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Chicago Chefs Bound by Anxiety and Hope Share Their Thoughts During the Pandemic

Read, in their own words, how Chicago restaurant leaders are coping with the COVID-19 outbreak

Chef Erick Williams preparing a dish at Virtue Restaurant and Bar.
Erick Williams, chef and owner of Virtue in Hyde Park
Nolis Anderson/Virtue

Chicago’s hospitality industry faces unprecedented challenges due to the threat of the novel coronavirus. Customers aren’t allowed inside food and drink establishments through at least March 30. Staff from venues large and small are grappling with a strange and uncertain moment, trying to determine a path forward.

In this new regular feature, Eater Chicago will talk to three members of Chicago’s food world, asking them how they’re coping with this new reality for fiscal challenges to mental health roadblocks.

A young Asian woman stands inside a restaurant space.
Donna Lee of Brown Bag Seafood Co.
Brown Bag Seafood Co. [Official Photo]

Donna Lee is founder and CEO of Brown Bag Seafood Co., a fast-casual mini-chain with seven Chicago-area locations. She’s temporarily closed five restaurants due to loss of revenue during the shutdown.

“I think on a personal level, [Wednesday] was a real turning point. I feel like there was some glimmer of hope that this was all going to bounce back faster, but [Wednesday] you could basically just bowl down LaSalle — it felt so empty. For our teams, they thrive on that energy of people and engagement. We’re developing young people who are in a very early stage of their careers. To have this kind of massive reality check at their age while they’re part of the workforce, the part that was so sobering. On a personal level, I want to do everything I can to protect their mental health and make them happy at work, but I can’t mask the fact that we’re in a serious crisis right now. You have to go from being their cheerleader to a reassuring, empathetic voice.”

Chef Erick Williams preparing a dish at Virtue Restaurant and Bar.
Erick Williams of Virtue
Nolis Anderson/Virtue

Erick Williams is the chef and owner of Southern restaurant Virtue in Hyde Park. He’s offering his dinner menu and daily family meals for curbside pickup.

“I’m feeling very hopeful. I believe there will be an opportunity for our elected officials to step up. I’m not sure exactly what that’s going to look like, but the opportunity is there. I believe that our community is going to gel and we’re going to be better on the other side of this — more efficient, more communicative, more of a united voice. We haven’t had anything like this that’s brought the entire city together around our cause...Restaurateurs, restaurant operators, and restaurant chefs have been the backbone of the philanthropic community in this city for years. Every event, every occasion — whether it’s a momentous occasion or a fundraiser — chefs have gone above and beyond to make sure those are experiences are lasting and that they have been fruitful. Now we need help, and I look forward to seeing how organizations, groups, and our political officials are going to step up to rally around this cause. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night believing that my countrymen and women were going to bail out large industries like the airlines and leave the lifeblood of our country, the restaurant community, behind. I have to be hopeful, that’s the only option. I won’t resign to the idea that we as Americans will drop the ball in this huge, huge time of need.”

A white man with glasses and red hair.
Andy Kalish of Kal’ish and Sam & Gertie’s.
Andy Kalish

Andy Kalish co-owns neighboring vegan restaurant Kal’ish and vegan Jewish deli Sam & Gertie’s in Uptown. His restaurants are open for carryout, and he’s offering free to-go meals for members of the hospitality industry (meat-eaters and non) starting at 6:30 p.m. on Fridays at 1309 W. Wilson Avenue for as long as there’s demand.

“In some ways, this has an an end-times feel. I liken it to a tsunami on a beautiful beach. You’re just lying there having a wonderful day and then the ocean pulls back laying bare everything you’ve worked for, everything that matters, and then the tidal wave snaps back. And bit by bit, inch by inch, the water rushes and rises and you know people around you aren’t going to make it and all I can think about is how long I can stay afloat and if I’ll be able to swim to safety long enough for the waters to pull back. But then there’s the fear that when the waters pull back that there may be nothing left to go to...to rebuild. And if there is, will there be anyone left to help you?”

Virtue

1462 E. 53rd Street, Chicago, IL

Brown Bag Seafood Co.

1198 Howell Mill Road, , GA 30318 (404) 963-7572 Visit Website

Sam & Gertie's

1309 West Wilson Avenue, , IL 60640 Visit Website

Kal'ish

1313 West Wilson Avenue, , IL 60640 (773) 293-7768 Visit Website

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