Claudio Velez, the chef affectionately known as “the Tamale Guy,” checked into the ICU Thursday night at Rush University Medical Center after suffering breathing problems. His business partner confirms that Velez, who opened a Ukrainian Village restaurant earlier this month, has been diagnosed with COVID-19. The restaurant, which was already closed for maintenance will remain closed until at least next week.
A GoFundMe has been set up to assist with medical costs. Doctors at Rush had placed Velez, 55, on a ventilator. He was also suffering from a high fever, says Tamale Guy Chicago partner and chef Pierre Vega. Velez has been away from the restaurant since as he told Vega he wasn’t feeling well. However, his symptoms worsened and he was admitted to Rush. Velez was struggling to talk on the phone.
“We’re hoping for the best and hope he makes a speedy recovery,” Vega says.
It appears Velez is out of the danger zone, as on Friday doctors told Vega and wife Kristin, that Velez was healing and that the fever was subsiding. Velez lives alone, but he’ll now have to move in with his sister who could monitor his recovery, Vega says. A member of Velez’s family is also infected with COVID-19 which is how the disease was transmitted to Velez, Vega says.
The first day the restaurant opened, long lines of customers camped out waiting for food. They sold out of tamales. For more than 20 years, Velez sold tamales at bars all over Chicago, providing tavern customers with food on late nights. He’s amassed a following for his entrepreneurial spirit and his signature tamales that are sealed in plastic bags and kept warm in a red and plastic cooler. He began home delivery during the pandemic after the state closed bars. A West Loop pop-up triggered an anonymous complaint about an unlicensed business operation. The city sent a cease-and-desist letter to Velez. Angry fans threw their support to Velez with fundraising campaign. Velez, a Mexican immigrant, used that money to chase his dream and open a restaurant with the Vegas.
The Vegas did post on Instagram that the restaurant was closed for maintenance. Vega says their fridges were malfunctioning and that they’ll need new ones. The timing of the post, combined with Velez’s illness, has caused some alarm as news of the hospitalization swept social media on Saturday morning. The restaurant was operating strictly as a takeout operation, with the majority of ordering done online. This limited contact with customers.
The government does not require restaurant owners to inform the public if a worker tests positive for COVID-19, nor does it require that a restaurant to shut down. However, a few restaurant owners have made announcements and closed for a deep cleaning. Operating a restaurant during the pandemic is an anxious endeavor, even for the most veteran restaurant owner, not to mention first-time operator like Velez and the Vegas. Vega says they’ve been taking temperatures and praying the best.
A post by Moshe Tamssot (who helped set up the aforementioned tamale pop-up) on his True West Loop Facebook page summarized the feelings of fans: “Claudio is a fighter and has come too far to leave us now. Chicago, let’s do what we do best and help him and his family any way that we can. Our thoughts are with Claudio, his family, friends and his many supporters.”