Monday Night Foodball, a weekly pop-up series co-founded by longtime Reader food writer Mike Sula, has moved to a new home in Avondale. Earlier this month the series debuted in Ludlow Liquors, marking a big change since its launch in August 2021 at the Kedzie Inn.
Foodball has drawn an ever-growing lineup of familiar faces, like Ethan Lim of esteemed Cambodian restaurant Hermosa, and lesser-known chefs including Jasmine Sheth of Tasting India, Midwestern comfort food specialists Eve Studnicka and Alexis Thomas of Funeral Potatoes, and Bobby Morelli, the owner of the Hot Dog Box who Sula dubbed “the Sausage King of Bronzeville.”
Sula, who’s been with the Reader since 1995, started the series amid extended pandemic turmoil in the hospitality industry as a way to give new chefs a springboard.
“At this point, it’s a very old story, but [the early pandemic] allowed me to focus on — for lack of a better word — these underground or alt-economy chefs doing really interesting things that no one was doing in brick-and-mortars before or since,” he says. “It’s natural that as a journalist, I’m constantly looking for fresh stories. [These chefs] were and continue to be, in a lot of ways, the future of dining in Chicago.”
In August 2021, Sula hammered out an agreement with Kedize Inn owner Jon Pokorny so he could highlight the contributions of Chicago’s “gray market food economy.” Foodball eschews slick design and marketing in favor of a DIY approach that Sula derived from his years in suburban Pittsburgh’s underground music scene. The move from Kedzie Inn comes as the bar’s future remains in doubt.
“The truth [is], I wasn’t sure where [the Kedzie Inn] was going to be in the New Year and I didn’t want Foodball to stop, so we thought it was best to pick a new venue for the time being,” Pokorny writes.
Sula, a James Beard Award-winning writer, likens the series to a small band playing unofficial venues such as random basements. In March 2020, Sula saw the world around him to change when the conventional cycle of restaurant reviews ground to a halt. There was also the murder of George Floyd and the activism it fostered. That led many to reexamine how they approached their jobs and workers in the restaurant industry calling out bad actors. It was a moment when chefs found themselves with the time and financial need to pursue nostalgic, offbeat, and otherwise atypical projects.
“There was a community of bands that did the classic punk rock DIY shows, VFW halls, and basements, stuff like that,” he says. “I kind of see the restaurant pop-up as very much analogous to that — the underground, from which all these wonderful things spring that aren’t tied to the old way of doing things.”
Though Chicago’s restaurant industry is looking more like its pre-pandemic self than it has in years, Sula has no intention of returning to the old normal. He’s secured a roster of Foodball veterans and under-sung upstarts, including chef Tameisha Brown of Be Irie on February 27, chef Palita Sriratana of Pink Salt on March 13, and cheesemonger Alisha Norris of Immortal Milk on April 3.
As the series is evidence of an ever-fluctuating industry, Sula says he’s interested to see if Foodball’s new home at Ludlow changes the events. “Every night is different in terms of turnout for a lot of reasons, so it’s still kind of an adventure — you never know what’s going to happen week to week.”
He also tentatively teases a bigger stage for the series but isn’t yet ready to release the details. “We have some larger Foodball-related projects that we’re going to kick off this year, but I can’t say much more about them. There are doings afoot.”