Longtime vegan advocate Karyn Calabrese is returning to the restaurant world after a three-year absence. Calabrese is partnering with popular Logan Square restaurant Jam to run a vegan takeout and delivery operation. For now it’s a pop-up, but Calabrese and Jam owner Anthony Fiore hope this revival of Karyn’s Cooked, her River North restaurant that closed in 2016, becomes a permanent neighborhood fixture.
Calabrese feels her best when she’s feeding other people, she says, and has been plotting her comeback since 2017. That’s when she closed her flagship Lincoln Park restaurant inside a space she occupied for 18 years. Losing her business forced her to change her lifestyle, including a move from her luxury Gold Coast condo to suburban Flossmoor. Lawsuits and allegations from former workers left her humbled: “If you would have said a few years ago that I was moving to Flossmoor, I would have said they were out of their f-ing mind,” she says.
Karyn’s Raw opened in 2000 in Lincoln Park, and Calabrese quickly became a star as she touted her diet and upscale lifestyle. She appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show that same year, which expanded her reach. More recently, Empire actress Taraji P. Henson points to a photo of the septuagenarian in a bikini as motivation in how to age gracefully. Calabrese would open two other restaurants: Karyn’s on Green debuted in 2010 in West Loop and closed in 2015. Karyn’s Cooked opened in 2003 and closed in 2016. According to Calabrese, the West Loop restaurant doomed her business by being too big for the demand: “If it were open now, I’d be killing it,” she says.
Jam owner Anthony Fiore says he’s long been a fan of Karyn’s cooking. They’ve known each other for about 15 years, and Fiore has been searching for a way to continue operations. Jam, known for an eclectic breakfast menu — including a knockout French toast — has remained closed during the pandemic. Fiore says Jam isn’t well suited for social distancing.
While Fiore isn’t vegan (his fiance is, he says), he’s hopeful more folks will try Karyn’s foods, like vegan lasagna. Other items on the menu include chili, black bean burgers, and grilled jackfruit with barbecue sauce. The ghost kitchen will give more people access to quality vegan food and grab-and-go items. Fiore hopes the new venture will be a boon for Logan Square: “People are looking for this type of food,” Fiore says.
The “Karyn’s” name evokes passionate reactions among Chicago’s vegan community. Calabrese’s restaurants were pioneering, giving the city meat- and dairy-free options in Downtown Chicago, where pricey steakhouses still hold a large marketshare. Meat-free options were viewed through a different lens in the early ‘00s, as Chicago sometimes could be pigeonholed as only a meat and potatoes town. Vegetarian restaurants — like Chicago Diner in Boystown — did exist but were rare. International restaurants that didn’t serve meat, like the Indian restaurants along Devon Avenue, hadn’t discovered how to properly market themselves to mainstream vegans, including those with trepidations about “ethnic food.” But Calabrese figured out the formula and became Chicago’s vegan queen.
Depite the spotlight that Calabrese brought to veganism in Chicago, there were still people who question her intentions and ones who dislike her unflappable confidence. An ex-employee posted several allegations about her business in 2016. The former worker’s personal blog questioned Calabrese’s commitment to veganism and her ethics, pointing to the fact that she fed meat to her dog, something Calabrese openly admits. “God intended dogs to eat meat,” she says. Chicago’s vegans continue to discuss Calabrese: a post made Monday on a vegan Facebook group included banter about the leather seats in her old Bentley. Did that make her vegan enough? Calabrese’s loyalists defended her, dismissing any criticism as heresy.
Beyond the ghost kitchen with Jam, Calabrese has more plans. For now, check out the return of Karyn’s Cooked, which is back starting Monday, September 14.