LINCOLN PARK — A new, coronavirus-inspired concoction is spurring backlash at Alinea, one of the world’s most famous restaurants.
The canapé resembles renderings of the coronavirus: a bluish-gray sphere pockmarked with red dots. It was created by the Alinea team and is served at AIR: Alinea in Residence, a rooftop pop-up in the West Loop that’s been open while the original Lincoln Park location is closed due to the pandemic.
The snack is a coconut custard with Szechuan peppercorn and freeze-dried raspberries. It generated controversy after a photo of it was posted on Instagram this week.
“Unbelievable,” Dave Baker wrote when he shared the image on Instagram. “@thealineagroup This isn’t ok… this isn’t ‘cute.’ This is shameful. How unbelievably disrespectful to anyone who’s life has been lost. I don’t care how you spin it, this is unacceptable.”
Baker’s image appears to have been taken from a Saturday tweet from a man who described himself as a doctor and thanked the restaurant for the dish.
But several people commenting on Baker’s post said it was insensitive and tone-deaf to use the coronavirus pandemic as artistic inspiration for food.
More than 2,600 people have died from the disease and more than 53,000 have been infected with the virus in Chicago.
Alinea Group co-owner Nick Kokonas repeatedly defended the dish in the comments on the Instagram post.
“Art is often meant to provoke discomfort, conversation, and awareness. This is no different,” Kokonas wrote. “Everyone on here saying we are somehow oblivious need to think just a single level upwards.”
That only provoked more terse exchanges between commenters and Kokonas, who said he and his team are extremely deferential to the coronavirus pandemic and were not trying to be flippant.
“But this — this is not disrespectful,” he wrote. “This is not ‘pro Trump’. This is not making light of the situation. This is manifesting and making visible what we all cannot see and reminding patrons, right as they arrive, that we are aware that this is still with us and will be for some time.”
Commenters were not convinced.
“I think I’m mostly just blown away that given the everything that’s happened in the last 7 months, people cannot check their ego long enough to say, ‘You know what, you’re right — probably a bad look to make food in the shape of a coronavirus cell’ and instead vehemently defend their right to provoke instead of having an ounce of respect for the victims of this pandemic,” one wrote.
“There is a big difference between provocative art and just being blatantly insensitive,” Baker wrote back to Kokonas. “Slapping a COVID-19 dippin’ dot on a plate and calling it art doesn’t make it less disrespectful, just as telling an offensive joke doesn’t make it less offensive because it was a ‘joke.’
“This dish is disrespectful to its victims, their families, your patrons and the entire restaurant industry that is crumbling around us.”
The pop-up restaurant has taken precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus: Customers have their temperature checked and are required to wear masks when coming in. Parties can only come in one at a time to ensure there’s social distancing.
The controversial canapé is offered to customers when they first walk in. It’s comfort food, Kokonas told Block Club in emails, and it’s delicious.
Kokonas told Block Club the feedback has been “fantastic” at AIR.
“Every day we get emails thanking our team for providing a unique, safe and pleasurable experience in these difficult times,” Kokonas said. “We are also proud that we have reemployed our team and provided a creative outlet to express what they do. We are working to extend the run into the fall if possible.”
People have made up their minds on the dish — and on the experience at AIR — without actually experiencing it, Kokonas said.
“I suppose I’d want to show them some of the work we’ve found inspirational and yes, even challenging, that others have done through the visual arts, short movies and docs, music, and theater around the world and ask if those are equally offensive to them,” Kokonas said. “Why this bite and not that? The larger question that I’ve heard for years is, ‘Should a place like Alinea exist?’ because it is food + it is expensive.
“What people don’t often realize is that our clientele is not composed of the 1 percent; it’s composed of people who enjoy food, who are celebrating a special occasion, or who prefer this to, say, a Bears game which costs the same money. The difference, of course, is that we all need to eat … we understand that. But Alinea is meant to be a fun and delicious celebration of life. AIR is, as well.
“I recognize that the commenters think the opposite … that we have no empathy. It is 100 percent the opposite.”
And Kokonas said he cannot “abide” by comments on social media threatening him in response to the snack.
One person on Instagram told Kokonas they hope he “accidentally trip[s] and fall[s] into a cardboard baler.”
“There are a dozen of those on there and I really cannot understand how anyone can accuse us of being ‘offensive’ and then wish personal harm on us, our families and our hardworking team over a bite of food taken out of the context of its experience,” Kokonas told Block Club.
“Finally, the irony in this is that the person(s) who actually created the bite is/are not me … . I just defended their right to do so and enabled the experience to happen. No one asked who made it … . They might be surprised.”
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