places have some funk; our scene convereges in the middle. But I can’t help but notice that the genuine high end—the tasting menu joints—are, despite five writers contributing to the list, almost completely missing. No Oriole, no Ever, no weird science at Smyth, no Korean-French fusion at Jeong, no idea what’s happening these days at Jeong or Brass Heart or Temporis, no sign of new contenders like Esme or Claudia or Robert et Fils. (Venteux makes the list with an appetizer.) The slice of our scene that made our name not so very long ago is simply out of consideration—or budgetary reach—for our publications.


Much as I love Jeong, I wish somehow it could coexist with the elevated Korean diner food that chef David Park made at his original mall food court restaurant, Hanbun. Maybe cloning would work. Or maybe I just need to go try Korean Spoon in Glenview, which Louisa Chu makes sound very enticing:

A classic bibimbap ($11.99) comes with a palette of bulgogi, assorted banchan and a soft-yolked fried egg arranged around perfect pearlescent rice.

Before you get to mixing, her miyeok-guk will distract you. The silky seaweed so-called birthday soup stars on K-dramas as a restorative elixir. They’re not wrong, if you have a bowl as deeply steeped with umami as Kim’s. Tender chunks of brisket seem almost superfluous among the tangled greens until you realize they’re there for a reason. The delicate, delicious balance between land and sea will astound you.

Did I mention this magical soup is complimentary?


The settings at Esme draw a wow from Time Out’s Emma Krupp:

What does it mean for art to be integrated into the dining experience, you ask? First, the space itself—white-walled and sophisticated, with towering windows and asymmetrical light fixtures—has the same feel as a gallery…

Tomaska and Bravo’s attention to art extends just as readily to the table, where each course is plated on a collection of gorgeous, frequently baffling serving pieces sourced from sculptors across the country. The second portion of canapes came staggered atop a tray of shale rock, golden wire flowers twisting above bites of roe-topped bombardinos and skewered lion’s mane mushroom. Later, in a particularly inspired presentation, a pork rib dish slathered with Thai banana caramel and chiccarón was shaped around a ceramic bone.


While you’re eating Asian food on the north shore, also check out, as Mike Sula did, HD Cuisine in Wheeling, which serves up Malaysian food, still rare in Chicagoland. I liked this part:

It might not look very promising, next door to the only two other tenants, a Dollar Tree and a pizza joint with video poker machines. But if you’re visiting for the first time—even if you’re only carrying out, like most customers do—the most reassuring thing you can do before you eat is ask to use the restroom.

You’ll be directed through a curtain into the kitchen along a narrow path between the stove and prep stations, which are occupied by four busy cooks, each one over the age of 50, with a combined kitchen experience of nearly 250 years. This is exactly who you want to be cooking your food.

I’m not sure how that math adds up (I guess if they went to work at 11 and are now in their 70s?), but I’m sold anyway.


John Kessler recommended Sochi, a relatively posh Vietnamese restaurant in Lakeview, to me, and now he does to you too:

It has a vibrancy that sets it apart from some of the city’s loved but long-in-the-tooth Vietnamese spots. More like Parachute or Mi Tocaya Antojería, it’s a heritage bistro that blends careful takes on standards with creative fare, such as the seared duck salad. Served with drenched banana blossoms and ready to load onto shrimp chips, it’s fantastic.


A place I kind of marvel at is Mike’s Ham Place in Detroit—which has basically two things, ham sandwiches and split pea soup with ham. There’s nothing with quite that level of single-mindedness in the Chicago area, but Titus Ruscitti finds “A Ham Hotspot in Arlington Heights,” Mr. Allison’s:

Mr. Allison’s sits in a busy strip mall that houses a couple handful of businesses. It’s the busiest of the bunch especially during breakfast hours. They’re open daily from 6a-3p and feature all the classics as far as an American diner goes. But check the common mentions online and it’s the ham that gets love in the majority of reviews. They serve cut from the bone ham in a variety of ways which means split pea soup is an every day offering. I suggest ordering a cup anywhere where ham is the focus.

You may have heard of another place he writes about, called Lula Cafe:

They’re not just one of Logan Squares best restaurants but it’s one of it’s oldest too in terms of fine dining, although I wouldn’t let that moniker scare you away as Lula Cafe is a chill, comfortable place to eat food that’s prepared with the same love and care as you’d find at some of the city’s Michelin star holding spots. My favorite time of the day to visit might actually be the morning bc their breakfast offerings are as strong as anywhere in town. Always on the menu items like the breakfast burrito and buttermilk pancakes are excellent examples from their respective parties. Another reason I love Lula Cafe is the menu is always switching up and it’s fun seeing what’s new with each visit.

8. KFC

Korean Fried Chicken is the subject of Steve Dolinsky’s report on venerable Crisp in Lakeview, and a fast-opening chain from South Korea called BB•Q Chicken, with lots of shots of advanced dredging technique.


Maybe you heard Meg Galus, ex-Boka Group dessert maven, was now at a pastry shop called Cocoa & Co. in Old Town. But you wanted to know more! Well, here’s a piece on it in Classic Chicago magazine, hat tip to Friend of Fooditor Richard Shepro who appears in it as well talking fine chocolate.


Cranberries are in David Hammond’s head, as he checks out the native American heritage of the tart fruit:

It’s likely that many of the cranberries on Midwestern Thanksgiving tables are coming from Wisconsin. Wisconsin produces more than sixty percent of the cranberries harvested in the United States—and cranberries were a big favorite among those who lived here before there even was a Thanksgiving. Cranberries are indigenous to North America, and indigenous people have been eating them for millennia.


If you’re a writer and friends with Ina Pinkney, there’s a good chance she’s deacccessioned some vintage food publication in your direction (like the full set of Time-Life cooking books from the 70s I was very happy to receive). Maggie Hennessy was the recipient of some issues of a 1970s publication produced by Cuisinart, when they were trying to teach people how to use their product, and tells about it for Food52:

“I feel that in general, the discussions in The Pleasures of Cooking and the different people who wrote for it really reflected the world of food at that time in the United States better than any other publication,” said [Jacques] Pépin, who wrote regularly for the magazine, during a recent phone call. “I don’t recall that we got paid very much, but we all liked it. There were no advertisements, so we didn’t have to cower to sponsors. It was serious cooking, and it was the way we wanted it.”


Last Meal Chicago hasn’t published a full fledged review for a bit, but I recommend his Instagram account for quicker insights of cosnsiderable perception into the food world. He just ate pizza in New York and here’s what he has to say about one of the oldest rivalries:

We went to #nyc the other week to partake in the so-called “slice revolution” that @pete_wells and @thebaddeal and other NY food journalists have written about in recent years and IT WAS JUST OKAY. Yes, @scarrspizza (pic #2) mills its own flours; yes, @lindustriebk (pic #1) is thoughtfully sourcing its ingredients. And yet here we are: solid, if hardly life-changing, #slices.

I will say this: don’t underestimate or undervalue the pizza revolution that Chicago has undergone over the last year. For all the pizza we ate in New York, nothing was as flavorful as @pauliegeeslogansquare or @pizzachickenicecream, no bread was as good as @noahsandoval’s at @pizzafriendlypizza or @marque_p at @theexchangechicago, and nothing was as artfully balanced as @millys_pizza_in_the_pan and @georgesdeepdish (both “deep dish” to boot!).

The Kids—and the crust—are alright.


The most awkward thing as a food media person isn’t, as you might expect, when you’re invited to dine somewhere and it turns out to not be very good (or actively bad). That’s relatively easy to deal with. No, what’s tough is when a place you really like and have covered doesn’t quite do it for you one time—your reaction can be seen as a personal betrayal. You may think my life is all wagyu beef and Perigord truffles, but I’ve basically been called on the carpet by PR people for… no longer being a team player? But I never was, I’m just trying to be honest about my experiences every time, and that worked in their favor—until this time.

So anyway, the other night as I was heading to bed, a restaurant owner I like and a friend with whom I’d dined at his restaurant were getting into it on Twitter, with my handle cc’d. No biggie, but I have to admit that I lean to friend’s side of the argument. The restaurant is The Bristol, which I don’t think I have to argue I’m a fan of, if you’ve been reading me for very long. I’ve praised meals there, written about its chefs, laid out the case for its importance in making nose to tail happen here, and it’s been high on the list any time I’ve bashed Michelin for being blind to obviously terrific places here. Likewise, I’ve been a fan of its current chef, Larry Feldmeier, and loved my first meal under his tenure. If it’s not the sitdown place that I’ve been to the most in recent years, I don’t know what would be.

But I just didn’t think that the nine course tasting menu was what I was looking for there. A couple of times we said it didn’t seem like Bristol food—not that they should be tied to some vision of what Chris Pandel was doing a decade ago, but the form it did take, a series of bowls of food in broths, blended together in the memory as we ate them, without anything that really popped and made them seem a cohesive whole, the way funky meats and pastas at The Bristol normally did. A black cod rillette with caviar and apples at the start worked like it should; a savory venison course at the end, with coffee-flavored potato puree (sounds like a bad idea, worked wonderfully) stood out, but they bookended a lot of things that were just kind of hmm, okay or had one odd ingredient that didn’t seem to belong. (I exclude dessert from that; both, one a sweet potato cake and one a “cheese course” pastry, were very good.) So, sometimes you go to a place you like and you have an “ennh” meal, but I expect to go back and like what I have sooner or later—at least, I hope I’m allowed back in!

And I went as a PR guest for the second time to Adorn, in the Four Seasons Hotel. If we still had food media I think it would be a bigger deal that Jonathon Sawyer, Beard winner for Cleveland’s Greenhouse Tavern and Noodlecat, is cooking here now. It’s a hotel menu, and you need to take some care to pick the things that really seem like they represent his viewpoint (he loves vinegar, that’s one clue); partly because they wanted us to try a couple of things from the new lounge menu, we wound up having fried chicken twice, which is not the best idea. But the really good things—”pickle brined river trout,” a delicately fried piece of trout with a tangy vinegar-based sauce, and Thai brussel sprouts tossed with something like the caramelized fish sauce that used to be part of a dessert at Fat Rice, to name two—were interesting and inventive and not something I’ve had anywhere else in town. And the desserts by Juan Gutierrez, who was nominated for a Jean Banchet award while at Longman & Eagle, were some of the best I’ve had in a while, captivating in the interplay of textures as well as in the internationally-themed flavors (I especially liked the “Colombia,” with a coffee mousse).

So it’s an estimable and interesting restaurant that shouldn’t be dismissed by the modest expectations of hotel restaurants. Now here’s the interesting thing: the first time I went I thought the prices on the menu seemed kind of high (it is in a Four Seasons Hotel). But everybody’s having to raise their prices now; and though again, I was a guest of the house, looking at the final bill (and we tried a lot) it didn’t seem that high, especially if you pick the trout over a steak, say (and I recommend doing so). So this one’s a bit overlooked at the moment among 2021 openings, and it shouldn’t be.

Finally, I had some Noodlebird food while I was interviewing Abe and Adrienne. They’ve changed the grilled chicken recipe, and it’s really good. I also really enjoyed some shrimp dumplings—high quality shrimp with clean flavor. And finally, a cucumber salad with a vegan XO sauce (I think mushroom based). Very fresh tasting, I can’t say I’d mind more such vegan Chinese choices.