CHICAGO — Days after a new, coronavirus-inspired concoction spurred backlash at Alinea, the pop-up version of the renowned establishment has closed because an employee recently tested positive for the virus.
In emails obtained by Block Club Chicago, Lucy Chelebian, who works in the restaurant’s HR department, sent an email to staff saying “Alinea in Residence will be closed for service today, July 10, in response to a positive Covid test on the AIR team.”
Alinea in Residence is a rooftop pop-up in the West Loop that’s been open while the original Lincoln Park location is closed due to the pandemic and where the controversial dish has been served. Alinea, 1723 N. Halsted St., is one of the world’s most famous restaurants and the city’s only 3-Michelin star restaurant.
Alinea Group co-owner Nick Kokonas confirmed in an email to Block Club Chicago that an employee tested positive and said Alinea in Residence will remain closed this weekend.
Kokonas said that “in this instance, the employee had not worked for 3+ days and self reported a positive test. All employees with direct contact as defined by the CDC were notified immediately and said all tests thus far have returned as negative.
He added that “because testing centers and hospitals are so busy not everyone has been able to test as of this morning. We will reopen once we have the full slate of testing complete. We anticipate that we will be able to open on Wednesday,” and noted that AIR is always closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Asked if the positive test was somehow bad karma, Kokonas said, “there is no irony in anyone getting sick or the timing of this. And fortunately the person has a mild case with almost no symptoms as of now.”
He added that since March, four team members across the 300-person company have tested positive for Covid-19.
Kokonas did not address direct questions about the dish that caused a stir — a canapé that resembles renderings of the coronavirus: a bluish-gray sphere pockmarked with red dots, but he previously defended it on social media.
“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.”
However, 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,” Dave Baker, a former sous chef at Alinea Group’s Roister, who said he left on good terms, 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.,” Baker wrote.
Another critic was Mike Satinover of Buena Park, who by day works as a director at marketing research company Kantar, but is known to thousands online as Ramen_Lord, one of the most obsessive ramen cooks in the country.
In a tweet, Satinover wrote that he was a “huge fan of the Alinea Group, but this is tacky at best, and seriously lacking self awareness of the privilege of getting to serve/eat $300 dinners at worst.”
Reached Saturday, Satinover said he hopes the attention on the controversy makes other establishments reconsider introducing coronavirus-inspired offerings.
“I would hope that they would reconsider these types of things. I think it has a little more artistic integrity to not make a food shaped like another thing. Especially one that’s clearly still a problem today.”
Indeed, Alinea is not the only establishment to roll out a coronavirus inspired dish. Forbes recently did a story on the trend nationwide and here in Chicago a bakery has been doing it since March.
In Little Village, a neighborhood hit hard by the virus, Rosy’s Bakery, 3237 W. 26th Street, has been selling two conchas, which are a Mexican sweet bread, and calling them “ConchaVirus.” Featuring neon green and neon pink polka dots meant to represent the spikes on the virus, the vanilla-flavored pastries debuted mid-March.
Reached Saturday, Eddie Vazquez, executive pastry chef and co-owner of Rosy’s Bakery said he is considering renaming the conchas.
“We had some bad comments on social media about it, of course. We are considering changing the name, we are working on it right now.”
Vazquez added while he does not know anyone personally who has the virus, he is aware that it had a large impact in Little Village.
“We are aware of the situation,” he said.
Kokonas did not respond to questions asking if he regrets introducing the coronavirus-inspired canapé, but said Alinea in Residence diners who prepaid between $285 and $315 per person to dine this weekend have the option of being refunded or rescheduled.
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