Ina Pinkney earned the moniker the Breakfast Queen as the chef and owner of Ina’s, which was a West Loop staple from 1991 to 2013 along Randolph Restaurant Row. Since closing her restaurant, Pinkney has continued sharing her love of food, spending five years writing her monthly breakfast column for the Chicago Tribune and publishing Ina’s Kitchen: Memories and Recipes from the Breakfast Queen. The polio survivor also advocates for post-polio syndrome and advises chefs looking to open their own restaurants.
Pinkney turned 80 in February and Chicago Chef’s Cook will honor her with a birthday bash on Wednesday, April 26. The party, a fundraiser, is open to the public and will feature food (not all of it is breakfast) from more than 60 chefs including Brian Jupiter (Frontier, Ina Mae), Tony Priolo (Piccolo Sogno), and Sarah Stegner (Prairie Grass Cafe). Chicago Chef’s Cook is the fundraiser effort born out of Green City Market organizers and chefs that has benefitted a bevy of international causes. The birthday party benefits Green City Market and Pilot Light, charities were chosen by Pinkney. The beloved restaurateur, simply known as “Ina” to customers and colleagues, spoke with Eater ahead of the event about her legacy and what she looks for in a good breakfast spot.
How do you think Ina’s changed Chicago’s breakfast culture?
Ina Pinkney: While I loved diners, I adored hotel dining rooms. I loved the fact that the juice was in beautiful glassware. So I decided to go right in the middle. There was nobody doing fine dining breakfast, so that’s what I did with the price point of a really good high-end diner, but the service pattern of a fine dining restaurant.
We had tablecloths, and we had no music, which was very important to people who are working during the week and bringing architectural plans and other business things to the table. You don’t want to hear all of that horrible, loud music, especially music with words.
We didn’t do hash browns. We did the two eggs up, but we did it in olive oil. And we didn’t do bad bread, the sleeves of that cheap bread. We had artisan bread. I had to import coffee from Seattle because at the time there were no roasters in Chicago and I couldn’t find a coffee that measured up to the level of the food. (Editor’s note: the area near Ina’s is now home of multiple coffee roasters including Intelligentsia and Metric.)
They didn’t take me seriously because they thought there was just this old lady making breakfast, and so I was underestimated, and that put me in a position of great power.
What are the biggest challenges of doing breakfast well?
People who do great dinners are really sometimes the worst breakfast chefs. They don’t get it. They don’t get that it’s a one-course meal, that people come in with really low blood sugar and they really have to eat something.
When you have a child at the table, always take that order first, and get that food order into the kitchen, and then come back and take the family order. Once the food comes out for the baby, the parents cut and do everything else and it takes the kids longer to eat. You don’t want all the food to come out at once because then the adult’s food is cold by the time they get to it because they’re busy getting the kid all organized. It’s a small thing, but it’s a huge thing for a family. Drop the check the minute the last dish comes out and say, “We don’t want you to pay. We want you to be ready to leave when your child is ready to leave.”
What do you think of the rise of all-day cafes as an alternative to diners?
I think there’s going to be more of that because of the hybrid work situation when you really need to get out of your house because you’re a little stir-crazy. I also think people have figured out that you don’t have to have a Greek diner menu of 15 pages, that you can have a small, tight, organized menu.
How do you feel about more fine-dining restaurants getting into brunch?
You don’t get your A team in the kitchen on Sunday morning. They are beat to shit from Saturday night and they don’t want to work Sunday. I think chefs burn themselves out on brunch. I think they would be better off doing breakfast Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Brunch has never been my thing. I don’t want to get dressed up and go out at 11 a.m. and wait and hear the noise. I didn’t want to add those kinds of protein and fancier dishes.
What was a dealbreaker for you when reviewing breakfast spots?
If I went to your restaurant and your food was really good, and the service was good, and your coffee was lousy, I would ask to see the manager or if the owner was there. I would say, “I would love to write about you, but I can’t because your coffee does not measure up to the quality of your food. So I’m going to give you the chance to think about this and maybe talk to your supplier or find a new roaster in town — God knows we have enough — and I’m going to come back and if you change it, I’m happy to write about you.”
What do you think should be on a good breakfast menu?
I want to always have an egg dish on there, even if it’s deviled eggs, and they can change all the time. People want their protein first thing in the morning. A frittata is a great thing to put on. It’s made in advance and you just heat it up and serve it.
Someone just sent me a potential menu for a cafe she’s opening, and it was horrible. It was all of this super sweet French toast stuff. There was an egg dish I couldn’t even decipher. I will sit with her, I will go over this, and I will say, “Let me tell you where you’re going to lose money and where you’re going to make money and where you’re going to satisfy the people.”
I have reached out over the years to women who are opening restaurants or who were sous chefs or moving up, and all I say to them is, “I am here for any time you need to talk, because I know your world.” They may have great instincts and I try to help them hone it. What I know, I need to give away. I need to give away, so that’s what I do.