Chicago’s Michelin-starred Alinea under fire for COVID-19-themed dish

For the past few months, Chicago’s famed Alinea Group has been hailed for its success during the pandemic. The city’s Office of the Mayor and others have complimented co-founder Nick Kokonas and his reservation company, Tock, for helping restaurants with an affordable online ordering platform to use while COVID-19 closed dining rooms. But now the owners of Chicago’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant are caught in controversy surrounding a new item they’re serving, a canapé that looks like the CDC’s illustration depicting the novel coronavirus.

Alinea’s been serving the COVID-19-inspired canapé as an amuse bouche since it opened a West Loop rooftop patio on July 1. The rooftop allows Alinea to serve customers in a safer outdoor environment. Chef Grant Achatz developed the tasting menus for these dinners in about 10 days, bringing Alinea’s gastronomical experience outdoors. The dinners have sold out through August, and Achatz says they’ll likely keep going through October. Since Alinea went al fresco, carryout operations have slowed, but staff continues to sell food to go from the Lincoln Park restaurant. Achatz and Kokonas are Alinea’s faces, with Kokonas handling operations and Achatz the menus.

A photo of the canapé in question.
Instagram screenshot

The canapé in question is a blue sphere dotted with red freeze-dried raspberries. It’s a coconut custard made with Sichuan peppercorns, and seasoned with salt, sugar, and a little bit of curry powder and cayenne pepper (the heat was supposed to denote discomfort, Achatz says). The red fruit resembles the crowns covering the virus. An Alinea customer, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, posted a photo of the dish with a positive reaction, thanking Alinea for the experience. Those who have dined on Alinea’s rooftop have called the menu “very whimsical and beyond creative.” The surgeon interpreted the bite as a joke while writing a Twitter post that tagged Kokonas and Achatz: “Thank you for making art that we love to experience and eat (at a safe distance.)”

That alleged levity didn’t sit well with many, and the photo and caption was reposted on Instagram leading to hundreds of comments. Some wondered if the item was real. Others shared anger and that led to Kokonas defending his actions.

Dave Baker, a former sous chef at Alinea Group’s Roister, spoke out against the canapé in a since-made-private Instagram repost of Alinea’s tweet. His post has garnered hundreds of comments and has drawn the attentions of other Chicago chef, like James Beard Award-winner Mindy Segal (Mindy’s HotChocolate), Mike Simmons (Cafe Marie-Jeanne), Rafa Esparza (Finom Cafe), and Sarah Mispagel-Lustbader (Sepia). They’ve called the item arrogant, tone deaf, classist, and racist.

“This isn’t ok… this isn’t ‘cute.’ This is shameful,” Baker writes in his post. “How unbelievably disrespectful to anyone who’s life has been lost. I don’t care how you spin it, this is unacceptable.” The furor led to Kokonas defending his actions in the comment thread; his reply appeared to pour gasoline on the situation.

“Art is often meant to provoke discomfort, conversation, and awareness,” Kokonas responds in the comments. “This is no different. Everyone on here saying we are somehow oblivious need to think just a single level upwards.”

Esparza, a well-respected Chicago chef, tells Eater Chicago that the reply discounted any accountability and criticism. It was like hearing “if you don’t get it, you’re dumb — essentially,” Esparza says.

Simmons, the chef and owner of Cafe Marie-Jeanne in Humboldt Park, made a Facebook post describing the item as evidence of “Alinea being a white supremacy stalwart.”

The thinking here for Esparza and Simmons is that Alinea has a mostly white and wealthy customer base who are largely insulated from the disease’s effects and have the privilege to make jokes: “Black and brown people know more people who had COVID probably than Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz did,” Esparza says.

The COVID-19 mortality rate for Black people is 2.4 percent greater across the country compared to whites. One of Simmons’s friends wrote under the chef’s Facebook post that the dish was too cavalier of a response to the deadly pandemic.

Tribune food critic Phil Vettel doesn’t agree. He responded underneath Simmons’s thread: “You can decide that this art is in poor taste. But ‘white supremacy stalwart’ is unsupportable.” Chicago’s highest profile critic, and right now the city’s only fully employed one, adds: “You can certainly argue about the appropriateness of the joke, but extrapolating this into a racial issue is absolutely absurd.”

Responding to Kokonas, Esparza tells Eater, “If 100 people are saying you’re an asshole, maybe they are not all wrong? Who’s eating there? There’s not a lot of melanin people eating there and working there, bro. Let’s keep it all the way live.”

Alinea is a symbol for elitism for many and has painted a target on itself. As the Tribune points out, and as Kokonas gathered, other restaurants in Chicago and across the country have made coronavirus-inspired items. But Kokonas, who is vocal on social media, sometimes comes off brazen. His response on Instagram may have leaned into that reputation. Achatz is reminded of in January and February when coronavirus only had a small presence in America. Kokonas warned the virus could present a national crisis and had to aggressively push Achatz to take the threat seriously.

“The thing with Nick, as you also probably know, he’s not often wrong,” Achatz says. “But he’s often an asshole.”

Kokonas and Achatz are good friends, but Kokonas concedes that doesn’t “accept illogical arguments.” He admits to Eater that he sometimes “comes off as being aggressive from time to time.”

“I’m OK with it,” Kokonas writes. “But I do not attack people personally or with any malice — not on social media, not in life. I only engage the ideas.”

Achatz tells Eater Chicago he felt a responsibility to address the disease that’s affected the world since late 2019. Kokonas and Achatz don’t view the item as a joke, but as a somber reminder of the disease’s effects. Alinea staff serves the bite after they take customers’ temperatures, before they take the elevator up to the rooftop. Achatz says they wanted different atmospheres. The ground floor was meant to be a contrast compared to the sunlit rooftop where dinner is served.

While a dinner at Alinea is often a celebratory occasion, a pricey bucket list meal for many, no one can escape the coronavirus, Achatz says. The item was a way to “acknowledge how fucked up this all is,” according to Kokonas.

Esparza and another chef, via Instagram Stories, suggested if Alinea felts that coronavirus was fair game, that someone should make an item inspired by cancer. These were jabs at Achatz, a tongue cancer survivor. Achatz says he’d welcome food inspired by cancer to promote awareness. Achatz says that experience shaped his thought process behind the canapé. He lost 70 percent of his tongue and is constantly reminded of the disease. He even planned to get a tattoo of a cancer cell on his forearm as another reminder. The canapé was an extension of that idea — a constant reminder of an invisible and seemingly ever-present threat. Kokonas defends his chef, writing to Eater “we agree that this has been handled terribly by our government. It is a tragedy. We hate what it has done to our industry. Here. Eat it. Confront it. It’s all around us and it is terrible.”

Kokonas dismissed some of the criticism as sour grapes. Baker, the chef whose post ignited much of the discussion, tells Eater Chicago he left Roister amicably. Achatz says he should have explained his thought process on Instagram. He also wishes Baker — and anyone else who finds the item problematic — would reach out to him rather than going straight to social media.

Baker bristles at Achatz’s request, saying they only want to chat to soothe tensions after making a mistake. He says the Alinea’s ownership has his number: “They could have easily reached out to me over the course of the last five days.”

Anger directed at restaurant owners from workers has been building during the pandemic, Esparza says to Eater. The industry has struggled with on-premise dining suspended. Layoffs, difficulties with collecting unemployment benefits, and fears of returning to work and being in harm’s way have fueled frustrations. Then there’s the protests centering around anti-Black police activity. In the greater scheme of things, Kokonas’s response feels dismissive, Esparza says. He adds, it’s the same energy he’s felt through his career, seeing women and minorities getting passed up for promotions.

It’s a tough job to come up with an item that encapsulates the feelings associated with the pandemic. Depression, isolation, sadness are all feelings that shouldn’t appear on a menu, Achatz says. But given his past successes, he wanted the challenge.

“[The canapé] was about capturing the emotions and feeling, about hitting the ball when it comes down,” Achatz says, making a baseball analogy. “When the pitcher throws it, you hit it.”

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