I’m not well versed in Shakespeare, but the Soothsayer’s premonition to Julius Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March,” was on my mind as I walked out to the garage to procure liquid nitrogen. It was mid-menu on March 15th at my Chicago based, Michelin-starred restaurant, EL Ideas. This service would be the final one for our foreseeable future, as earlier that day our state’s restaurants had been mandated to close on account of Covid-19. As l had done almost every service over the last decade, I took a drag of weed from my vape pen as the snake-like, metal hose loudly screeched liquid nitrogen from the five-foot tall, cylindrical dewar. Smoke billowed from my lips and steam from the nitrogen as the almost 300 degree below zero liquid met our much warmer atmosphere.
The liquid nitrogen is used to make the ice cream for our signature redux of the Wendy’s classic; dipping French fries into a Frostee, inspired by my two daughters. The concoction is an interactive tableside explosion of hot and cold combustion, and the course had become ubiquitous with our dining experience. Small cubes of thrice fried French fries stay miraculously crispy under a hot potato leek soup, and along with the ice cream, all the basic elements of the hot and cold and sweet and salty original version remain.
The feeling of the extreme hot and extreme cold meeting in the mouth for the first time is a sensation unlike any other. You half expect your mouth to be either burned by the hot soup or frozen by the ice cream, but instead, one balances the other to the perfect temperature. If you know what you’re doing, you can even make steam come out of your nose like a fire breathing dragon. To add a visceral shock to the experience, when the guest submerges their spoon in the glass and the sub zero ice cream collides with piping-hot soup, steam erupts from the glass with the fury of a geyser, and the whole room fills with a fajita-like, CRACK! Surprise and smiles inevitably wash over the faces of even our most stoic guests, and no matter how bad a day I may have had, looking back at the room as I walk away from the table almost always improves my mood.
So I wasn’t blind to the difficulty I’d have serving this course for what felt like the final time. But I wasn’t yet ready at that moment in the garage, so instead my mind went down a darker alleyway. As the liquid was dispensing and the weed sidetracked my thoughts away from the sadness of closing, I began to think of what it would take to protect my wife, kids, business, and home if things got totally out of hand.
Back in pre-pandemic times, my fellow chefs and I had been joking about what we would do in the case of a zombie apocalypse. The thought was that we’d rendezvous at the restaurant and then travel up to Michigan, hitting up a cache of guns one of our chefs knew of. I’d never shot a gun before in my life, but having them seemed like an important step in protecting my family if things really went haywire. So this playful exchange felt real as I walked back from the garage and into the kitchen.
As I began dispensing the ice cream base into the liquid nitrogen, I casually asked one of the chefs if he was still game to get the guns.
He stopped in his tracks, looked me in the eyes, as if he were the chef and I the commis, and said. “Chef, what do you need a gun for?”
“To protect my family,” I replied, defensively and immediately. I felt the weight of the implication, but said nothing more as we were now carrying the course out to the dining room.
Once each guest had a glass in front of them, I stood at the partition that divides the dining room from the kitchen, and explained the course.
“This course in front of you is inspired by my two daughters…” I began.
My voice cracked and I gagged on the next words, engulfed by my somber reality. I looked back at the chefs in the kitchen to see if someone could throw me a lifeline, but looking to chefs for emotional understanding in the middle of a service is like asking a hungry hyena to let go of a bone. All I received were incredulous looks.
I turned back to the room, and without air in my lungs, managed to hastily whimper out the rest of the description.
”Super crunchy French fries at the bottom of the glass… hot potato-leek soup over the top… and liquid nitrogen poached vanilla ice cream on top of that. ”
I mimicked the motion and told the guests to dip their spoons to the bottom of the glass.
The guests obeyed, and the steam and sound filled the room as it had so many times before. It felt like a knife lodging deep in my back as I walked away from the room, not bothering or caring to look back for the smiling faces. But as the show must always go on in a restaurant, I composed myself the best I could as the other chefs were putting away the ingredients and getting ready for the next course. I calmly walked over to the young chef I was speaking with before.
“On second thought, maybe we don’t need any guns around here.”
“I think that’s a really good decision, Chef.”
The betrayal of Covid had only begun.
Having just self-published a culinary graphic novel in late 2019 with my cousin, comic artist Timothy Foss, I had been publishing some freelance writing as an abstract means of marketing the book. I had just switched gears from writing on the dismal state of self help amongst chefs to making some dire predictions about what the arrival of Covid might do to the restaurant industry. What seemed most obvious at the time was that those of us who’d turned our noses up at doing takeout food were about to be served up a big ol’ slice of humble pie… in a to go container. Like it or not, we would need to trade in our Michelin starred plate-ups on fine porcelain for soup hall-style rationing in cardboard boxes.
Nearly a decade ago, EL Ideas came to life in the commissary kitchen I had been renting for a food truck called the Meatyballs Mobile. So when Covid shut down the restaurant, returning to driving meatballs around town seemed logical. It emboldened me to know that I had already gone from low end cooking to high end once, so big deal if I have to go back. Besides, if there was ever a time that the world needed ‘Meatyballs,’ it was now. My two chefs and I took Monday off to recharge, and on Tuesday we met back at the restaurant.
With only a little over 24 hours to close our restaurant, one of the unsung early challenges of the lockdown was that many of us were left with large and perishable inventories in our refrigerators. Hoping as much of it would find its way into bellies as possible, I instructed the chefs to come up with possibilities for an opening menu, and to freeze, preserve, or donate the rest. While they took care of that, I went to Restaurant Depot to buy to go containers for the truck.
As soon as I had paid for the supplies and pulled back out onto Division Street, I realized there was an inherent problem with my idea; people would surely congregate around the truck for their orders, and this would put myself and others at risk for getting sick. I arrived back at the restaurant deflated; this new thing called ‘curbside takeout’ would be our only means to generate revenue. Dylan Edwards, the chef who performed my mini-intervention during our last service, informed me after the shift that he was leaving to spend the lockdown with his family.
After the realization that the food truck would not be seeing the road, I went into an emotional cubby hole as a shell shocked soldier might. The battle plans had gone to hell and I felt clueless. Our first menus were prepared mostly by Chef Josh Mutchnick, and I served more as his sous chef than the other way around. My wife and partner, Akiko Moorman, was not only deep into her second term in the nursing program at Rush University, now she was also taxed with restructuring the reservation and financial models for our business. Our dining room manager, Bill Talbott, now had to figure out the complicated logistics for doing takeout. If not for their support and others, I likely would have closed up shop immediately. As our guests pay before they dine with us, watching the bank account hemorrhage from tens of thousands of dollars in refunds added to the suffering.
But having a very small business allowed us to pivot quickly, and I am proud to say we didn’t miss a single day of service or lay off a single employee. I felt a sort of survivor’s guilt as I watched the pleas of my friends, colleagues, and suppliers posting gofundme pages for their teams and businesses, but what could I really do with that other than deal with it in therapy?
Long ago, my father shared a useful anecdote that breathes new life into the ‘ready, aim, fire’ mantra. Unlike firing a gun, when launching a business, it is more wise to have a ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach. The success of EL was not because I envisioned what it became, but more because I listened to what it wanted to become. The same rang true for curbside dining.
We had long been charging $155/person for our tasting menu, so we were truly clueless on how to value our new to-go style cooking. We randomly priced our first curbside takeout menu at $42 for three courses. And though we did okay, the entire team agreed we’d increase sales if we lowered our price. So after a good deal of back and forth and some hurt egos, we finally agreed that we would instead charge $24 for two courses.
Business increased dramatically, and in juxtaposition to most everyone else I knew, I found myself working much more once the lockdown began. Side by side with the fear and trepidation within, a more courageous inner voice told me it was better to work harder and make less than to not work at all and make nothing.
Though our Michelin starred yacht may have capsized, the liferaft of takeout business appeared to be enough to keep us afloat. Cooking big batch food in army pans brought me on a nostalgic trip back to my food truck days, and it also felt good to not have to perfectly dice all of my vegetables. At its height, we were serving about 160 guests on a weekend night. And though we were immensely relieved to be approved for the PPP (Payroll Protection Program), more restaurants were about to get into the takeout game. With their arrival on the scene, sales decreased dramatically.
And while the waves of returning competition may have wet the deck of our curbside liferaft, the murder of George Floyd hit with the force of a tsunami. Sales disappeared, but silly things like restaurants didn’t matter anymore. A day of reckoning felt like it had arrived for centuries of injustice, and I did my best to listen.
“Though we should be well aware by now of white privilege and how that oppression has benefitted so many of us, there is also a very real ‘chef privilege’ my colleagues and I have also known.”
Adding to the deafening roar of public outrage and helplessness, Abe Conlon, a very good friend and James Beard Award winning chef/owner of Fat Rice here in Chicago, wound up closing his restaurant after some accusations of racism came down on him through social media. His ex-wife and business partner, Adrienne Lo, who is also a very good friend of ours, was taken down with him. Finding a place of balance between not simply dismissing the allegations together with genuine compassion for our friends, only tightened the already suffocating emotional tightrope. On a personal level, the closeness of the matter resulted in a more in depth effort to learn from their experience.
My hometown of Milwaukee is one of the most segregated in the country. Just like my mom before me, I was a child of a family that moved out to the suburbs when African-Americans moved in. I’m embarrassed to say that even as a young adult, I couldn’t understand how NWA and Ice Cube could feel so much anger toward those who’ve sworn an oath ‘to serve and protect’. I would soon develop an appreciation for the musical genre, and the Rodney King tragedy began the long process of becoming more aware. Still, my restaurant has been guilty of the cultural appropriation of hip hop music since day one.
EL is located on a nondescript, dead end street in a little-known part of Chicago, and our setting is about as urban as fine dining gets. We’re not far at all from downtown, but to dine with us is the only reason most of our guests would ever venture into our part of town. Playing off of this vibe, we became well known for playing loud hip-hop during the dining experience.
So filtering through our many playlists during prep days was sobering. And even though I’ve concluded that almost every song in our popular songbook has been appropriated from Black music in one way or another, I had to draw the line somewhere. To make sure guests were always served fresh ingredients, I used to tell an impressionable rhyme to young cooks, ‘when in doubt, throw it out’. This became the mantra for which songs to remove from the playlist.
So while chaos rippled through the streets around us, sales dropped to only a single handful of takeout orders per night. But as much bigger things were at play, it would’ve been hard for me to care less about business. And though it was a very sad time, there was something cathartic about being powerless.
Up until this point, I had been highly proactive in publishing articles and connecting with our client base on social media and our email blast. I would write personal and heartfelt snippets about what we were going through, and how we were going to keep changing and persevere. Now, very much on account of the social media nightmare our friends went through, feelings of fear and trepidation overtook my marketing sensibilities, and I went into a state of depression and a prolonged period of silence.
About a month later, another colleague and friend — Ryan McCaskey of Michelin two-star Acadia — had a much different, yet equally damning set of circumstances drag him into the tar and feather pit as well. He’s actually facing legal allegations, and his restaurant has yet to reopen.
Though we should be well aware by now of white privilege and how that oppression has benefitted so many of us, there is also a very real ‘chef privilege’ my colleagues and I have also known. There is no excuse for acting poorly, and we are all a product of our choices, not our circumstances. Still, it’s a real conundrum that those of us who cook good food have been given a free pass for acting like assholes for so long. As I’ve learned from years of therapy, hours of daily meditation, and satirizing my own out of control ego by writing the aforementioned graphic novel, learning to be okay with not being okay is way more daunting of a task than it sounds. Adding to the challenge, most of us who make careers and thrive in the chaos of kitchens, found ourselves there in the first place because we were a legitimate mess as kids.
I became a chef in large part because it was a way for a troubled guy with low self esteem to feel accepted. Kitchens gave me a longed for sense of belonging. I then became a good chef by having my ego crushed by chefs who not only yelled and hurled belittling insults, but also plates of food that did not meet their exacting standards. I recall becoming a sous chef at Le Cirque in the mid-nineties and how much I looked forward to unleashing my anger and belittling the next wave of young culinarians. It’s been a sad circle of chef life, and society itself has also served the role of enabler by exalting raging egomaniacs like Gordon Ramsey, and depressed geniuses like my hero, Anthony Bourdain. Not that many of us will be left with restaurants by the time Covid’s said and done, but real change, as is the case with Black Lives Matters, Me Too, and LGBQT rights, takes a long time and will be riddled with confounding failures along the way.
The collective suffering of watching wildfires, hurricanes, and politics raging out of control this year has done nothing but add to the overwhelm. Dwarfing it all, however, this summer my wife and I became full-time parents to my 11 and 13 year old girls. And though it’d be quite generous to say the circumstances were less than ideal and the challenges in front of us formidable, parenting my kids every day of the week has filled me with needed resolve and an immense sense of purpose.
Long ago I realized that cooking and serving others has been like a bridge over life’s raging river of sadness and anger. And though more confounding than ever before, this remains true today. Whether it was on a food truck, in a Michelin-starred restaurant, or doing curbside takeout, being appreciated for cooking food well has always felt good when I’ve felt my worst. As with being a good father, being a good chef fills me with purpose.
My last chef left on his own volition in late July, so there’s nobody left to playfully banter about the zombie apocalypse or state of the world while I do my prepwork. And though I am still making a lot less and working a lot harder than before, we’re reopened (for now) and are once again serving our Fries and Frostee. And though there aren’t nearly as many faces sitting in the seats as before, I’m once again turning around to see the smiles and surprise that washes over the faces when the hot and the cold meet in the milkshake glass. In fact, I appreciate the smiles much more than ever before. Apparently it took the ongoing tragedy of Covid along with an unusual intervention with a young chef — to gain this new perspective.
The Soothsayers foreboding about the Ides of March played itself out in both the murder of Julius Caesar, and it’s reincarnated itself once again in 2020. The election will be over by the time this is read, and I’d be shocked if our restaurant ambitions won’t be kicked back to the curbside by then too. I recall hearing from somewhere that if there was one thing we humans have learned from history, it’s that we don’t learn from our history. So in an attempt to thwart that undeniable aspect of our species, this time we’re not going to allow ourselves to be backstabbed by Covid once again. Akiko recently shared an epiphany about launching a new barbecue concept called Boxcar Barbecue. I for one am a believer in visions.
Note: This article was first published in The Chicago Food Cultura Clarion in conjunction with the University of Chicago on 11/26/20