David Morton wanted to make a splash with the Exchange, his restaurant complex situated inside the 117-year-old Railway Exchange Building in downtown Chicago. To accomplish that goal, Morton has invited former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to kick off a series where speakers could — wait for it — exchange ideas about art, politics, food, and music. Morton’s DMK Restaurants hired a consultant and put out some feelers to determine who would be the right fit for the program, and they landed on the impeached governor who was removed from office in 2009.
The first edition of DMK’s Arts & Ideas semi-monthly series is on Wednesday, December 1. Blagojevich will take questions pertaining to Being Blago, a four-part documentary from ABC7 Chicago recently released on Hulu. DMK is billing it as an opportunity for the convicted felon (who was last year pardoned by President Donald Trump), providing him with his “first public critique of the documentary that chronicles his political rise, indictment, trial, imprisonment, subsequent commutation, return home to his family, and plans for the future.”
Ticket holders can expect to spend an evening with the former governor who was sentenced to a 14-year prison term, while partaking in a coursed-out dinner from James Beard Award-nominated chef Brian Huston. Tickets are $59 and available via Tock.
“We’re obviously in a heavily blue state,” Morton says. “But this is an authentic way to talk and share ideas in an open forum.”
Morton met Blagojevich (who appeared on Celebrity Apprentice and is also the subject of several unique paintings by the Old Town Ale House’s owner Bruce Elliott that hang in the dive bar) about two weeks ago and calls him “an interesting personification of politics.” The event is meant to highlight the intersection of film and politics, Morton says, and give the public a chance to engage in an in-person discussion instead of engaging social media debates that aren’t always productive. Morton, whose father founded Morton’s The Steakhouse, hopes that people who were yearning for face-to-face conversations while adhering to the government’s stay-at-home orders will appreciate the event.
“He’s really eager to talk,” Morton says about Blagojevich. “He’s just bubbling with energy.”
The former governor was convicted of essentially selling the Senate seat Barack Obama occupied before voters sent him to the White House. (“I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden,” he said, infamously.) Morton says hosting Blagojevich isn’t meant to be an endorsement of his behavior or politics. Event organizers considered booking a second guest who would serve as a political counterbalance to the former governor. But Blagojevich occupies such a particular niche — Republican Trump pardoned him even though the governor was a Democrat — that it was challenging to find a match.
DMK has gone through changes during the pandemic. Co-founder Michael Kornick left the company and moved to Colorado. Morton has focused on larger venues, opening halls in the D.C. area and in New York. Hayden Hall, a food hall that opened in January 2020, has remained closed throughout the pandemic. Morton didn’t have an update on when Hayden may reopen.
While staying at home during the pandemic, Morton says he began seeking out livestreamed events, including public discussions. He gravitated toward speakers such as Sam Harris, host of the Making Sense podcast. The goal is to bring that type of conversation to the Exchange, to create “a living magazine.” Of course, if the gimmick brings in more customers to DMK’s four-month-old concept, Morton doesn’t mind, even if Blagojevich proves polarizing.
“It’s the same thing with art, it’s the same thing with interesting television shows,” Morton says. “Sometimes if the controversy is provocative, it does invite discussion.”
As Chicago restaurant owners look for ways to draw customers during the pandemic and through colder weather, employing Blagojevich is an unexpected strategy.
“We love the idea of humanizing communication and using the Exchange as the backdrop for topical discussion,” Morton says.