It’s been weeks since the George Floyd protests, and Erick Williams wants to keep America’s focus on racial inequality. The Chicago chef and owner of Virtue Restaurant in Hyde Park has reached across the country with a gesture involving another high profile Black chef. Over the weekend, Williams outfitted the staff at Virtue with T-shirts from JuneBaby in Seattle and posed for a photo, hoping to show solidarity from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. The restaurant was Eater’s 2017 restaurant of the year, helmed by Edouardo Jordan.
It’s a token of respect as Williams has kept an eye on how Seattle has been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The disease has ravaged the city. Chicago’s restaurants are able to serve customers indoors at 25-percent capacity. Seattle’s dining rooms are at 50-percent capacity, and JuneBaby is doing takeout orders.
“Seattle was one of the first cities to get hit, and informed us how to pivot our businesses,” Williams tells Eater. “Chef Jordan’s company took a big hit, and it is a heavy lift trying to get restaurants reopened safely and sustainably. This continues to be an extremely difficult time for owners, especially African-American ones — we are under a tremendous amount of pressure as we work to stay afloat. There are only a few of us in each city and resources are scarce.”
Williams hopes other Black-owned restaurants see the gesture and perhaps replicate it with their own photos supporting African-American chefs. Williams has dined at JuneBaby and has met Jordan. In 2018, Jordan was in Chicago and took home two James Beard Awards. The crowds filling the Lyric Opera Chicago, where the awards gala takes place, are largely homogenous. Many BIPOC attendees, including Jordan (and Savannah, Georgia chef Mashama Bailey of the Grey), take to nodding or fist bumps to acknowledge other non-whites at the gala.
“I think it’s just natural instinct to do this because of our culture,” Jordan says. “To pay respect to anybody passing by us in general.”
Virtue’s photo surprised Jordan. He says encouraging to see other Black people in the restaurant industry grinding and achieving success in the same ways he’s learned over the years. While chefs like Patrick Clark and Marcus Samuelsson remain pioneering, it’s good to see the Black chef community grow. It was especially moving to see the diversity in Virtue’s staff under those masks. It made Jordan appreciate Chicago’s large minority population, which is bigger than Seattle’s. To Jordan, the photo is a “beautiful thing.”
Virtue and JuneBaby share a lot in common with personal approaches to Black cuisine. Both offer Southern cooking in ways never seen. Virtue takes a multi-cultural view with creative dishes using inspirations from all over the world. “JuneBaby” was the nickname folks called Jordan’s father as a child. He presents food in ways that are both modern but at the same time pay homage to his family’s southern roots.
JuneBaby remains closed, which means Jordan can’t yet return the favor and dress his staff with Virtue shirts. There’s plenty of systemic issues to deal with, but the photo gave Jordan and Williams some hope in this difficult time.
“I think it’s super important that we continue to address the issues that we’ve been facing through the years, especially in our industry,” Jordan says.
Williams, who has no shortage of ideas, continues to brainstorm. That includes working outside the box. On Thursday, he’s taking part in a $750 virtual dinner, part of Expo Chicago’s Dine& program. Proceed will benefit Enrich Chicago, an organization that uses art to combat racism. The Tribune has details. Williams echoes Jordan’s thoughts.
“Outfitting our team for a day was a show of solidarity, we want people to know there is still more work to do at home, and abroad.” he says. “Buying gear and items from restaurant’s websites may seem small but every bit helps in times like these.”