Fat Rice, the Logan Square restaurant where chef and co-owner Abe Conlon’s fusion of Chinese and Portuguese cuisines through the lens of Macau garnered national acclaim over the last decade — including a 2018 James Beard award for Best Chef: Great Lakes — has shuttered all operations. Fat Rice’s dining room has been closed since March, but for the last two months, it had been operating as Super Fat Rice Mart, a general store that’s been selling $100 vegan meal kits. It is now closed for the foreseeable future.
Over the last two weeks, former employees flooded social media with stories of mistreatment, with claims ranging from being intensely berated by Conlon to an unequal workplace to physical confrontations with him. Their outrage culminated in numerous former workers leaving a pile of Fat Rice shirts in front of the restaurant, with one ex-staffer going so far as to burn their uniform.
The outpouring was triggered by what former employees saw as the restaurant’s disingenuous response to the protests against police brutality and systemic racism following the police killing of George Floyd. These criticisms have also resurfaced a long-running debate about the restaurant’s apparent cultural appropriation and Conlon’s attitude toward other cultures.
In interviews with Eater Chicago, Conlon denied all claims about physical altercations but admitted to an anger problem, and said that he’s been attempting to address it. “We fucked up, we fucked up,” Conlon said. “We’re working on it, we’re actually working on it.” Over the weekend, Conlon issued an overarching apology for his past behavior via Instagram, addressing everything from his behavior in the kitchen to his complicity “in a system that has for 200 years promoted and encouraged elitism, class separation, and bigotry,” stating, “I have reinforced a culture of hostility and oppression due to my own insecurities.”
“I have participated in and upheld a system that needs to fall,” he wrote. “If Fat Rice needs to fall along with that system, I am ready for that.”
Joey Pham, who worked for Fat Rice in 2014, was the first to speak out in the backlash that has unfolded over the last two weeks, provoked by a June 1 Instagram post by Fat Rice declaring: “We remain dedicated to our values, we oppose all forms of racism, and we stand with those fighting for justice and equality in our communities in Chicago and across the world.”
As the protests centered on anti-black racism, particularly police brutality, Pham felt Fat Rice’s response was virtual signaling at best, or even invoking “All Lives Matter,” which is often used as a response to diminish the systemic racism that targets black Americans. “You’re really not going to say it?” Pham wrote below Fat Rice’s post. “You’re not going to say #BlackLivesMatter, even though you take from Black culture ALL the time?”
Pham’s reply was partly in reference to Conlon’s controversial choice to play unedited rap music that used the “N-word” in his restaurant. A year ago, when Fat Rice and other restaurants came under fire for the decision, Conlon and co-owner Adrienne Lo decided to place a disclaimer on their door warning customers of music with explicit lyrics. “At Fat Rice, we appreciate music in all of its forms. We play everything from Fela Kuti and Sade to Big L and Run The Jewels,” they stated. “Music provides energy and atmosphere for our dining spaces, our staff and our guests. Much like our food, beverage offerings and service, our music selections are genuine, unfiltered and uncensored.”
Pham’s comment appears to have opened the floodgates: Within a day, numerous other former Fat Rice employees tagged the restaurant in dozens of Instagram posts, stories, and comments. They shared anecdotes of temper tantrums by Conlon and of him berating staff or bullying workers in the restaurant. There were claims that he treated black workers differently and threatened physical violence; one former worker posted an Instagram story mentioning that Conlon had been suspended from his own restaurants after mistreating a female coworker. (Lo confirmed the suspension, though both she and Conlon deny that the chef has ever physically attacked an employee.)
Multiple individuals recounted incidents to the New York Times: A chef once followed Conlon as he approached and verbally berated a female server who had incorrectly coursed a meal because he was afraid of what Conlon might do; Conlon reacted so explosively after an employee accidentally threw out his breakfast at the 2018 Pitchfork Music Festival that security was called; and a staff member told Conlon he was so miserable working for him that he considered suicide. After the incident with the server, the Times reports that Conlon “spent three weeks in his native Massachusetts, where he took some time to reflect at a yoga and meditation retreat.”
A number of former workers claim the restaurant exhibited a double standard in its treatment of women and people of color. Speaking to Eater Chicago on condition of anonymity, these workers say that Conlon had a more chummy relationship with white men who worked at the restaurant than women and people of color. One worker, Taylor Rae Botticelli, who worked at Fat Rice until March, when it closed in the wake of the pandemic, said that white males were more likely to receive promotions. (Conlon denies that claim, saying that Fat Rice was a meritocracy.)
Several African-American workers spoke to the Times about how Conlon treated black employees differently. One mentioned that Conlon would code-switch in front of them, using black slang and changing his tone of voice — also corroborated by workers who spoke with Eater Chicago — and another described being forced to cover her Afro during service.
In interviews with Eater Chicago, multiple former workers called attention to Conlon making English the official language of Fat Rice. They say that the policy was racist and a way to make Latinx workers uncomfortable. The policy — detailed in Fat Rice’s employee handbook — is also illegal, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Conlon told Eater Chicago the language policy was a way for him to prevent staff from insulting coworkers.)
Within days of Pham’s post, former workers had left a pile of uniforms outside of the restaurant, along with a letter addressed to Conlon and Lo. “You had the opportunity to really amplify marginalized voices, to use your power and influence to affect change and actively stand shoulder to shoulder with those fighting for justice,” the letter, signed by 11 former workers, reads. “And you’ve squandered it.” On June 5, an Instagram post began circulating with a video of an ex-Fat Rice worker burning their restaurant uniform.
Although Fat Rice’s response to the protests triggered the letter from its former employees, many were already angry. Conlon and Lo had laid off some 70 workers in March in the midst of the pandemic and the resulting shuttering of Chicago’s dining rooms. In the weeks and months following the layoffs, Fat Rice conducted an online donation campaign — yet no money had been paid out to workers by the time the shirts were left outside of the restaurant. Workers who spoke with Eater Chicago believed that Conlon and Lo were keeping too much money for themselves and that they should have used a platform like GoFundMe for more accountability, rather than a custom website controlled by Fat Rice. Conlon said that Fat Rice has started distributing the money as of this week.
Workers say they had been afraid to speak out until now because they risked future employment in the city’s hospitality industry. Conlon, a James Beard award winner, is an influential figure in Chicago’s culinary community, known in part for his rebellious streak — much of Fat Rice’s raison d’etre as a neighborhood restaurant was to disrupt the tourist-heavy Downtown Chicago dining scene. After Bon Appetit named it a Best New Restaurant in America in 2013, Conlon has gone on to represent the Macau department of tourism at the Chicago Gourmet food festival, win the Jean Banchet award for Restaurant of the Year, and appear in Eater Chicago’s list of the city’s essential restaurants.
Pham, who uses they/them pronouns, said that they’ve been waiting for years for people to listen to their concerns about the restaurant, which they say has largely avoided accountability for Conlon’s behavior toward his workers and its rampant appropriation. Pham, who put out a call for other former employees to share their stories, said “hundreds” have sent them private messages; one of their Instagram posts, published June 3, which calls out Fat Rice for, among other things, not valuing “the people who have dedicated their time, energy, and skills to building, pioneering this industry and your restaurant,” racked up more than 1,600 likes. It gained the attention of several Chicago chefs, including Joe Flamm (Top Chef), Lamar Moore (Vegas Chef Prizefight), Jennifer Kim (Passerotto), and Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe, Marisol). Many started reflecting on their past missteps.
According to Pham, Fat Rice’s local acclaim — from a mostly white base of food writers across the city — sheltered Conlon, who is a white chef with Portuguese heritage, and Lo, who is of Chinese descent, from taking a critical look at their cultural appropriation, according to Pham. “They don’t give any cultural context to the origins of their ingredients,” Pham said. “They hike up the prices and sell it back to people of color, as well as other white people. We get the product, we get the benefit of the product, but we’ve lost the understanding of where it comes from.”
While denying claims about discrimination or physical altercations to both Eater Chicago and to the Times, Conlon acknowledged in an Instagram apology that “many of the people who have helped me to build Fat Rice over the years, and who have helped it to succeed, have been left feeling hurt and betrayed.” In the Times, he also blamed part of his behavior on abusing drugs and alcohol.
Conlon and Lo told Eater Chicago that at the beginning of the backlash, they felt like they were under siege, but are now hearing the concerns of their former employees more clearly. “I am actively listening now, I see them, and I applaud their willingness to speak out,” Conlon said. “These comments have forced me to look inward and reflect on pain I have caused my partner, employees, and guests.”
As for addressing the concerns about their solidarity with Black Lives Matter and social justice efforts, Conlon said that he and Lo are committed to learning from experts, fellow chefs, and friends, and that they are determined to do something substantial rather than make an empty gesture. “We’re talking to the smartest, most empathetic, most knowledgeable people that we know because we actually care about this,” he said. “We’re not just going to throw some money at something or say that we’re going to do something to prove that we’re sorry.”
Conlon isn’t sure yet what form that might take — he suggested that it could involve consulting with prospective restaurant owners, or that Fat Rice could reopen as a soup kitchen or center to study how food and culture intersect. The question of appropriation remains still a touchy one for Conlon, who doesn’t want his creativity restricted: “My love for food, and passion to learn about other cultures through food, will never change,” he said.
Right now, Conlon and Lo plan to take some time away from the restaurant to figure out what’s next. “It’s only fair to ask for some time to look, reflect, and listen, and figure out what next steps are,” Lo said. “We can’t have all the answers.”
Whatever those steps might be for Conlon and Lo, they might not be together. “Abe and I have been working together forever,” Lo, who was once married to Conlon, said. “If I were to say this was an easy journey, I would be lying. It’s been difficult...we’ve had, like anybody, disagreements, we’ve had fights and issues with each other. It’s a natural thing in any sort of partnership.”
For some, the apologies — both on Instagram and in various publications — have come have been too little and too late. “Restaurants love saying, ‘Oh we are family,’ Botticelli said. “If we are family, then I feel it is important for me to have the same conversations with these restaurants, these communities, that I am having with members of my own family who are prejudiced, who don’t understand, who don’t see their actions are affecting others. To me this is one and the same.”
“I’m not surprised that he is not reopening Fat Rice,” Pham said of Conlon. “I don’t think people would have allowed him to, I know I wouldn’t have.”