We talked to three Chicago chefs who have been making changes and surviving the pandemic.
Many businesses and chefs in the Chicago food community, including the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group and Rick Bayless, have moved quickly to assist restaurant workers through tough times as we adapt to distancing requirements. These worthy efforts have received media attention.
We are most interested in hearing chefs explain how this epidemic affects them, their thinking, and the ways they see their lives changing over weeks to come.
Zoe Schor, Split Rail
“When things get back to normal, we should be able to perform at a higher level.”
There’s an obligation to be optimistic. There will be something after all this, and that’s what we need to plan for. There are also obligations to investors, to keep the restaurant going. If the restaurant closes, there’s no guarantee it will reopen. I have an obligation to my team members to pay as many of them as I can for as long as I can. I have an obligation to the payroll of the people we had to let go and have one paycheck to go. And the neighborhood is relying on us to be here. Also, there’s an obligation to the economy: if I can keep eight people off unemployment, that’s huge. And that’s what we have right now: eight full-time people running the restaurant. We need to keep people employed and we need to pay our vendors, who may get stuck with several weeks’ worth of stock that would normally have gone out, but now they have to put it in the freezer or give it away. No one bounces back from this.
In times of crisis, you see the strength in people, the overwhelming kindness from our guests, from the community, from our families and friends, from the cooks who continue to work even though there’s risk.
The idea that we’re going to come out of this the same and do business the same way as before is the biggest opportunity lost. If you feel you’re going to reopen your business and do everything exactly the same way, shame on you. We have this incredible opportunity to explore the way our businesses can be different.
The arts lead the way, and we’re seeing a paradigm shift in how people enjoy art. My partner owns an event space called The Martin; last Monday there was a fund-raising event scheduled for a woman who has a new album to promote. She ended up doing the performance from her bedroom and online. You see more of that now, immersive theater experiences that are online. Brian Jupiter did something interesting with his virtual cooking class. You buy ingredients from him and then he shows you how to put them together. I may rip off that model. I think it’s pretty smart.
We have an opportunity to redefine our business and come out of it with a higher level of understanding of our practice, whether it’s business or art. To work, now, under these constraints, means that when things get back to normal, we should be able to perform at a higher level.
Joe Frillman, Daisies
“What I hope comes out of all this is an industrywide change in the way employees receive benefits.”
We were finally in a place where we had the best staff we’ve ever had. It takes a lot of time to get a group of people who work very well together. We had just gotten over the hump, and we were all thinking “it’s going to be a great summer.” My brother’s farm, which he purchased two years ago, was ready to go. We were very excited. Then all this came crashing down.
Still, I’m relieved that the shutdown went the way it did. We’re all in this together, so we have a better chance of surviving. And we’re in a tight-knit community of chefs. Every day, you get calls from people checking in. It’s been very encouraging. We’ve also seen how the local community will come out to support us. When I come to the restaurant in the morning, there are notes taped to the door. It’s crazy. We just got one note with a $500 check in it! The note said, “You’re our favorite place in the neighborhood. Stay strong. We’ll see you on the other side.”
And when we started with delivery, everybody was tipping fifty to a hundred percent. Crazy!
We’ve had a lot of the same people here since we opened. You see these people five days a week, so it’s a family. I see them more than my actual family. We had to let twenty-six people out of thirty-two go. And you have to pick and choose, which is very difficult. We transitioned to delivery and takeout, and we weren’t set up for any of that. We weren’t on any of the platforms.
We’ve had trouble with Grubhub. They were secretly delivering our food without our consent. Somewhere on the Daisies page of Yelp! there’s a Grubhub button that makes it look like we’re the ones facilitating it. Someone can order their delivery through there, and then a driver would come in the restaurant and order the food, pay for it, and deliver it. And they didn’t even have the right menu. They had menus from weeks ago, so the customer would order food and then not get the item they ordered.
What I hope comes out of all this is an industrywide change in the way employees receive benefits.
A few days after we spoke with Frillman, Daisies included a note on their website:
“Out of concern for the health and safety of our staff and patrons we are making the difficult decision to temporarily close our doors until we get the go ahead to reopen for service. The sense of community we have received from not only our Logan Square neighbors but the Chicago dining scene as a whole has been humbling to say the least. We thank everyone who has come out to support us in our transition to a takeout model. During this break we are focusing on self care and coming back stronger and better than ever. In the meantime, please consider donating to the staff go fund me. We look forward to seeing you all on the other side.”
Alisha Elenz, Bodega Biscay
“Really thinking about what you do is when you get strong solutions.”
It’s scary walking into the restaurant every day and not seeing people. It’s eerie. We’re trying to do what we do, being chefs, to make enough money to keep the lights on. We could all shut down tomorrow, but more than ever, you have to stay positive and save the negativity for the walk-in.
It’s a very interesting time for chefs. We’re always strapped to our work. An eight-hour shift is not normal to us. For the restaurant people who are stuck at home, I can’t imagine how they feel, because you love it so much.
We clean our phones, keys, computers, computer cords everything as soon as we walk in the restaurant. Scott and Sari [Worsham, owners] have told us that if we get to a point where we’re too scared, then we should stop. You’re maybe not as strong as you think you are. You can think you’re going to just get through it. If you’re sick or have a cough, though, it’s okay to stay home. Put your pride aside.
I feel I should take the risk because Scott took a big risk with me. I owe a lot to them. I don’t know anyone else who would have let a twenty-three-year old run the restaurant. That’s why I’m willing to take a big risk for them. They believed in me. I’ve been with them for five years, so in a time of crisis, my response is not to be too scared and stay home. I don’t judge people for doing that, and I understand why some people do, but I want to work more than ever to help these guys stay in business.
I joke that I don’t want to have kids because I already have kids in the kitchen. I do feel like a mom sometimes, even though some of the people are older than me, I’m very protective of my crew. I want to take care of them. I want to get through this and have jobs for people when this is all over. It’s hard not to care for the people you work with, because you ask them to put so much into it.
The first day [at Bodega Biscay], I was like a giddy little kid. As a chef, I’m able to give people this good, fresh product that they may not be able to get at a grocery store. And there’s no waiting. We want to keep doing it. It’s an opportunity to give the community a new way to look at our food. I think it’d be cool, when this is over, for people to come in, have a drink at the bar, do their grocery shopping and go home.
We had to build a new business model in forty-eight hours. We did it. That’s the job. Really thinking about what you do is when you get strong solutions.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org