Moving Forward

    Moving Forward

    I was going to unpublish my last post, as I can see it needs editing, badly, and is not relevant in the way I would like it to be. But I’m trying to do this thing where I move only forward, not backward. Whether that’s me forgetting my cell phone at the house and making […]

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    On Morsel

    On Morsel

    I wrote this musing about what I do, or rather, what the company I work for is doing, some time ago but didn’t yet feel comfortable about where to put it or how I felt about it. After this week’s paltry excuse for an article in the Eater on the subject however (and my amazing […]

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    Knocking Down Knockbox

    Knocking Down Knockbox

    It’s the last day of Knockbox, the cozy couple-owned cafe on the corner of my block. I’m not going to lie, I more often end up at the hipster joint down Chicago, where the coffee is better, the baristas my friends and the patio sunny; but of that I am ashamed. The feel inside Knockbox […]

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    On Sucking

    On Sucking

    I kinda suck at my job. And by that I mean, I kinda suck and I kinda don’t suck and I just can’t be sure how much I suck and how much I don’t. What I can confirm is that I’ve been accused of sucking directly, in an alley, at 1AM, and that they’re kinda […]

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    Crowdsourcing Sanity on OkCupid

    Crowdsourcing Sanity on OkCupid

    I suck at break ups. I mean we all suck at break ups, but I reaaaaaaally suck at break ups. This is especially ludicrous considering that not only have I never been in love (high school love discounting: brains are different then), but of all my many break-ups I’ve only been the dumpee twice. So why do […]

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    Catch-22

    Catch-22

    #1  Every winter there comes a time when I feel, I am, grey. The dreary days lap over me like waves, seeping into my skin, drowning me slowly in winter’s bleak unending expanse. Today is one of those days. Swimming inside my oversized sweats, also grey, I listen to my recording from a season past, […]

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    Adventurousleigh

    Moving Forward

    I was going to unpublish my last post, as I can see it needs editing, badly, and is not relevant in the way I would like it to be. But I’m trying to do this thing where I move only forward, not backward. Whether that’s me forgetting my cell phone at the house and making do without or letting mistakes I’ve made fade into the background without obsessing over their impact on my life. I have no way to fix the past and I’m a dweller…

    Today begins a week of heavy morseling. I track down farmers, chefs, mixologists etc. and pry stories about the ingredients they use from their begrudging mouths. The funny thing is that, yes, they do want to do it, but somehow the process of actually telling the story, to a semi-stranger no less, makes them prudish. It’s like it’s our first time, every time, and I’m some dude trying to get in some girl’s pants.

    Is it a privacy thing? Did they sign up for this by going to culinary school, starting a farm, making connections? Whose responsibility is it to grow their numbers in diners, buyers etc.?

    So far, this has been the most astounding thing as it is the worst part about my job. Is this because everyone wants a little morsel of a chef and we all fade into a buzz of little mosquitos wanting to grab and run. Sometimes that’s what I feel like, and yet, the more willing they are to be a part, the more depth and meaning I can get from them. Is this not what they are there for? It’s so hard to tell sometimes.

     

     

    On Morsel

    ellen

    I wrote this musing about what I do, or rather, what the company I work for is doing, some time ago but didn’t yet feel comfortable about where to put it or how I felt about it. After this week’s paltry excuse for an article in the Eater on the subject however (and my amazing co-worker’s reaction to said piece) I can’t help but at least start with something, as I’m sure I at least gave it more thought than that person did.

    The Taste of  a Story

    Before dinner service a chef sits down at the table with his staff, over a meal, and begins his story.  The cooks, the servers, the bussers, the host and the dishwashers all listen as a dish gets passed around. The chef talks about their inspiration, maybe a recent trip they took to Portugal, the Philippines or Kentucky, or maybe a dish their grandmother used to make every year for their birthday or maybe about the effort they are making to perfect the ideal version of a familiar food. Filled with this story, the staff shares and tastes the dish. As they chew they think about what the chef has said, what he is trying to achieve with the combination of flavors he’s put before them, and then they make their assessment. This is commensality, the act of sharing a meal together, of exchanging sensory memories and emotions and of substances, bringing to life memory and feeling (Seremetakis, 2008). Armed with this narrative and taste they prepare for a night of past-paced night of service on the dining room floor.

    How many diners will get to hear this explanation and share this experience?

    As tables turn and lines form out the door, the server has no time to transmit the chef’s story to the guest and certainly not the story behind each dish they order, or of the hand-crafted wood floors or antique clock they discovered in the restaurant’s basement.  But what if you could?

    As humans, with our large brains and penchant for language, we innately know that stories are important. Narratives not only help us to string together the events of our own lives, defining our person, but they also work to create shared understandings among us, forging bonds and representing cohesion across the social world. Stories give us a way to relate to others and to paint a picture of a reality that might otherwise be difficult to explain. All human societies have histories of folklore; the first histories were oral and many cultures still have strong oral cultures today. Award-winning journalists are usually those whose reporting is the most personal. People yearn for stories because they express connection and enhance our reality.

    Then there’s food, eating, dining. Food culture in the United States has changed drastically over the last decade. In regard to restaurants, diners have become more savvy, more open-minded and more curious than ever before. We often go into restaurants with pre-conceived ideas about the food based on a repertoire of experiences we’ve had before. These affect our expectations and alter how we experience our meal. What if we were able to, rather than knowing what Sally has to say about it on Yelp or John B. on Bon Appetite, sit down with the chefs themselves before dining in their restaurant? You may not be able to sit down and eat the day’s speciality along with the chef, like his staff, but can that human experience of commensality be transmitted through a story?

    We know that our lives are filled with stories that connect us, we know too that food, and the sharing of food connects us. Bringing those stories, from the mind and the lips of a chef, to the diner help forge an understanding that connects us to the chef, to the food and to others who have shared that story and that meal. And, since our sense of taste is as cultural as it is a biological function, we get to experience that connection through each bite. This is what you call synesthesia, or a union of the senses; this is the power of story.  It is building these social links between diners and the chefs, by understanding who they are and why they do what they do, that we can enhance and strengthen our community through food.

    Recently, Kristen Hawley, writer on food and technology, had this to say as part of her article, “Technology and the Future of Dining Out”:

    The best ideas combine elements of all of the above concepts into well-designed, interesting, and useful packages. They use technology to heighten our awareness and break down barriers. They apply technology to all of the elements of dining out to enhance — or even improve — the experience.

    New ideas and products should enhance the human experience of eating while respecting and honoring the strong social tradition of dining out. Restaurants work hard to create a memorable and enjoyable experience for customers; associated technology should be an extension of this important work.

    Chefs, whether naturally gregarious or on the shy side, are passionate about their food, including the entire restaurant experience that surrounds it. This is why they take the time to sit down with their restaurant family to tell the story behind each item on their menu. What would a window into that world look like? How would it change your experience of dining at that restaurant? With all that understanding, what else could you taste in the food, see in the atmosphere or feel from the story’s memory?

    This is what Ellen is building – a place to honor both the guest and the chef, something she has done for her entire life and knows more about than possibly anyone else. And now, she’s using the best tools of our day to forge that memorable connection. This is what media can be.

    Knocking Down Knockbox

    It’s the last day of Knockbox, the cozy couple-owned cafe on the corner of my block. I’m not going to lie, I more often end up at the hipster joint down Chicago, where the coffee is better, the baristas my friends and the patio sunny; but of that I am ashamed. The feel inside Knockbox is undoubtedly more comfortable, less loud with better music for morning dithering, though it suffers from serving the Metropolis monopoly crappy coffee. Knockbox has the kind of neighborhood feel that you rarely get. It’s a lot of white people who like coffee yeah, but I’d say even the white people have diversity here…not like the peggable hipsters, baby mamas and papas and grad school junkies like myself – all of us in proper attire for the image (white-zippered hoodies cross-contaminating the lot). Here you still have people wearing jeans with hammer pockets, or button down plaids from Kohl’s. Beards are rare and mustaches rarer still. There’s loafers and all stars, bike shoes and rubber boots, brand new flat bill baseball caps, sticker on, along with their predecessor, the narrowly curved 90s fitted and well-worn cap.

    The assortment of seating gives a little something for everyone-cushions in front of the elegantly draped floor-to-ceiling windows, a not-too-comfortable leather couch, and two large armchairs for the loungers. There are tables near outlets with space for seating four and a bar for millers and chatters and waiters and solo standing.  The color scheme is a welcoming aquamarine and fava bean green.Why didn’t I come here? Why I am listening to the laughter and chatter and clinking of dishes for the first time today? 

    Jonah Shalak, owner of Knockbox, leased the large space on the corner of California and Augusta over 4 years ago. He was one of those guys that envisioned, with its proximity to downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods already becoming affluent, a community coffee shop taking off. He struggled to get it running over the next few years but came into stride, turning a profit, over the last two. He and his wife had a plan to make this their living into the foreseeable future. Recently he was told by his landlord that the lease would not be renewed as restaurant mogul, Brendan Sodikoff had signed on to lease all four corners of the urban block. Along with Knockbox, Brendan is displacing a small art space called “The Peanut Gallery” and an auto-body shop, while the classic and dingy California Clipper is being given a makeover (and a cocktail upgrade I’m sure). So what was 4 independent businesses now becomes housed beneath the grand Hogsalt Empire. And what of it? Here’s a Chicago Trib description of Brendan:

    The 35-year-old restaurateur is behind the acclaimed Maude’s Liquor Bar (French bar concept), Au Cheval (diner concept), Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf (steakhouse concept), Doughnut Vault (doughnut window concept) and Dillman’s (deli concept), plus the soon-to-open Green Street Smoked Meats (Texas barbecue) and High Five Ramen (Japanese noodles). In the coming year, if his plans hold, Chicagoans can expect pizza by the slice, an Italian steak bar, Chinese Sichuan, a revamp of Humboldt Park lounge the California Clipper and the re-imagination of landmark Gold Coast restaurant Maxim’s. A half-dozen more projects are in the works.

    You might call this Brendan concept whore. You might even say he’s gotten tired of whoring himself around downtown and needs to spread his seed around Humboldt Park as well.  Brendan’s (or his PR person’s) words were more eloquent, using terms like “community, preserve, history, inclusive”. They strike the right chords and strategically avoid the ultimate bad word “gentrification”. This, of course, has not waylaid criticism. DNAinfo has comments and tiffs for days on the subject, I’m sure many of the same songs sung in Logan Square 10, 20 years ago…probably without the whore analogy. Am I being fair?

    Now I’m an outsider here, a grateful Humboldt Park inhabitant, but in no place to make statements nor come to conclusions. All I have is observations. For example, I have to note that my good friend got her start as bar manager in the restaurant industry straight from Sodicoff. After moving to the city and more-or-less green to the service industry, she was able to get bar experience, become a part of a restaurant family and dig herself out of debt. She was able to transfer to different restaurants in the collective and get her sister a job when she, too, moved to Chicago. She has since become a hot commodity due to her experience with high volume liquor sales and professionalism. She also quit that job to work for a small chef-owned and driven restaurant because she believed in it. She stayed with the small independent restaurant for over a year where she was advanced to bar manager within a very short time due to the old manager leaving. During that year she created a cocktail program, educated the staff, brought in reps for tastings, made relationships throughout the beverage industry and won a cocktail competition on behalf of the restaurant. She did all this, working more hours and getting paid less than 1/3 what she was making with the restaurant group. She was underpaid and underappreciated. So, after several failed attempts at negotiating either a livable wage or schedule that would allow her to get a second job, she decided to quit. The restaurant would not budge nor would it give her any assurance for the future. She now works for a larger company that has given her health care, a livable wage and promises upward mobility, a company in which Sodikoff also has his seemingly infinite little fingers.

    There is also my story, I have worked in and observed the Chicago restaurant industry for over a year now and it has been enlightening in ways than I would have never imagined. I’ve changed outlooks and opinions on chefs and the industry itself as often as I’ve changed my punctured bike tubes. I’ve met the atypical egomaniacal chef-owners as well as all-star moguls. I’ve heard stories upon stories about who behaves like what behind closed doors or at events. I know of those who’ve gotten too drunk at a party and hit on the wrong person, those who are caught servicing their drug problem in the walk-in and those who are just plain abusive to their staff and partners. These are usually the people on the top, those who have “made it”, are on the cusp of “making it” or have made it their personal mission to “make it” at whatever cost. Do I need to tell you how many of these people are white males? But, what I’ve been most surprised by is the number of chefs I’ve interviewed that are so very content, happy even, to not be the top of the totem pole.

    After spending 8 months dealing first hand with a chef-owned and operated restaurant I’ve spent the last 3 interviewing chefs across the city. These are the chefs who are either fleeing from their own prior operations or those have no desire to get mired in the unending details of running a successful business. For these people the moguls are the ultimate way to “make it”. These chefs look for security without so much responsibility that they need to throw pots at cooks heads or call their girlfriend an idiot in front of the entire staff. Some know exactly what they were looking for and found it, some ended up there and realize that it’s the place they want to stay and still more wait for the day that they too can be brought into the fold. Yes, there are still those who do want to strike out on their own, but not as many as you might think.

    The former group are ultimately beholden to the “benevolent dictator” chefs who own the restaurant group for which they work. Their finances and numbers come through the bigger business and their ability to get creative depends on the flexibility they’ve been given by the head honcho. In terms of job satisfaction I would say I’ve been astounded by how many found their harbor under the wings of the benevolent dictator. Meanwhile, these moguls are the curators of city culture. With the buying power that no individual could possibly possess (unless coming from wealth, which many a restaurateur do), they can afford a building in a high-traffic area or even, say, transforming an entire corner in a hot and up-and-coming neighborhood because he needs to add some more cards to his little Yu-Gi-Oh! deck and show it off to his friends.

    knockboxSo what am I saying? Everything and nothing. I’m saying that a few will lose their jobs on the California/Augusta corner and 2 will lose their entire future plans due to Sodikoff wanting to increase his little collection. These jobs will be replaced, probably ten fold, by new jobs – jobs that may offer more stability and opportunity than the independent guy could possibly offer. I’m also saying that there is no doubt that gentrification is making its way to Humboldt Park, and yes, we’re all a part of it. I’m saying that this will likely mean less diversity as long-time residents get priced out of their leases and flee further to outskirts of the city. I’m saying city policy does little to interweave gentrification with mixed housing and but rather just pushes the problems further from downtown.

    I’m wondering if maybe Sodikoff is nothing but a symptom of a larger disease that people don’t want to address?

    In the end, those young white people moving into Humboldt Park, like my friend and myself and all the (mostly) white male chefs I’ve interviewed these last months, will likely enjoy and appreciate their ability to eat, drink and work locally at these places that have the ability to pay well, run efficiently and absorb losses for some time without affecting each employee. Maybe some long-time locals will get a dishwashing or prep job, and yes, they’ll probably be brown. And on and on it will go, repeating itself just the way it has, because just like Sodikoff says, “People want exactly what they know. What people want is to have something they’ve had in every other restaurant, or at their house, they’ve had that thing probably 100 times…” because you know what’s uncomfortable? Change.