If Your Dream is Killing You, It’s Actually a Nightmare (a prayer for the future of restaurants, and people in general)

At the height of the quarantine, I could hop in my car and slip down the Kennedy and into the Loop like a fried egg sliding across a brand-new Teflon pan. The trip from Logan Square took a scant five minutes.

This may not seem extraordinary, but if you live in Chicago, you know that on a regular day, at best, that journey takes at least 15 minutes. I shudder at how many times I’ve somehow been locked in traffic at the Loop interchange after midnight.

If you live in the city, the torment of traffic has always been part of the deal. So too, has a persistent haze that sometimes gets so thick, it decapitates the head of the Sears Tower, all the way down to its broad shoulders. This is the blood money we exchange for communion, culture, and cuisine.

And yet, for the last three months, every time I returned to the city, I could see the entirety of the Sears, sparkling, backdropped by azure, also sometimes catching glimpses of just the tippy tops of antennas from twenty miles away. As I got closer, rounding the ribbons of highway that wrap up the confines of downtown like some a gift, the sky was so blue and clear, that it looked as if the skyscrapers were doing the backstroke in Lake Michigan.

No pollution. No traffic. Up above us, only sky.

But, this ain’t a John Lennon song.  While the earth exhaled, black people told us “I can’t breathe.”

But, even in that, because for the first times in our lives in a very long time due to imposed stillness, we were unoccupied, searching. Even those of us whose heads had been getting high off privilege finally had time to listen. Whether we consume what we have heard, deposit it in our hearts, and make the world a place for all, remains to be seen.

What this disease has shown us, is a way to a better place. But, I wonder will we run from that lesson, like we always have? In the last decade almost 400 kids died in school shootings. Slaves were emancipated in 1865. And yet, in Michigan the COVID-hoaxers brandished AR15s and Confederate flags on the capitol steps. Despite the mythology promulgated at Appomattox, the Civil War rages on.

Last Friday afternoon, after a daily walk with my nine-year-old son, a new habit, and one of the blessings of having more quarantine-enforced time, I decided we needed to inaugurate the phased opening up of Chicago with a Taylor Street Twosome, aka score an Italian Beef from the original Al’s followed by a cup of Mario’s Italian Lemonade across the street in Little Italy.

We drove down the freeway, but this time there was friction. Traffic moved like blood through a pork fat-larded aorta on the brink of a widowmaker. It took over an hour to get to Taylor street. The line at Mario’s looked like the bathroom queue at Lollapalooza. Al’s beef was no different. A month ago, and I would have had the time, but my son had a doctor’s appointment. I reasoned that if we waited in these lines, we wouldn’t make it, and so off we went, no lemonade, no giardinara, only obligation.

It’s a minor setback. But, it’s also a metaphor for what I’ve been worrying about for humanity, and because this a food newsletter, the restaurant industry. 

Like our highways, the environment, and race relations, for most, the restaurant industry prior to our pandemic pause was a fuckjumble. As with anything, there are outliers. Some restaurants were successful, profitable, and rewarding consumers and employees. But, on balance, the system was broken. COVID-19 exposed this fact barer than anything you’d see in an evening at the Admiral Theatre.

Those who once watched or read Popeye cartoons may remember the character Wellington Wimpy who’s tagline was “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Many things in the industry were never paid for on time. If they were, they were paid for in the wages of human suffering, double work weeks (70-80 hours, or more), no weekends, no holidays, no healthcare, through the impoverishment of responsible farmers, the indulgent destruction of our ecosystem by big agriculture, and the drug habits, alcoholism,  and mental illness of its employees. If there was a Venn diagram of the systematic racism, devaluation of women and mistreatment of immigrants that exists in our greater society and similar issues in the restaurant industry, you’d hardly be able to tell where the overlap actually was because they might almost be the exact same circle.

The restaurant industry isn’t the only industry where these things occur. That Zoom has relieved the burden of having to fly around the United States weekly as I did prior to the pandemic to meet with clients indiscriminately when sometimes a call would suffice has made me reevaluate how to be more effective in the business that I’m in. But I can control my actions, I think…maybe.

What I can’t make happen alone is give a regular work week and reasonable family time to chefs who have young children. 

I can’t give healthcare or social security to undocumented immigrants soaked in the labor of their dish pits. 

I can’t provide paid parental leave to chefs when their next child is born. 

I hope, but can’t guarantee that black chefs will be valued with true equity by the media and consumers.

I can’t tell a friend of mine, a local chef who once had a sous chef tell her in a walk-in cooler that he liked her pigtails, because they’d “provide a nice handlebar for a ride” that won’t happen again.

I can’t tell the small independent restaurants serving non-European cuisines that their food won’t at some point be marginalized by some writer as “ethnic” – a mistake I certainly made as a writer early in my career.  

I can’t tell a proprietor of a Middle Eastern or Mexican restaurant that some Karen whose monthly Range Rover payment costs more than most people’s rent won’t complain about the cost of their hummus, or taco, because they regard the standard as Sabra and Taco Bell.

I don’t know how many people who live north of Madison street will go to Haire’s shrimp in Auburn Gresham or Old Fashioned Donut in Roseland for the best fried shrimp and apple fritters in all of Chicago.  They should.

I hope that influencers and “journalists” won’t go back to asking businesses burdened with low margins, that are barely scraping by, to give them free food in return for coverage. I saw abuses of this during the pandemic quarantine, my peers still asking for and taking handouts and special favors from restaurants like they were airlines and bankers asking for a government bailout.

Some of the folks who do this say, but I can’t afford it, or my publication won’t pay. If that’s the case, the market doesn’t support what you do either. You don’t have a career. You have a barely subsidized and crumbling gig. You need to demand change of the media world like restaurant workers need to demand change of themselves and their owners so that all systems uplift instead of preying on one another like some messed up version of the Donner Party. Don’t take from the mouths that can barely afford it or award stories to the few restaurant groups who can coerce you with their largesse.

What I can do, and what you can do is stop normalizing and demanding sub $20 entrees from chefs who buy locally from the very best farmers and pay their employees a living wage.

Stop insisting that some cuisines should hit a “cheap” price mark.

As a diner, stop bitching about paying for artisanal bread and quit demanding free chips and salsa.

Stop quibbling about employee healthcare fund line items.

Regard the hole in your soul that you’ve felt the last three months because you could not gather with friends at your favorite restaurant and assign that the value it deserves. This is what you are paying for.

If you’re in the industry, remember that front of house and back of house are constructs. There is one house, or as Abraham Lincoln said, a house divided against itself cannot stand. You will not get a tip if there is no food to deliver. There will be no good food to deliver if the chefs are always considered second class and not rewarded for their part on the team. 

If you’re an owner, do not subsidize your business on the suffering of your employees. You owe it to your “family” to properly capitalize your business so you can reward the whole house. You must differentiate and create value so that you don’t have to hide behind loss leaders and accepted high upcharge items like liquor and dessert. If possible, properly fold the costs of your business in to the price of goods instead of charging multiple extra line items that do exhaust consumers.

One personal action that I have decided to take toward supporting the industry is to no longer negatively review restaurants. I have long believed that as a critic you should call it like you see it, because if people are to trust you, then they need to see what you are against. If there is no history or reference for a spectrum of decisions, how do people know you are not a shill or that you are actually providing a service? I have always felt my loyalty was to readers and their pocketbooks first, but, also I have responsibility to be fair to restaurants as well. I have always reasoned that negative feedback, while sometimes more entertaining or tongue-in-cheek than the restaurant may like, was good as long as it was actionable. It would help the business and consumers. I still believe this. 

However, I have a very long track record of calling it like I see it. Restauranteurs and readers know by now that a good review from me is not a pay for play scheme or an overtly cheery platitude based on a personal relationship or mind-altering drugs. I have a whole body of work they can reference that establishes my bonafides. Going forward, I will only highlight what I truly love. I will still be constructive in my criticism in positive reviews, but if a place on balance is awful, it will not be written about. If you follow me and you want a private opinion, I will still give it. If you see me in your dining room and you didn’t get a review, feel free to ask me what the means and I will tell you privately, but you can make the assumption that it probably didn’t go well.

I hope however that you won’t see me, because I will still plan on keeping a low profile, because I still believe that’s the best way to do the job. I have however, with this newsletter, talked to a lot of chefs and restaurant owners directly in a way I haven’t in years. I have also donated money to various employee assistance funds. As such there is a potential conflict of interest that could be highlighted with any of my reviews, and so I will also announce those things on any place I write about where it should be disclosed. I will also continue to pay my way, and minimize the free stuff taken because that’s what my readers and restaurants deserve.

I mentioned the Mario’s Italian Lemonade disappointment in the beginning of this piece because on day one of going back to this new world, having seen the better world available to me during quarantine, I already failed to do the easiest thing that makes me happy and fell in to old habits and stresses.

I think few acts, drunkenly scarfing down a Maxwell Street Polish at 2 in the morning at Jim’s is also in contention, make me feel more like a Chicagoan than polishing off a pomegranate Italian lemonade at Mario’s. Each sip feels like an icy communion with all our hallowed souls, alive and dead, Algren, DuSable, Palmer, Sullivan, Addams, Wright, Ebert, Phair, Burnham, Fitzpatrick (take your pick) and, of course, without whom none of this would be possible, Mario DiPaolo, namesake of the beloved stand.

Sitting on a random stoop on Taylor Street, alongside my family (silent in their own ice slurps), amidst UIC students, folks from all over Chicago, and old neighborhood dudes in porkpie hats in folding lawn chairs, is as close to heaven as I may get. It is the pause that refreshes, and yet, I have to hold on to that memory for so long, because it only comes once or twice a year. You could argue that if it came more often, it wouldn’t be as special.

But what I’m advocating for is not a life lived exactly in these specific circumstances, or even a life of unbridled pleasure. I’m arguing that we have been given a glimpse in to what it would like to live a less harried, more deliberate life in pursuit of being better humans and toward more moments of happiness than the pre-pandemic world afforded us. I am hoping for you, and for the restaurant industry, as we return to the world, that we don’t return to the onerousness, the petty and performative, as usual, but instead to a lifetime of deliberation and respect, and to a lifetime of “lemonade” moments.