Breakfast for Ina
So lately I’ve been on a mission to reconnect. At first that meant getting off social media and untangling the mess inside of me through therapy and a lot of meditation. Once that started to take hold (and we’re talking years) I felt the need to reconnect with friends and colleagues face to face. The more I got together with others and opened up about the challenges chefs face, the better I felt. Notwithstanding, the first time I saw the email blast from my friend, colleague, and the undisputed ‘Breakfast Queen’ of Chicago, Ina Pinkney, I did nothing. She wrote to her faithful followers of how she took a tumble and broke her leg that had been affected by polio as a child. It hurt badly to see this, but for whatever reason, my self preservation mechanism told me that I didn’t have the resolve to reach out. It bothered me to be sure, but I
reasoned that there are so many people whose lives she touched, someone would surely be there for her in her time of need. So for better or worse, I chose to ignore it entirely. Yes, I was bogged down with managing a marriage, parenting, running a restaurant, and in the process of re-writing the re-write of the end of the comic book. So I chalked it up to the random awfulness that life can be sometimes, took a deep sigh, and deleted the email.
Over that winter - which I now know was a living hell for Ina - I not only finished the story, but something inside of me had changed. I saw how the coping mechanisms - or lack thereof - I had learned as a kid were wrong. I needed to learn anew how to deal with my inner turmoil. To face up to it. As my wife Akiko can tell you, the last few years I have been running away from being a chef. I was still going through the motions, but I was losing my sense of fulfillment from nurturing others. And without a chef’s sense of nurturing… well… there probably lies a lot of short order cooks. So the residual effect of all of this self-connection is that my sense of nurturing has been coming back. So when summer rolled around, and Ina sent another email blast about her ongoing plight, I had it in me to not look away.
My text message to her was met with her signature warmth and love and we spoke moments later. Though I was right inasmuch as she has had an amazing group of friends helping her through her challenge, it had been a cold, lonely, and painful winter for Ina - made all the more stressful by mounting medical costs and the need to re-construct her shower as ADA accessible. We spoke for a while, and if her story was cringe worthy and miserable since the injury, the bright, bubbly voice behind it was a great reminder of why so many people loved seeing her first thing in their mornings. As she has been confined to a wheelchair and at home almost all the time, we set a date for me to pick her up and take her out for breakfast one Monday morning in June.
When I called her that morning after dropping the kids off for school, she said she was in a great deal of pain and would prefer to stay home. So I went over there and made her breakfast and we caught up. I heard the dirty details about her condition and what the winter was like. I felt bad for not reaching out then, but guilt is the brick wall that crash dummies blindly run into. I was there then, and that’s what mattered. I left that day feeling both inspired by her bright spirit and conversation, and deflated from her current state and what lies ahead.
The next time I biked up to her place on a Monday afternoon later that month, we had a nice lunch and conversation. As I was on my way home, the immediacy of her situation struck a really deep chord. So as I pedaled down the lakefront, I decided I would give a nice donation to her gofundme page. As I pedaled some more, I realized I could raise a lot more if I would host a dinner for her at EL. So as I took a nap in my hammock by the lake, I sent out an instagram post of her situation and my desire to host the dinner. My good friend and colleague, Cleetus Friedman, left a comment and texted me wanting to know if there was anything he could do to help. Considering he could seat many more than we can at EL, I asked if he would be willing to host the event at Theater on the Lake. When he said that would fly, we then figured a brunch - fetauring some of Ina’s dishes from her cookbook and restaurant - made the most sense. As Ina has a popular segment in the Chicago Tribune entitled, ‘Breakfast for Ina’, we decided on the name in a heartbeat. So here is ‘Breakfast for Ina’:
Organizing this event has been very challenging for sure, but inspiring in so many ways. Food and beverage folks are stretched as thin as anyone, but the way people are rising up to the call for this fills me with great pride to be a chef. At our best, we are nurturers. So to see everyone come forward to help one of the most nurturing and loving spirits amongst us is simply awesome. In a business where financial success is no given, few of us are able to put away money for retirement, more or less a medical crisis. Many thanks to Cleetus for hosting this event, Amy Harris for helping us to organize the event, and to all the chefs and food and beverage suppliers for donating the time, efforts, and products.
I’m really, really proud of what this has become. I’ve been on a long kick lambasting social media with loved ones as a crippling force in society. So to see this sprout on that platform really has me eating my words. So many of the world’s most important movements began on very small initiatives, and to see the love and support pour out of the community fills my cup with a great resolve, and even hope in humanity. And that is a sweet nectar in a time in no short supply of bitter tonics.