Corporations have exit interviews; chefs never have an exit interview," says Ina Pinkney. "So this is really something for me."
Pinkney, aka The Breakfast Queen, creator of Heavenly Hots, Chocolate Blobs and other signature dishes, is hanging up her rolling pin. Now 70, the woman who set a breakfast standard so high it has yet to be surpassed, is announcing her retirement.
Ina's, the Randolph Street restaurant she opened in 2001 in the Market District, has been sold. The last day of business will be Dec. 31; when lunch service ends, the lights will be extinguished and the doors will be locked for the last time.
"The end of a remarkable career," she says, "to have fed Chicagoans for 33 years."
For regulars, the signs have been apparent for some time. The Brooklyn-born Pinkney survived polio as an infant, but post-polio syndrome stole most of her mobility. She wears a leg brace. She greets customers from a chair by the front door because she can't manage a full morning shift on her feet. One of the best bakers Chicago has ever seen hasn't been able to cook in her own restaurant in a long time.
"My world has to be flat, and my world has to be very small," Pinkney says. "I can no longer walk a block. I can no longer climb steps. I can't go to the movies, because no way can I walk that distance, sit for two hours, and walk back to the car."
Occasionally she'll tour her dining room, chatting up her customers, but the effort is apparent. There are no grimaces of pain, no defeat in those twinkling yet defiant eyes. But Pinkney's spirit has been writing checks her body will no longer honor.
In her apartment overlooking Montrose Harbor, over tea and hot biscuits with butter and apricot preserves (even during her "exit interview" she isn't completely comfortable unless she's feeding people), Pinkney reflected on her three-plus decades of serving Chicago.
It began in 1980, in a bakery that served a small but devoted list of clients.
"I never had a retail bakery, because I never understood the concept of baking, baking, baking, and the next day it's stale," she says. "I only wanted special order. You'd call and say, 'Ina, I'm having a dinner party.' And I'd ask, 'What are you making,' and you'd say, 'Ah, I'm making a rack of lamb.' And I'd say, 'You need frozen lemon mousse with raspberry sauce,' and you'd say, 'That's exactly what I need.' And I'd come to your house and take your bowl, and go back and make it for you. And you'd put it in your freezer, and at the party, you'd bring it to table."
The business grew to include commercial clients, including Jimmy Bannos' Heaven on Seven restaurant, although Pinkney ignored his first call because she didn't like the prospect of delivering daily to the Loop. But a day or so later, Bannos called again.
"He said, 'So, Ina, this is Jimmy Bannos. What's it like to have so much business that you don't need another client?' And I went, 'Busted! I'll make you anything you want.' And I made stuff for him for years."
The only time Pinkney could socialize with her then-husband, Bill (they divorced in 2000), was over breakfast, so the two ate out virtually every morning.
"We'd have to decide what to eat before we left," she recalls. "There were six restaurants between our house and the bakery, but if you wanted really good pancakes, there was one. French toast, one. A really good omelet, there were two. So we'd decide what to eat before we left the house. And one day I said, 'How hard is it to make a good breakfast? I mean, how hard can it be?' And he said, 'You? The queen of butter, flour, sugar and eggs? You tell me.' And there it was."
Pinkney partnered with Elaine Farrell. They raised money from bakery customers, offering $11 in "Ina Bucks" for every $10 in cash.
"I'm not sure that was legal," Pinkney says, "but I got enough money to buy the restaurant."
Pinkney opened Ina's Kitchen in 1991 at 934 W. Webster Ave.; it was more upscale than a Formica-countertop diner but less refined than a high-end hotel dining room. People loved the top-notch food, the welcoming service, the collectible salt-and-pepper shaker sets (no two alike) that graced each table.
Within months of the opening, the Tribune's William Rice called Ina's Kitchen "the best new breakfast place since Lou Mitchell's," praising the high-quality ingredients and flavor combinations. "Equally important," he wrote, "Ina's Kitchen is a very pleasant place to be."
Chicagoans agreed. By the dozens. By 1994, Ina's Kitchen had added dinner hours, and customers kept coming.
Lincoln Park's notorious parking shortage soon became a major issue.
"Customers told me, 'We drove around for a few minutes, then gave up and went (elsewhere),' " Pinkney says. When the lease expired in early 1996, Pinkney and Farrell opened Elaine & Ina's in a lobby-level space in Streeterville. Two years into that lease, creative differences emerged.
"Here's the deal," Pinkney says. "Business partnerships are marriages that are not based on love. So when they're bad, they're really bad."
Pinkney says it took four months to get her name off the liquor license, but in mid-1998, she was out.
"I walked away with nothing," she says. "Not even the salt-and-pepper shakers."
For the next 2-1/2 years, Pinkney had no restaurant, though it seemed every time she ventured outside, someone asked when she'd open a new place. The kicker, she says, took place at a banquet honoring notable Chicagoans, among them her husband, the first African-American to sail solo around the world.
"(TV news anchor) Mary Ann Childers was the emcee," Pinkney says, "and from the stage she asked my husband, 'Bill, how could you leave Ina's cooking for two years?' "
Shortly after that, a friend was escorting Pinkney to a Randolph Street restaurant.
"The first thing I said was, 'There's a parking lot?' " Pinkney says. "I put my hand on the door pull and it was like a thunderbolt; I knew it was mine. And when I walked in, what's along the wall but individual head shots of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. My team!"
Though the restaurant wasn't for sale, after a few conversations (which included a promise to keep the property as a restaurant) Pinkney produced a check, and the owner produced keys. Word quickly spread that Pinkney was back in the game, and her fans reacted in an extraordinary way.
"People started bringing salt-and-pepper shakers," she says. "We'd arrive in the morning and find boxes out front. People would stop by to drop them off; they'd arrive in the mail. By the time we opened, we had enough for every table. That, to me, was the affirmation."
When it was time to open in early 2001, Pinkney called a beloved restaurant critic whose name you'd recognize in an instant.
"I remember calling you and saying, 'Phil, I'm opening on March 5,' and you said, 'Ina, I hate to print that, because you know how restaurants are (about opening on time).' And I said, 'Phil, I (already) opened on Feb. 26.' "
Business boomed every day, morning, noon and night, from March until Sept. 10. Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that.
"We were empty for 2-1/2 months," she says. "We didn't have 20 people the entire day."
But Pinkney had made a point of dealing only with local vendors — no big corporations. And in those dark days, those vendors came to her rescue.
"Every single day, they sent me food when I had no money to pay," she says. "Whatever I needed, I signed for. They said, 'We've seen it all; we know who to trust.' It made every difference to me." Pinkney eventually made good on those IOUs and kept Ina's going for another dozen years.
She has been the subject of dozens of articles, won a shelf's worth of awards, was a leader in the movement to ban cigarettes from restaurants, and co-founded the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition. She was a finalist in the search for the new host of "Check, Please!"
She ran for the U.S. Senate, launching a tongue-in-cheek write-in campaign to serve the last eight weeks of Barack Obama's term. She can still see herself in office someday. "One term only," she says firmly. "I don't want to raise money; I just want to kick a little a--."
Some of her recipes have been published, but she's never had a cookbook. That's about to change. "Taste Memories," which Pinkney describes as "my love letter to the people I've fed for 33 years," will be out at the end of September. Through the end of the year, the book will be available at the restaurant, on the restaurant's website (breakfastqueen.com) and at Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville.
And now, the clock starts ticking toward the end of Pinkney's culinary career.
"It's the right decision for me, in order to have some kind of a life left," she says. "But this was a very, very, very difficult decision. Chicago has been my surrogate family, and the people I have fed have become important to me on so many levels.
"I have a very strong opinion on restaurants that close in a day," she says. "There's a grieving process, or whatever that's called in the restaurant business. I remember one prominent restaurateur closed by posting a note; when the staffers came to work that day, that's how they found out. They lost their paychecks for the last period and didn't have a job."
By the time you read this, Pinkney will have delivered the news to her staffers, most of whom have been at Ina's for more than a dozen years.
"It's going to be very difficult for me," she says. "They're career guys, they're not kids. That's going to be painful. I have some jobs lined up for them if they want them, places where they'll be respected and valued and be able to make some good money for their families.
"I want to exit with the same integrity with which I lived; I want to be able to say thank you," she says. "My life as a restaurateur has been quite extraordinary. I've never been viewed as a player by the players, but everybody knows there's integrity around what we do. The chefs eat here.
"Matt Eversman, when he was planning OON. The Boka boys (Kevin Boehm, Rob Katz) ate here every day when they were building Girl & the Goat. Stephanie (Izard), Rick (Gresh), Giuseppe (Tentori), Tony (Priolo) — I'm so proud that they come to eat my food; I'm so proud of that.
"You know, a cake is raw for a long time, perfectly baked for a short time and over-baked forever," she says. "I think I'm going out at the top of my game.
"Every restaurant is a theater piece," Pinkney says. "The set comes out, things start happening, and then the curtain goes up and it's showtime. And just like a theater piece, eventually the curtain has to come down.
"And you always want to leave them wanting more."
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