Chef, Restaurant Owner, Author
“I have never been this happy in my life. And I have had a hell of a life.”
Ina Pinkney was the chef/owner of The Dessert Kitchen Ltd. for 10 years. In 1991, she opened Ina’s Kitchen, which quickly became Chicago’s Premier Breakfast Restaurant. In 2001 she opened Ina’s on Randolph. In 2005, Ina’s was the subject of a CNN show called The Turnaround. She also appeared in a national Quaker Oats commercial as herself — the Breakfast Queen.
In December 2013, she closed Ina’s and sold the building to Marc Malnati. Ina immediately launched a series of appearances for her book Taste Memories: Recipes for Life and Breakfast, which mixes memoir and popular Ina recipes. She also writes a column, “Breakfast with Ina,” for the Chicago Tribune.
Our conversation took place at her condominium on the north side of Chicago. She talks here about the opening and closing of Ina’s.
More about Ina Pinkney here.
See also, Part One of this interview in which she talks about learning to live with polio.
I want to read you something from your book, Taste Memories.
Sure! Hardly anybody ever reads to me, that’s nice
“I arrived at the restaurant on opening day before anyone else, made the perfect hot chocolate in my favorite mug, sat in the middle of the dining room, and drank in the creamy chocolate and the magic of the moment.” That was the first day; that moment was the pause before it all started for you and Ina’s. Do you remember what you were feeling? Were you nervous?
I was never nervous about opening, never. I have this serious issue with being fearless, and it scares everybody around me. Ina’s was going to be my third restaurant. I had been out of the business for a couple of years, and no matter where I went, somebody would say, “Are you ever going to open again?” And so I finally decided that it was time because I found the perfect place, the spot with the free parking. And I put it out into the universe with the press and with a post card, Guess what? I’m back! The morning we were opening was going to be really huge. The press was ready, my old customers wanted me back.
I got to work super early, knowing I’d be the first one in the door. It was important for me to sort of be in a space and bring whatever love and caring I could with me to that moment. I sat so still and I listened to the ice machine and the creaking of the building. I just sat with that moment, knowing it was really an extraordinary moment, that in just a few hours, I’d open the door and the place would be populated with people.
I just knew we were going to be wildly successful, because …I knew it, just like I knew the first day I opened my first restaurant. I just knew we were going to be just fine. So was I nervous? No, not at all. Was I afraid? Not at all. Was I ready? You bet.
There was something about that first stillness for me and the last. And so stillness was a big part of my need that morning before the craziness began. And it’s interesting, because not until I closed the door when I retired did I sit there and feel that same sense of stillness.
What do you remember about seeing the building for the first time when it was still the Randolph Market Café?
I knew! I knew it was mine the minute I put my hand on the door pull, I knew it. I can’t explain it. I opened the door and there were these big pictures of the old ’57 Brooklyn Dodgers: Duke Schneider, Roy Campanella. (I’d grown up in Brooklyn). Later, as I walked out the door that day, I just looked at [the owner] and said (Ina leans forward and speaks softly), “You need to retire. This is my restaurant. This is mine.” And he just (Mimics a surprised look). I called him the next day, and I said, “You thought about it all night, didn’t you?” And he said “Yeah.” I said, “You need to retire.” It was very quick. He was really ready to go, and so it didn’t take long. He couldn’t keep pace with the neighborhood; it was changing, and I knew I could bring in a new world.
I’ll read to you again. In your book, you wrote, “Whatever your most magical fantasy is about owning a restaurant, it’s true.”
It is. (Laughs) It is true. When you walk into a restaurant, and it’s a great restaurant for you, you’re welcomed, you feel comfortable there, the environment is good, the people around you look good and the service is great and the food is good and you’re thanked on the way out. That’s great. And I know how to create that. And so your fantasy about how it is [to own a restaurant] is real, because I made it happen. I get to see you, and I get to schmooze as the owner, and I get to do whatever you think I do (whatever that is), I never get to eat, but you don’t know that, you know? And so it is magical, it is magical.
A great restaurant has this aura about it, or else why would so many people want to own a restaurant? It’s a conversation people have at dinner all the time. “Oh, I would love to own a restaurant,” and I say, “Well, good for you.”
One of the greatest honors I ever got was in Crane’s Chicago Business, they were doing a story on people who schmooze in their restaurants, people who work the room. The sidebar was called “A Schmoozer’s Hall of Fame.” And there was Arnie Morton and there was Gene Sage, and then there was… Ina Pinkney!
And so true.
And so true, but not everybody always gets to live the truth. There it was in print, in color.
Proof! The [Ina] brand is very specific. I am the Ina, and I get that, and I respect that, and I never take it for granted. It’s one of the reasons that I always have the same makeup and the same hair, always. I needed to be identified wherever I was out of context. “Oh my God, that’s Ina!” Or somebody walks in the door and elbows their friend, goes, “That’s Ina.” And that was fabulous, because it made the restaurant what it was.
What was it like for you, on a day-to-day basis?
Okay, so you and I are sitting, and we hear a plate break. Now this is what goes through my head when I hear a plate break: Where did it break? Did it cut anybody? Is somebody bleeding? Did it fall on somebody and injure them? Did it fall on a child? Is the food on the floor? Is it being cleaned up? Where is it on the floor? Will somebody slip? Is it on the carpeting, which makes it even worse? We have to get over there right away, and now we have to stop the line that’s making all the food and remake that dish. That’s [what happens] when I hear a plate drop.
Everything in a restaurant’s a crisis. I had two jobs. One was to fill the place up and the other was to metabolize anxiety, to metabolize anxiety. You have to be in plan B mode every day. Every day. In every way.
You opened in 2011. Did September 11th have a…
Destroyed us, destroyed us. We opened up March 4th of that year, 2001, and we were gangbusters. We were packed day and night, three meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Busy, busy, busy; happy, happy, happy — September 11th. (Slaps her hand on the table.) And then we were empty for two and a half months, two and a half months. We’d have ten people in for the day. Twenty. People wanted to get out of the Loop as fast as they could; they wanted to go home. It was a nightmare for everybody.
We stayed open very late the day that it was happening. We had people in there who had family in the World Trade Center, and they were waiting to hear. One family heard bad, and another had a brother from Italy who had stopped in New York; he was okay. He finally called. It was the only day we allowed cell phone usage in our restaurant. And then we were empty for two and a half months.
The upside of that story was that every vendor sent me food every day when I had no money to pay. And they let me sign. Every one of them let me build up this enormous debt, and at Christmas time I wrote to them, and I said, I know I’ve caused you tremendous financial hardship. We’re going to close for a few days; we’re going to rededicate ourselves, and we’re going to reopen brand new. And whatever I have at the end of the day, you’re getting some of that. Every one of them called me to say, we knew you’d be one of the ones to make it and one of the ones to pay back. It took me years. Years.
They knew because I only bought from the local vendors. You never saw a Sysco truck pull up to my place. You never saw U.S. Food. I was never going to do that to these people who were fourth and fifth generation in food in Chicago. And they saved my life, because if I had been dealing with Sysco, they would have called, I wouldn’t have had any money to pay, and they would have put me out of business.
Everything. Relationships are everything.
How did you know it was time to close last year? Was there a signal?
There were many signals, some external, some internal. My disability informed all of my decision-making. I began to walk less and hurt more. I could no longer stand in my kitchen at home even. I used to ski, I used to skydive, I used to walk a mile every day. I can no longer do anything. The post polio has taken me down very hard. So at the restaurant I would be at the host station for a little while, I’d walk to the back and sit at my table in the back and then I’d come back up front. I had a stool behind the counter. My world was getting smaller every minute.
The business changed, too. The whole breakfast business changed after the recession. The recession took us down very hard. We suspended dinner service because I was courageous enough to say, pfft, let’s get rid of that. I’ll work twice as hard. Nobody was coming out at night, nobody. And so I worked harder to build up the daytime business breakfast and the weekday; weekday was key. Everybody eats out on the weekends, but not as many. Why? There were now more restaurants doing brunch. All the high end restaurants that said, “Oh we’ll never do that” were doing that.
So now, instead of doing 450 people on a Sunday in six hours, we were doing 375, 350; that’s not enough. That’s not enough. So the business changed and my body changed, and it was really time. I never listed the property; I didn’t want my customers to think I stopped caring about them, so I had to be sotto voce. Lots of people came in asking about buying it, but none of them were right. I guess I was waiting for Marc Malnati. (Laughs) And he was right.
What did it mean to you then to turn over that space?
Oh, it was thrilling for me to know it was going to someone who cared as deeply as I about what he did. There was so much love in the walls there that I couldn’t have it turned into an Irish bar with 24 screens, which is what everybody wanted to do, and I said no. It’s not gonna happen. But Marc was the guy; his employees are with him a long time; he has a real family sense of the business. He’s a good guy.
“There’s so much love in the walls.”
And Marc felt it. He knew it when he walked in there. He said every time I walked in here, I felt like I was being hugged, and not just literally, but figuratively as well. He said, “I’ve never walked into a space that had that kind of feeling about it.” He said we wanted to keep that as best he could. Now granted, they did a gut rehab right down to the brick, but you walk in the door and you just feel so welcome there, you feel welcome. He did a beautiful job on that building. It needed a lot of love. And if love is money, he put a lot of love in there. (Laughs)
Is there some relief at not having to deal with it anymore?
The relief came instantaneously.
What do you remember about the day after you closed?
I went to bed I think around 9:00. We left the restaurant at 7:00. It took us that many hours, five hours to close down and to turn things off and get rid of everybody. I think I got home around 7:30 or 8:00. And I remember, I’m getting into bed around 9:00, and the thing that was so remarkable for me is that I didn’t have to set an alarm — we were always open New Year’s Day, and this would be the first New Year’s Day not. And all I could think of was, I’m actually going to be eating breakfast at my own table with the New York Times. I could think no farther than that, that I had this magical day to read the paper over breakfast. I had such simple needs.
I needed to feel normal. Hadn’t felt normal in 20 years, 30 years. What do people do? Because even on my one day off a week, if the phone rang at my home, I already felt that sense of crisis because it would only be the restaurant calling me, so I couldn’t even relax. All my friendships were on hold over all these years. I mean, if you were my dearest friend and you came to the restaurant, I couldn’t really sit with you. I had to pay attention, my head was always like this, and you would say to me, let’s go out to dinner tonight at 7:00. I’d go, I can’t, I can’t go out that late. You want to go out at 5:00? Nobody wanted to go out at 5:00. So all of my friendships were on hold. So to feel normal was really something.
Do you feel any loss?
Never for a second. I think for me, when I do something as well as I know how, when it’s over it’s over. Did I ever regret it, look back, anything else? Never. Never. I’m very different than other people in that regard. You will never hear me long, bemoan, regret.
You seem to have had a lot of good days.
They’re all good. I’ve had a couple of really shitty hours in the day, but the whole day wasn’t lost. (Laughs) Yeah. I live this way.
It’s almost a year now since you closed. How are you different?
First of all, I have never been this happy in my life. And I have had a hell of a life. I have never understood what being free is like I know now. I have things that I get to do that I’ve never been able to even consider before, ever. So my life is extraordinary right now. Extraordinary. I don’t even know how to describe it in terms of, in normal terms. The superlatives are just off the chart. Off the chart. I never knew I could be this free.
The day that we closed, Tuesday the 31st of December 13. 2:00, we served the last meal. It came out of Ina’s kitchen, and I served it to Marc Malnati. And everybody stood up and applauded. It was very nice, and then they finally left. And then all the staff began to leave, and everybody said goodbye.
And then I locked the door, and I sat there and I thought, there is nothing bittersweet about this. It’s all sweet.