After a group of Chicago diners reached out to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation alleging they were racially profiled while dining at S.K.Y., the chic and Asian-inspired upscale restaurant in Pilsen, the foundation has revoked the restaurant’s sommelier’s nomination for a prestigious Jean Banchet Award.
Jelena Prodan was among five nominees in the sommelier category for the awards recognizing Chicago’s restaurant and bar industry, now in their 20th year — and the only woman. The awards will be announced at a gala benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation on Sunday, May 1.
Prodan was involved in an incident that took place on the evening of Sunday, April 24, when a racially diverse party of diners say restaurant staff showed racist and homophobic behavior toward them, questioning whether they could afford a $56-per-pour Scotch. The restaurant, meanwhile, claims its staff wanted to prevent its customers from being surprised after they asked for their check. Staff says customers were never asked if they could afford the drinks and that they were merely informed of the cost.
Descriptions of the dinner began to circulate earlier this week on social media. However, the accounts shared didn’t fully match the stories shared by S.K.Y. staff members and the diners at the restaurant. The party began calling on social media for Prodan and two other restaurant employees to lose their jobs, and contacted sponsors at the Banchets.
“Following the incident at S.K.Y. restaurant, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is rescinding the Jean Banchet Award nomination of their sommelier. While the details of the incident are still emerging, we stand by our commitment to caring about our community and creating an environment that promotes and celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion,” a statement from the foundation read.
S.K.Y. owner Stephen Gillanders says he’s not considering terminating Prodan on account of the incident. He says he believes the decision to rescind the nomination was a rash conclusion given that the Banchets did not contact him, Prodan, or any of the other parties involved, who have different accounts of the incident. Prodan wasn’t made available to interview.
“We respect the decision, we don’t agree with it,” Gillanders says. “The problem is the decision was reached with the absence of an investigation of facts.”
Pilsen resident Orlando Campos, a Mexican American, and his partner Tylor Dunnican, who is white, say they organized a dinner for four additional friends — two African Americans and two Mexican Americans — to celebrate two of them getting new jobs. The group was in good spirits, and ordered two rounds of drinks and food without incident.
Tensions began to rise when Campos, 33, ordered his third glass of Glenlivet 21 Year Old. The server, a white man, walked away from the table with the order, only to return with a question: “He said, ‘They’re pretty expensive, are you able to keep paying for these drinks?’” Campos says. “I literally stopped for about three seconds, and thought, ‘Wait a minute. Yeah, that just happened.’”
According to Gillanders, the server came to bar manager Luis Millan with concerns that the group would be angry if he didn’t warn them about the price. “They agreed we just wanted to inform them the drink was $56 to avoid the sticker shock,” Gillanders says.
Campos confirmed that he wasn’t concerned about the cost, says Dunnican, and the server left to retrieve the drink. When the server returned, Dunnican says they chatted about the exchange, explaining the question could come off as bigoted. The server apologized, according to Dunnican, noting that S.K.Y. was understaffed and overwhelmed. In the background, restaurant staff was consulting with Prodan, who was off that day and not onsite. Apparently, she’d sent a text message instructing the server to ask about the price. Gillanders says another staffer eventually contacted Prodan to come into work to assist with the situation.
Campos and Dunnican say they asked to speak with her, but instead spoke with Millan, who Gillanders identifies as gay and Latino. Millan did not apologize, according to Dunnican, but repeated the server’s points about a staff shortage at the restaurant.
After the group continued to ask for staff to address the situation, Millan called in Prodan to speak with them. When she arrived, the couple claims that she was stumbling, which led them to believe she was intoxicated. Gillanders disagrees with the account, saying Prodan was attending Easter services that day with her family.
Prodan’s presence inflamed the situation, Dunnican says, adding that she spoke loudly enough to draw the attention of diners at surrounding tables, and then “she [threw] the bill portfolio at our table and said ‘I don’t care what happened, you are paying this bill.’”
Campos believes that Prodan’s comment likely comes from a misunderstanding of his requests for the staff to “fix” the situation. “We just needed them to take accountability for what they did with an apology,” he says. “We never had a problem with the pricing. We’d been there numerous times and knew what we were expected to spend there.”
Dunnican furnished his credit card for the approximately $900 tab, which Prodan accepted and ran, but told her that despite years of support for S.K.Y. and living just blocks from the restaurant, he wouldn’t return.
For Dunnican, the insinuation that they were jockeying for free items was unacceptable, as earlier in the day, he and Campos had spent hundreds of dollars at Gillanders’s South Loop restaurant, Apolonia.
“I walked up and said, ‘I have personally spent thousands here, brought my family here, brought clients here from work, celebrated birthdays. We’ll never be back.’ She said, ‘Good. We don’t want your type of people here anyway.’”
“It’s clear that [Campos] and I are gay, and it’s clear that our friends are also gay, “ Dunnican says. “When she said, ‘We don’t like your [type of people],’ does that mean Mexican American? Black? Gay? Queer? What does that mean? No matter what, it’s unacceptable.”
It was around that time that a man wearing a T-shirt from Green Room Tap, located next door, stepped into the fray. According to Campos and Dunnican, the man put his hands on Campos’s chest to stop him from moving forward. The man then removed one hand but left the other on Campos and looked to Prodan and Millan for approval to let Campos leave.
Gillanders confirms that a staff member other than Prodan had called the man, who was a bouncer and was standing outside next door, to come inside S.K.Y. “He was not asked to engage in any way with any of our guests, and we are unaware if he touched anyone.”
The escalation of the incident shocked Dunnican. “I haven’t been talked to like that since I grew up in the South and was discriminated against for being gay,” he says.
On Instagram on Thursday, April 28, Gillanders, who is Filipino and Scottish, posted a statement saying they had conducted an internal review of the incident. He says that he talked to almost everyone at the restaurant, as well as Campos. He says staff could have reacted better, but that he’s certain that racism and homophobia weren’t central to what happened. If they were, “there would have been a much different approach in handling this,” he says. “Ultimately, we sincerely regret that the guests were offended or misinterpreted our intentions,” Gillanders says. “I’ve been very outspoken. I’m apologetic to [Campos] and the S.K.Y. community. To say we didn’t do anything wrong is not what I’m saying.”
Gillanders says his team will print a spirit list with prices to avoid the situation in the future, even though that can be challenging for restaurants for reasons such as fluctuating costs. “We should inform parties of these prices up front, not during the process,” he says.
Gillanders says he is also looking into sensitivity training for his staff, and into setting protocols for future situations like this. He wants to ensure that staff know exactly what to say in these instances, instead of improvising dialogue during service.
Nearly a week later, both Campos and Dunnican say the evening’s events have left them feeling shaken, tired, and anxious, especially in light of the cascade of anti-LGBTQ legislation cropping up across the country, as well as an increase in homphobic and transphobic rhetoric stoked by the far right that has made its way into mainstream conservatism.
“At the end of the day, I don’t feel great about putting pressure on [the foundation],” says Campos. “However, I do feel really good that they took the time out of their busy schedules — this is an important organization for a special and important cause — and am grateful they took time to hear us out and do something about it.”
Founded in 2017, S.K.Y. was the first solo venture from Gillanders, who opened more than a dozen restaurants for famed French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and previously worked as an executive chef at Intro Chicago, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ now-shuttered rotating menu restaurant. Before opening, S.K.Y. drew ire from some Latinx protesters gathering in front of the building with gentrification concerns.