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.