Restaurant relief: Big Star program offers free meals, groceries to workers

Chicago’s culinary community is hurting. And Chicago is coming to the rescue.

With the closure of all dining rooms in Illinois due to the coronavirus outbreak, restaurant workers are feeling the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. On a broader scale, 13 million restaurant employees across the country — from dish washers to kitchen staff to front-of-house staff — are out of work for the foreseeable future.

Diners across the greater Chicago area are helping the industry with a flood of carryout orders, delivery and curbside pickup.

And in Chicago, a major culinary initiative is now in place to help ease some of the economic hardship facing unemployed restaurant workers.

A collaboration between Chef Edward Lee (of the Louisville, Kentucky-based 610 Magnolia, and the TV series “The Mind of a Chef”) and the Chicago-based One Off Hospitality Group (Big Star, avec, The Violet Hour, The Publican) and its chef-partner Paul Kahan, the Restaurant Workers Relief Program kicked off Tuesday night at Big Star’s Wicker Park location, providing free to-go dinners and grocery bags filled with non-perishable items and pantry staples to the area’s restaurant workers.


“We have a very small non-profit in Louisville and when the [restaurant] shutdown happened we opened our flagship restaurant [610 Magnolia] and turned it into a relief hub for restaurant workers,” Lee said. “We have a partnership with Makers Mark [whiskey/spirits purveyor] who approached us with some seed money to launch similar programs nationwide.”

Lee and his team identified New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and Chicago as key hubs for expanding the program model and, in the case of the latter, reaching out to Chef Kahan for partnership.

“I’ve known Paul [Kahan] forever, and called him almost immediately to ask if he would turn his kitchen into a relief kitchen,” Lee said. “He was fantastic. They mobilized so quickly and got things up and running Tuesday night.”

Restaurant employees need to bring a pay stub or other proof of restaurant employment to partake in the program, which takes place every night from 5 to 7 p.m.

“On the first day, we had 250 boxed dinners and grocery bags available,” said Kim Leali, director of culinary operations for One Off Hospitality. “We had 100 extra dinners available on Wednesday night. So we’re hoping to get the word out so that more people will come out and take advantage of the meals and the groceries.”

The meals are prepared onsite, served warm (reheating is necessary at home) for pickup and created by a team of top Chicago chefs including Ryan Pfeiffer and Geoff Thompson from Blackbird, Ryan Piotrowski from Dove’s Luncheonette, and Erika Chan from Publican.

Supplies such as fresh meats and vegetables as well as some grocery items have come from various sources including Highland Baking Co., Slagel Family Farm, Sparrow Coffee and Fortune Fish Company, but Leali said she hopes more corporate sponsors will step forward to keep the program up and running past the two-week period currently in place.

Wicker Park’s Big Star restaurant is now also a hub for a restaurant workers’ meals/groceries relief program.Cassie Stadnicki

“Monetary donations [from the business sector and the public at large] can be made at, and we’re asking business to help with donations of canned goods and other non-perishable items for the grocery bags. We could use everything from things like canned chili, lentils, chick peas, pasta, canned tomatoes and soup. We’re having trouble getting our hands on individual cans of soup.”

Menu items (meals feature one starch, one protein and one veggie) include dishes such as Pfeiffer’s glazed meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green bean almondine. For Friday Lent observers, he’s serving up red fish curry with vegetables and steamed rice. Orange chicken is on the way in the coming days.

Oatmeal is packaged into individual servings at Big Star in Wicker Park. The breakfast staple is among the shelf-stable items packed into grocery bags and distributed for free to Chicago-area unemployed restaurant workers.Provided

“These are very simple, homestyle meals easy to prepare at home,” Leali said.

While the federal stimulus package hopefully will have some positive impact on the restaurant industry and its workers, Lee said it’s more than just economics at play.

“We want to spotlight all the people who work in the restaurant business, especially those behind the scenes like the dish washer or the coat check person, the bus boys, the reservation taker. These are the unsung heroes of the restaurant business. A lot of them are immigrant workers and we cannot turn our backs on them. There is no restaurant industry without these individuals.”