I knew I had to bake a cake. Not just a cake, but a fancy cake, the kind that takes all afternoon. A dark chocolate cake, perhaps, with a chocolate pudding filling and rich chocolate buttercream that I’d frost with flourishes. Maybe I’d get out a pastry bag and fluted tip to make the cake worthy of a momentous occasion.
I’d driven through the deserted backstreets of Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood on an unexpectedly sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-March, returning home from a thrown-together meeting where a group of 75 chefs and restaurant owners wrestled with strategies for saving our starving businesses in the face of the looming coronavirus onslaught.
For most of us, business had dwindled to a small fraction of what it takes to keep us afloat, so news of this meeting shot through the restaurant community like a wildfire. Still, no one imagined that such a large group of independent restaurant owners would walk into a spot on Western Avenue at noon. The taut bodies, the cracking voices, the fire in some eyes, the distant gazes in others — they gave away the fear that coursed through our bodies. None of us could pay our bills from the few guests we were serving. Our servers weren’t making enough to pay their rent. We’d cut the cook’s hours to the bare minimum, but we were still spending more on payroll than revenue could cover. On top of that, the first two months hadn’t even offered the small amount of sales we had anticipated. My wife and I had already stopped taking a paycheck. That was before coronavirus had come on to our radar screen.
Back home, I sat on the couch next to my wife, her iPad propped on my lap, watching our governor tell us to stay home. There was an invisible coming onslaught, he said, and we had to close down the city. No one could collect in restaurants or bars anymore — those are the only words I picked out from the thousands that spilled from him that afternoon. He left the door cracked just enough for the light of potential carry out and delivery business to shine through, to offer some glimmer of hope for us. But of our four Clark Street restaurants, only the sandwich shop, Xoco — the one that generates among the least revenue in our small group — had ever done carry out. Doing food for take-out isn’t natural to me, so I recognized just how ill-equipped I was for the task at hand. I’d never even ordered a delivery pizza.
As the governor signed off, I knew one thing for sure: I had to get into the kitchen and start baking that cake.
But before I got up, Deann and I made a plan. We didn’t vet it with anyone — our top staff, our controller, our financial advisors, our attorney. We just did what we felt was the right thing for people who’ve given us so much for so long. The common restaurant worker stereotypes that get regularly volleyed about don’t begin to describe the folks I work with every day. Most of our staff have worked with us for years — some for 30 or more — and they are highly skilled, dedicated family people, a great many of whom have cobbled together enough money to buy homes and send kids to college. But almost none of them have savings to weather the storm I saw brewing.
So Deann and I decided to keep Xoco open for take-out and continue to pay all 160 of our staff, though at a reduced rate. After all, the governor said we were only going to be closed for two weeks.
By the end of our first day back at work after what has become known as The Great Shutdown, I’d already learned three lessons. As a mantra for years, I’ve reminded our staff that Frontera Grill and its siblings are as much about welcoming hospitality as they are about good food. Though I’ve consistently made that claim, I’d never had the opportunity to put those words to a test. Until we had no guests. Until we had only unrecognizable, masked forms approaching Xoco’s door to wordlessly claim stapled-up take out packages from a shelving unit.
Over three decades ago, when I was designing Frontera, the one thing I had to have was an open kitchen so that I could see our guests, wave to them, watch them enjoying the dishes we’d created for them. Without guests as part of the equation, I was suddenly rudderless. It felt like half of my motivation had vanished.
As most of us, I’m a creature of habit. I find a settling comfort in tackling the same sorts of activities in a predictable order and at an established time each day. But a national disaster was unfolding and pulling my well-worn patterns out from under me. All my meetings were cancelled, all my projects were put on hold. I didn’t know what to do or if there was something to do or when might be the best time to start. In the late afternoon, I found myself sitting perfectly still in our restaurant’s little library, staring straight ahead as the minutes ticked by. To most anyone, it would have looked like I was meditating. For me, it felt more like paralysis.
Besides cementing my conviction that hospitality is as important as good food for me and that following a schedule is essential to my productivity, I learned first-hand how soul-sapping the static noise of fear can be. It played in all our heads at a deafening volume. Where was the virus? Did you have it? Did she? Was it on my Amazon package or grocery bag or the apples I’d gotten at the corner store? Everyone was sure it was in the taxis and Ubers, on the bus seats. The masked-and-gloved crew we’d scheduled to handle the little business we garnered walked circuitously through our space, avoiding each other. They kept their heads bowed, as though looking up would invite the virus toward them. The roiling fear we all felt surfaced as jerky moves. For some it poured out as tears. Though they wanted to support the restaurant or were desperate for a paycheck, some of the staff came once but couldn’t return for months.
For decades, I had eaten ten meals a week in our restaurant, cooked a weekend brunch and dinner at home and enjoyed other restaurants for the last couple of meals. As this first week began to unfold, counting on a Xoco lunch five days a week was a relief. For all the rest of our meals, I’d have to figure out something else. I love to cook, but seven nights a week was something I hadn’t done since Deann and I got married.
As I’d heard echoed through all sorts of media, I was immediately drawn to dishes from my and my wife’s childhoods. Chicken and biscuits like my grandmother made. An aromatic pot of chili that I knew would be better than the one my mother seasoned with Gebhardts chili powder. Stir-fry that Deann had learned when she lived in Taiwan, with additions made by our friend who was raised in Thailand. By midweek, Deann had started using our new-found evenings at home to explore recipes for classic cocktails and I found myself thinking about something to go with them, rummaging in the refrigerator for something to fashion into a nibble, an amuse as we call these little bites in the restaurant.
But by the end of the first week, the desire rose again to make a cake, this time as the show-stopper finale for a big meal. Deann and I are very lucky: We live next door to our daughter and son-in-law, a tall cedar fence forming the perimeter around both houses, the yard, deck and garden. We all have jobs at the restaurants, creating a work-home bubble of sorts, even before the pandemic. I’d shared the first cake with them. Now they were invited for drinks and nibbles, a couple of savory courses and, of course, cake for dessert. This time it would be white and dark chocolate cakes sandwiched with ganache, frosted with white chocolate buttercream and decorated with chocolate curls.
I’d learned to dash in and out of the small Whole Foods near our restaurant in record time, pulling things from the half-empty shelves, mostly getting what I needed for our weekday comfort and weekend celebration. I never stopped to ask what we were celebrating or why, but shopped with the same fervor I did for Thanksgiving or the big dinner we cooked before Lanie’s wedding. And like those special events, I spent one whole weekend day in the kitchen. That’s where I found my groove, where time stood still for me as I worked through making the kind of complex dishes and pastries I once taught to students keen on mastering the craft.
I woke to start week two with a deep ache from the loss of hospitality in my life. I’m sure everyone drawn to the hospitality world had the same feeling. We thrive when making people happy, enriching their lives, creating special memories for them. Whether you work in a hotel, or host people in restaurants or for catered events, whether you lead tours or make drinks for people at a bar — creating something beautiful for people is our fuel. I could have easily said that you likely share my sentiment “if you work in a service sector job,” but that sullies the work in a great many people’s mind. To work in service casts you as subservient, which couldn’t be further from the truth. For those of us with hospitality in our bones, bringing joy to people leads our job description.
Everybody was stuck at home, I thought, as anxious and untethered as I felt, but I knew there were ways to harness simple technology to welcome them into my kitchen for a few minutes. I could do a live broadcast through Facebook or Instagram, cooking something for them, satisfying two needs at once. Reaching out through the frightful dread of imposed isolation, I could offer a friendly voice that wasn’t fear-mongering about the insidious pandemic, but one that steadily narrated the transformation of basic ingredients into something that awakened those senses that had suddenly, perhaps, gone dormant. Plus, I could use the live format to encourage people to connect with making simple food from scratch, an act that resonates for most humans at an elemental, heartening level.
I started going live five days a week, doing the most vulnerable kind of cooking imaginable. I stopped by the store on my way to work, planned a dish from whatever I found there, and cooked it live completely from scratch: no advanced prep, no pre-made “swap out” finished dish to ensure I looked good. Whatever I was able to put together in about half an hour was what the camera zoomed in on at the end. We all know that things don’t always come together in the kitchen as we imagine or hope, but I quickly fell into a patter that narrated why I chose the ingredients I did (and if I wished others would have been available), what I was doing to them and why, and whether the dish came out as I’d hoped or not. Something about it clicked with folks that tuned in each day. It was exhilarating and honest. I hadn’t taken such risk in a professional situation for forty years, since my very first shows on Public Television during an era when everything was cooked live as it was recorded — no edits. Even then, I regularly had “swap” dishes for the final presentation.
From the coronavirus perspective, things were getting worse in Chicago, not better. The governor announced to us that two weeks was going to stretch to eight. I panicked — not because of all the lost revenue, but because of all the staff that was suddenly without money in their pockets, without the necessary resources to pay rent or feed their families. We’d guaranteed them a basic salary for two weeks, but we couldn’t continue on. As we reviewed all the nonnegotiable expenditures we’d fully committed to — all that it costs us to occupy our building and keep it running — we realized that we were bleeding money fast. The little that was coming in wouldn’t begin to cover rent, much less salaries and food and beverage costs. Deann and I decided that all of the management staff in the kitchen and dining rooms would stay on at a reduced salary, though with the understanding that they would mostly be working the jobs of cooks, dishwashers and service staff. The cooks, maintenance crew and service staff would have to be furloughed, even though I knew that some of them wouldn’t qualify for unemployment insurance. And for the ones that could qualify, I was worried how long it would take them to receive a check.
Right away I recognized that we needed a social services team to help our furloughed employees find assistance with food and all the rest of their financial obligations. Through a chef friend, we were put in contact with US Foods who was looking for a restaurant that could help them distribute to furloughed restaurant workers all the unordered perishable food in their coolers. As often happens after natural disasters, our staff all volunteered to come in on their days off and pack everything that had been delivered into smaller boxes. The US Foods team motivated restaurants to come pick up the boxes to distribute to their out-of-work staffs. In a series of swift events — one leading seamlessly, unexpectedly to the next — we found money from a local donor to set up this food-distribution project to take place twice a week for the next several months. We’d buy basic groceries from US Foods and hire back some of our furloughed staff to divide, box and distribute it. We started with 400 boxes twice a week, each containing 35 pounds of fresh food. Within a week, we increased quickly to 600 boxes as we saw the magnitude of the need. We maxed out at 600, but the need was growing exponentially. The worry — and relief — on the faces of those who came to pick up was heartrending, but we were doing the best we could.
On Sunday, I dug out pastry books from thirty and forty years ago, old friends that had taught me so much. I looked up recipes I’d written even before that time when I was teaching pastry making. Everything that caught my eye was complex, the kinds of preparations you have to make over and over again to get right. The Sunday morning yoga class I’ve gone to for decades had gone virtual, but as soon as it was over I was in the kitchen making two-tone cakes, buttercreams in unusual flavors and fancy caramel and chocolate garnishes.
Back at work, I wrestled with how empty everything was. For years I passed a row of huge dilapidated mansions near my house, vestiges of the neighborhood’s former wealth and style. I wondered about the people who lived in the unkempt apartments they’d carved from the stately structures, wondered how they felt about living among all the elegant details, about living in places that I was sure once held society events and lavish get-togethers. Perhaps they didn’t even notice. Certainly, they had no need of them. I imagined those places looked like those once-grand Havana mansions I’d seen pictures of, replete with crystal chandeliers, now filled simply with the furnishings of poverty.
Though the spaces of our restaurants weren’t abandoned, the function of the dining rooms and private event spaces surely was. We began to treat them like utilitarian storage rooms. Tables and chairs were shoved out of the way with little regard for all the guests who’d sat in those chairs celebrating life’s milestones, who had eaten memorable meals at those tables. Their potential function — past or future — seemed to mean nearly nothing now.
That’s where the grief really started for me. I witnessed how quickly the past can evaporate. I couldn’t shake the fear that I was witnessing the death of our restaurants. For hours I wrestled with wanting to fight for the survival of all I’d built and being willing to let it go. Thirty-three years is, after all, a good run, I rationalized. But giving in felt like giving up.
Within weeks of struggling to develop a new routine of live cooking classes, food relief boxes and feeble-feeling positive leadership of a tiny skittish staff, we experienced real death. Our produce guy of two decades, Francisco, was rushed to the hospital in early April and within a week was gone. Gone away from the company he’d grown from nothing (we were his first customer), away from his wife and little kids, away from our reliance on him to procure what makes our restaurant unique — the beautiful avocado leaves, the yellow pineapples from Veracruz, the tlayudas and chile mixe brought from a village outside Oaxaca City. This salt-of-the-earth guy was relentless at finding the ingredients that made me fall in love with Mexico, and then finding a way to get them to Chicago.
There was a wake, but we were afraid to go, so it felt as though Francisco had simply vanished. His delivery guy was told to leave everything outside our back door. We sprayed it with disinfectant and prayed that would disarm the unseen enemy. It was almost impossible for people to get tested unless they had symptoms.
I dusted off books from a shelf of smudged pastry volumes from the ’80s and early ’90s and decided to tackle a chocolate mousse cake with a ruffled chocolate top. Though there was no one to brag to, I replayed for myself the story of how I’d learned to make the ruffle top at a class with one of France’s most famous pastry chefs, Gaston LeNotre, back in the ’70s when he was traveling through the United States on a book tour. The rest of the cake came from Cocolat, written by Alice Medrich who’d opened her game-changing Berkeley pastry-and-truffle shop a decade before we opened Frontera Grill. It was a book I hadn’t opened in years, but, leafing through its pages, I felt Alice’s sudden lively embrace. Her recipes were meticulous. Her enthusiasm for creating unexpected beauty was infectious.
The restaurants were running at less than 20% of our normal revenue, so we were bleeding thousands of dollars — often tens of thousands — every week. Like many in our shoes, the only hope we had against quick bankruptcy came in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program. We quickly guessed our way through the application process and were among the first to be awarded this “forgivable” loan. That is, it would be forgiven if we rehired 100 percent of our staff, spent 75 percent of what the program provided on payroll and used the rest for occupation costs. We’d paid our staff for the first two weeks of closure, then laid 80 percent of them off (but helped them maneuver through applying for unemployment or finding additional aid), and was now asking them to give up their assistance so that they could come back on our payroll for eight weeks. Truth was, we didn’t have work for most of them and many were making a little more on unemployment than we could offer. But in good faith, they all came back. We were grateful to be able to cover our rent — which we simply would have had to default on — and the little payroll we were actually using, but when those eight weeks ran out, we had to lay off all but the few who were working. In one of the most painful moments of the pandemic, we had to lay off some of our top, long-term coworkers, too. There wasn’t money to cover their salaries.
My nephew called to tell me that the nurses were noting a decline in my sister’s condition. LuAnn had fought cancer for eight years — first detected as stage 4 breast cancer, then surfacing as a fast-growing brain cancer. She’d defiantly gone through surgery after surgery, first determined to see her two kids graduate from high school and then from college. She made it to the youngest’s graduation from University of Arkansas in May of 2019, then began to be less alert and nearly immobile. We had gotten to see her around Thanksgiving, after she’d experienced a stroke and was recuperating in an extended care facility. She recognized us, but the light in her eyes was dimming.
COVID was raging and the thought of going on an airplane was paralyzing. Still, I found the one flight that could take me there the next day. Everyone at work told me it was a foolish risk to go. Most of them begged me to FaceTime her instead. All my wrestling with pillows and blankets through the night, trying to decide what was right, was for nothing. They called in the morning to say she had passed. There would be no funeral. For a woman who’d given her whole adult life to going to bat for learning disabled young adults? For the high school teacher that had literally saved the lives of so many students who didn’t fit into the system? For a wife and mother whose spirit had persevered beyond a deteriorating body, wracked with pain, to give every little bit she could.
Maybe, they said, they’d put together a memorial service sometime in the future.
In an attempt to give Frontera’s cooks some work, we’d tacked some signature Frontera dishes onto Xoco’s to-go menu. But hardly anyone ordered them. So we split them off onto their own page on a different ordering platform and launched just in time for Cinco de Mayo — a bank holiday in Mexico, but a huge day for Mexican restaurants in the United States. We created detailed instructions about how to reheat our offerings so that the at-home experience was as close as possible to dining at Frontera. I wrote a note “welcoming” everyone to Frontera and offering a QR code that would link your phone to one of our playlists. I look back on it as dumb luck, but our approach apparently struck a chord and Frontera to-go took off.
At home, Deann and I had settled tightly into a nightly ritual that carved out a half-hour or so to enjoy one of Deann’s carefully crafted classic cocktails, a bite to go with them and a poem or two. Without really thinking it through, I’d started bringing a book with me to the living room or backyard perch, first Rumi and a collection of romantic poets of the nineteenth century, then Pablo Neruda and Mary Oliver. Soon it became almost exclusively Mary Oliver. Our garden was coming alive and, though the coronavirus had turned my world upside down, the hellebores, crocuses and fragile wild tulips hadn’t noticed. For a few minutes every day, Mary Oliver focused us on the imperturbable wonder that surrounded us, if we stopped long enough to see it. Often, though, I saw it through tears. The grief — Francisco, LuAnn, the restaurants, the laid off staff, the folks who lined up for food relief boxes — flowed through me like waves of an incoming tide. Most every night I had to make room for them.
Every passing week found us creating a new face for the restaurants. Having very little experience with to-go, we were dreaming up new dishes and descriptions to see what would resonate. One of my chef friends, Erling Wu-Bauer, had started doing Saturday night cook-alongs by Zoom at his nearby restaurant , and he invited me to be part of one. His team packed up the ingredients, the participants picked them up and linked in at 6 pm. We made simple food, but created from the great ingredients chefs can lay their hands on and coached along by a lot of experience. People loved it.
We finished our hour with the participants, he opened a bottle of rosé and Deann and I headed up with him to his roof-top patio, a space that, like our outdoor dining spots, was going to be allowed to open the following week. I’ve watched Erling grow up — his mother has been a close friend for decades — and I could tell he was distraught. The financial pressures of the forced shut down had heated his relationship with his partners to the boiling point. I knew what he was feeling: our relationship with our partner at our West Loop spots was feeling singed beyond repair. Erling just wanted share a glass of wine, let off some steam and stare into the uncertain future with us.
That never happened. Before we could finish our wine, we saw explosions coming from the area near our Clark Street restaurants. We’d been warned that there might be unrest in Chicago in the wake of Minneapolis’s George Floyd protests, but we figured they would be across the river in Millennium Park, a mile away. Deann and I started getting feverish texts from our chefs and managers. There were people everywhere on Clark Street, they wrote, ransacking the newly installed patios, looting restaurants and banks.
We sprinted down to our car and flew the eight blocks back to the restaurants. As we got closer, traffic slowed to a crawl. Mayhem had erupted in front of us, cars were driving both ways on our one-way thoroughfare. Hundreds of people were in the street, flowing toward us, most of them mean-eyed and carrying tire irons, baseball bats and bottles of Courvoisier or Jack Daniels.
We found a small path through the crowd and into the alley behind the restaurant. Inside, the staff had closed up early, carried our patio furniture in, put the food away and were mopping the floors. Knowing full well that I couldn’t turn the fifteen people onto the street to make their way onto public transportation or into cars, we took no more than a minute to divide them into four groups. Two people had cars in a garage two and a half blocks to the south and two had theirs in the garage three blocks to the north.
I moved quickly out the back door to grab everything out of my back seat, making way for the first group I’d ferry to their garage. Just as I opened the hatch, I heard someone behind me lay into one of our trash cans with a baseball bat. I whipped around and our eyes met. As he started toward me, his buddy called from across the street. He was breaking through a plate glass window and wanted help.
The first group slid into the car without saying a word and we edged our way out of the alley slowly through the chaos that lay before us. We drove around chairs and tables that had been heaved into the street until we got to the parking garage. For a few seconds it seemed calm, so my coworkers sprinted toward the entrance and disappeared through the door.
The two and a half blocks back felt like a couple of miles. When I arrived at the parking garage with the second group, energy had escalated and I was worried they wouldn’t make it into the parking garage safely. My intuition led me to have them run as I saw an angry group round the corner, so they flung open the doors and dashed, making it into the parking garage just as the new group arrived at the CVS Pharmacy on the garage’s street level, bashing in the front windows and starting to loot.
Getting the third group to the other garage was uneventful. I was driving slightly away from the intensity. We passed a dozen policemen in riot gear blocking off entrance toward Michigan Avenue, but none of us understood why they were stationary with wanton looting just a block away.
To return to the restaurant, I had to turn down Clark Street, the major thoroughfare for the looters. That was the wrong choice, though I didn’t know it until I was stopped by a group of rioters who’d taken over the intersection a block north of our place. They’d stopped traffic and were setting off M80s in the street, throwing them at businesses. I was at the post office and a group had just bashed in the windshield of the postal truck net to me, climbed in and lit it on fire. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life.
I called Deann and put the phone on speaker. With as much calm as I could muster, I explained my situation and location and let her know that I was going to narrate for her everything that was happening. My strategy was to both keep myself calmly focused and to inform her if anything catastrophic happened.
There were wild-eyed young men coming toward me in waves, almost all of them with baseball bats or sledgehammers. I described them one by one to Deann, noting whether they were looking into my car or past it. I described the fire in the truck to my left and if I thought it was getting anywhere near the gas tank. I described the single guys on bikes that were videoing everything, perhaps in hopes of grabbing a clip they could sell.
I must have turned away for a second, because the knock on my driver’s side window sent unexpected shock waves through my body.
“You’re that chef on TV, right?” I froze, not having a clue what to answer. I was sitting there in a chef’s coat with my name embroidered on it. I had the doors locked, but a bat could easily go through any window. I was blocked in by vehicles on both sides and behind. In front was a crowd of a hundred or so, primed for a spark to ignite them for more destruction.
I shook my head “yes” to the guy whose face was plastered against my window.
“Hey, it’s that chef on TV,” he said, waving his buddies over. I swallowed hard, sure this wasn’t going to end well. For a brief second, all attention seemed to have shifted from the crowd’s mounting energy to me. Several people moved toward my car to get a look. One guy pulled out his phone and started taking pictures of me through the windshield. All I could think was that he was interested in before-and-after shots.
“You’re a good chef,” hollered the guy to my left, bending closer to make sure I heard. The guy with the camera came to the passenger side.
“Do you want to get through,” he asked, enunciating the words deliberately so I would understand. Again, I shook my head “yes” and picture guy wandered out into the crowd, motioning me on, parting the Red Sea of rioters so that I could get through without hurting anyone.
In about a half hour, Deann and I were sitting in our back yard, just a few miles from where massive destruction was unfolding, listening to the staccato thundering of TV helicopters. Deann made two strong drinks — our beloved boulevardiers, now known as the trauma cocktail. Waves of tears washed over me, triggered by a roiling mashup of emotions: relief for being safe, anger at the wanton destruction I saw, fear that our restaurant would be destroyed when we returned. Sure that the riots would be over by midnight, I told Deann I was going to go back down to assess the damage.
She let me sit with it all for a few minutes before she said, simply, “No. You could get caught in a bad situation again. There’s nothing you can do to stop what’s happening. We’ll go in the morning.”
Driving downtown the next morning with Lanie, Kevin and Deann reminded me of what we did every spring when I was growing up. Living in the buckle of the tornado belt, after a twister blew through, we’d go driving around pointing out what had been demolished or simply vanished.
“That was a bank branch, right? And wasn’t that a nail salon?” Lanie had the best memory for what was where in our restaurant neighborhood. All I could think about was the ache in the pit of my stomach as we zigzagged through the streets toward our place.
The restaurant had been graffitied, the heavy planters had been toppled and banged up, a neon sign was smashed and a plate glass window had been bashed in. No one had gotten in, though; there was a second, thick pane to smash just behind the first one, which may have been a deterrent.
We were spared by neighborhood standards. Our restaurants are located in restaurant-rich River North and well over half had been ransacked, their bars emptied out. Banks were demolished and the ATMs thrown in the street. Parto, the guy who cuts my hair, was standing outside his gutted salon, cycling through a huge range of human emotions, from bewilderment and sorrow to disgust and hate. Neighborhood residents were out with brooms and dust pans, helping the business owners clean up the mess.
Sundays and Mondays are days we’re normally closed, but our closure after the riots stretched deep into the week. No one wanted to come downtown and many of our coworkers couldn’t get there. The central business district was off limits — there were barricades, no public transportation — and all business were closed except those deemed essential, like grocery stores and hospitals. Night after night, Deann and I sat in the backyard listening to the helicopters, following along with where the riots and looting were heading.
I spent hours every day reading the perspectives of those who supported or attempted to explain the riots, reading why folks thought my fellow Chicagoans were willing to destroy their city. I needed to get passed the anger that was consuming me, that was sucking the lifeblood from my will to keep going. I was losing my determination to rebuild, to fight off the pandemic fear, to run a business that seemed only a shadow of what I’d created, to persevere through the isolation.
Though I immersed myself in a wide range of stories simply to try making sense of what seemed so senseless, I started noticing changes in how I saw the rioters. There was something much more deeply rooted here. I began to see how much repair we needed, repair that was rarely acknowledged. I thought about the guy who’d stopped to acknowledge me as riotous energy swirled around us, and about the guy who helped me get through the crowd. Though there is so much I don’t understand and can’t condone, I felt my hatred and disgust began to soften to sadness, even compassion. I’m not sure any amount of argument could have gotten me to this transformation, but heartfelt stories and acts of kindness did.
It took weeks to gain the confidence from outdoor patio diners. There were more riots, more destruction, more weary sadness. But every weekend there was a cake and a dinner. When the weekend arrived, I walked through the looking glass of my kitchen door and turned basic ingredients into something special.
As a craftsperson, the pandemic had been hard for me. I never realized how much I used my sense of touch and taste to understand the world. But we were told from the beginning that the virus was easily transmitted through touch — especially hand-to-mouth touch — so from the start I’d been moving through the world with hands in pockets, mask on face — no feeling, virtually no smelling. And I started to feel maddeningly detached.
But in my home kitchen, I touched everything. No, I found myself caressing everything — all the ingredients I pulled together and the equipment that helped me transform them. At first I enlisted the dishwasher for clean-up help. After the first week, I decided to wash everything by hand.
I was still bewildered by my ceaseless motivation to invest the better part of a day every week making one of these show-stopping cakes. I cycled through fudgy chocolate cake with peanut butter buttercream and ganache drips down the side, a six-layer Dobosh torte with all its caramely richness, a foot-high rolled cake with blackberry buttercream, a classic multi-layer Opera cake of chocolate ganache and coffee-infused almond sponge cake dusted with gold leaf, moist vanilla butter cake layers sandwiched with Grand Marnier whipped cream and gobs of fresh local strawberries.
I never really delved into questioning why I did it. With a response that is uncharacteristic of me, I simply told all who queried that I wanted to bake those cakes. I needed to bake those cakes.
Opening the restaurants to the public at the beginning of June — even if they were kept outside on our patios — was unnerving. We didn’t know how to staff (our sanitation procedures took longer than we’d anticipated) and everyone, including the guests, were edgy. Anxiety was now the mood of our normally joyful place. Servers were fumbly and afraid to get close to the tables. They couldn’t understand or be understood through all the masks. Guests got angry. Servers needed the money, but were overwhelmed by the frustrations.
By the third week open, we settled in, but everything seemed way harder than before COVID hit.
Four weeks after we opened the patios, we were allowed indoor dining at 25 percent capacity. For the first time in months, I felt Frontera was coming back to life. Our basement mezcal-bar-cum-restaurant had sprouted an unexpectedly cozy patio right in our alley and people seemed to love it. One of our chefs was adamant that we couldn’t let Topolo and its staff fade away, so we all figured out how to capture a precious little version of our four-star fine dining restaurant in our test kitchen and library. We brainstormed menus and continually modified procedures, we scoured on-line postings to find out what other restaurants were doing, and we watched our dwindling bank account like a hawk. My right hand, Jen Fite, was able to land several virtual cooking class demos for me, which brought in my needed dollars. By the end of August, even at less than 50 percent of our regular revenue, we hit breakeven.
Without paying rent. And River North rents are among the highest in the city. After the PPP money ran out, we’d ask our landlord for a three-month rent abatement and, gratefully, he’d granted it. I had no idea what we’d do at the end of those three months. But being in the restaurant business during this pandemic, I’ve been taught one lesson over and over again: Live life a day at a time, being as resourceful, creative and positive as you can be. But know that the future is completely unpredictable, so there’s no reason to worry or plan too much.
Unexpectedly our general manager said she needed a break from it all and resigned. Her assistant stepped into the role, but she, too, found dealing with the public and the servers and uncertainty of the future more than she could bear. The kitchen manager who procures all our food and leads the maintenance crew got sick over one weekend and tested positive. It was the first time we had to put our protocol into practice. Everyone that worked directly with him — or anyone that felt they had interaction with him — wasn’t allowed to return to work until they’d gotten a negative rapid-test result. We assumed the price of testing as just another cost of business. Our goal, after all, is to survive COVID, keeping as many people as possible employed and continue bringing joy into the world through delicious food.
Early on in the pandemic paralysis, I was invited to become part of the leadership of the newly formed Independent Restaurant Coalition, the first time a group had come together to advocate for, educate and offer community to the hundreds of thousands independent restaurants that create the richly textured fabric of neighborhoods across our country. We’d been uniquely incapacitated because of the shutdowns and the fact that ours is a profession of labor-intensive hand-crafting and operates on really low margins. Though some say we’re dinosaurs and should be replaced by much more efficient corporate eating places, I joined the ranks of independent restaurant advocates who were calling legislators and using my platforms to bring our plight to light. It was a huge blow to the IRC that the Restaurants ACT we helped craft didn’t get included in the latest relief legislation, but another round of the Paycheck Protection Program has offered a dim beacon of hope, perhaps offering our restaurants enough to make it until spring, when we hope to be able to move from surviving to rebuilding.
For now, we’ve just reopened for indoor dining at 25% capacity , after having been closed down for the last three months. I couldn’t believe Chicagoans were so stalwart that they’d eat outside in below-freezing temperatures. But they were, at least a few of them. Now, the dining rooms have life in them again. Gratefully, they seem less storeroom-like, more welcoming, even hospitable. Our staff feels pretty settled, not as fearful as they were during the first COVID surge. We added a new dining room manager and lost my assistant and a chef; there’s been an alarming exodus from my beloved profession. Several people of our staff over the last few months have tested positive, but no one around them ever has. Which means we have solid protocols for stopping the virus’s spread within our walls.
The conflict with our partner in the two West Loop restaurants escalated dangerously and by midsummer, it was clear one of us had to buy out the other. In a “you cut — I’ll choose” agreement, I ended up having to walk away from a restaurant that housed my dream, all-wood-fired kitchen and some of the best cooks I’ve ever worked with.
The grief that gripped me for so many months has mostly dissolved away, replaced by a settled resolve that I’m going to fight like hell for our restaurants and what they mean to our staff and community. Maybe the birth of my first grandchild, Charlie Belle, was one of the sparks. I can’t think of another event better than the birth of a child to change your perspective about current circumstances.
And I’m still baking cakes, but with a little less intensity than I was at the beginning of the shutdown. I never felt a need to actively question why I was driven to bake those fancy cakes. Maybe I had a vague since of my motivation, but as I started each creation, I was simply convinced that what I was doing was what needed to be done.
Just before Christmas, I stumbled on a quote that stopped me dead in my tracks. It put into crystal-clear words my intuition.
“Art is the highest form of hope,” wrote German painter Gerhard Richter in the catalog for one of his expositions. And those meticulously crafted, beautifully decorated cakes were my lifeline to hope during many dark months.
Though we read aloud dozens and dozens of Mary Oliver poems during what is now ten months of anxiety and uncertainty, there is one we’ve read over and over.
You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.