Failure to Notice
An exploration of whether Chicago’s food media is lazy, underfunded, corrupt, decimated, racist, or all of the above, through the prism of a seriously overlooked restaurant
It took seven and a half months, or 226 days, roughly the gestation time of a hippopotamus for Atelier restaurant to garner its first review.
This might seem worth a barely whispered “ope”. But, Atelier is a multi-course restaurant run by one of Chicago’s legendary cocktailians Tim Lacey and Christian Hunter a James-Beard nominated chef. Atelier is also the heir-apparent to Iliana Regan’s beloved and celebrated Elizabeth located in a tiny strip mall space more fitting for a bodega.
Atelier ticks all the boxes for a media darling. That’s why I believe the lack of reviews, frankly the dearth of overall coverage of the spot, is also a fascinating case study of the current state of Chicago food media.
But, what exactly does this reticence say?
Just five years ago, some reviews dropped the day after a place opened. Most of them were published within three. At that time, social media influencers Tweeted and Tok-ed in force, but traditional media also still had budgets and staffs.
Chicago food coverage was like a Roman coliseum. There was teeth gnashing, screeds written, and limbs torn over who got the story first or who stole what without attribution.
Today, The Sun Times has a basic food section called Taste with the bulk of contributions coming from freelancers and syndicates.
The Tribune has two critics doubling as occasional features writers.
Chicago magazine once the domain of a full-time staff and a healthy stable of regular contributors is now down to an editor and some freelancers.
Time Out once had a print magazine, a website, and three of the best reporters to ever do it in David Tamarkin, Heather Shouse, and Julia Kramer. Today, it’s web only with mostly one editor and a group of freelancers who spend a lot of time pimping their co-branded food hall and writing listicles.
That food hall is slowly replacing local restaurants with more profitable out of town operators, including a couple places from Miami. This makes sense. Time Out collects as much as 35% from each operator’s sales. Since journalism hasn’t paid anyone’s bills since 2007, Time Out is incentivized to earn their real profit with what sells, not what’s local.
You get it. Chicago food coverage, like most media, is conflicted and decimated. So that certainly could account for the lack of Atelier coverage.
Even in 2023, though, by my count, including a few very serious amateurs, there are roughly ten people dedicated to writing semi-regular local restaurant reviews. That’s still a healthy gaze. Also, post-pandemic, the speed and frequency with which restaurants open has slowed. Surely one of these ten critics would have covered Atelier by now?
I know that if my independent budget allowed me to review a restaurant every week, I’d quickly have to resort to fast casual spots or reviews of older restaurants. I easily would have gotten to Atelier.
I knew about Atelier when it opened in February and very much wanted to review it, but my policy is to pay my own way and to visit anonymously. The Hunger was in its infancy, and I needed to build up some subscription revenue.
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I do believe that lack of budgets is certainly playing a role, something Ashok Selvam, the editor of Eater Chicago said when I asked him why he thought Atelier hasn’t gotten coverage.
Selvam said, “The easy answer is the state of Chicago food media — there aren’t many members left. These things are cyclical, but tasting menu restaurants are expensive and have fallen out of vogue. Critics have to be judicious in spending their dining budgets. A fine dining restaurant in Lincoln Square may as well be Lake County to some editors who want to focus on downtown Chicago.”
I’ve had conversations with many local critics who have said that pitching an expensive tasting menu more than once a year to an editor is often a non-starter.
I know that in the last few years of his reign, critic Phil Vettel often had to pay out of pocket for wine purchases because the Tribune limited his expenditures.
Chicago dining critic John Kessler wrote this piece opining about how crazy expensive tasting menus were and begged chefs to stop serving them. It’s hard not to believe the underlying sentiment here is that Chicago magazine can’t fund multiple visits costing thousands of dollars regularly, which ultimately makes it tougher to do his job.
Maybe it’s just that Chicago’s media cohort is getting older. I fundamentally believe in the tasting menu as a medium for chefs to pursue art, but my metabolism, which once allowed me to consume a two liter of Coke and a party pack of taco supremes after football practice with no reckoning, no longer functions this way.
My caloric burn is basically a BIC lighter in a hurricane. I have to be judicious about hitting up tasting menus which often leave me feeling like I have a hangover. My kidneys and liver tender from processing all the fat and alcohol often feel like they’ve been worked over by Floyd Mayweather.
Although, Atelier, very much like Esme which I experienced last year, had me feeling satisfied but not ill.
But I get it, courting gout is no longer the professional badge it once was.
Who cares about pro media though when you have the youth-skewing influencer class, their masses of likes and follows outnumbering the old guard a thousand to one. Starved for content, surely they would pick up the Atelier banner?
Features or content of Atelier were light in all mediums. Comparably, even before it opened, Ummo, the new Italian spot from Somos hospitality had more coverage in a week this summer than Atelier had all year.
Ummo, now open for only two months, also got a review this week in the Tribune, while Atelier still waits.
What’s the difference here? The Trib recently covered Otto Phan’s very expensive Kyoten (meals start at $440). Ummo is much cheaper to hit up than Atelier if the Trib’s resources were taxed on primo sushi. They were. Not only did they review Kyoten. They reviewed sister restaurant Kyoten Next Door too which costs $159 not including tax or service charge. This price is basically comparable to a meal at Atelier which costs $165 on weekday nights before those fees.
Ummo also held a media dinner and comped free meals to both the professional and influencing classes. Atelier did not.
I asked Atelier’s owner, Lacey, what his comp policy was. He said they do individual invite only comps, i.e. not wide ranging media dinners. I asked him if he thought this was a reason for their lack of coverage.
He said, “I'm pretty baffled by the lack of coverage too. I'm not sure it's the comp policy, but I don't know what it is. You know better than I do, but food coverage has changed dramatically over the last few years and I've been struggling to wrap my head around what it is.”
Some media people told me (two days after Lacey and I spoke) that they were invited to a media dinner at Atelier. I genuinely believe Lacey didn’t know if the comp policy mattered when we spoke, but also he’s too smart not to find the right answer.
Another credible reason for the oversight of Atelier might be that our city loves its own. Even if you got a James Beard Award on the East Coast, you still need to inject giardiniera in your veins for years to prove your bonafides. As Chicago machine pols once told a young Abner Mikva, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”
Atelier’s executive chef Hunter understands this. He said, “Since opening back in February, my main goal has been to establish a consistent brigade and restaurant culture, along with constantly pushing local food. If I can take care of those things, the rest should follow…I’m still fairly new to the city and understand I need to cut my teeth in a town with so many established restaurants and chefs.”
Atelier is descended from one of Chicago’s most beloved culinary figures Iliana Regan and run by Tim Lacey a veteran of The Drawing Room at Le Passage, and Regan’s own Kitsune and Elizabeth. Surely that must carry some local juice?
Eater’s Selvam echoed my thoughts on Chicago’s insistence on bonafides. He also had a pretty good explanation for why the Regan connection didn’t play out.
He said, “…there’s a question about the pedigree of the chef, and there’s a lot to say. Chef Hunter isn’t a native Chicagoan, which makes him an unknown and the media likes to have those local heroes to root for. But also, if we see the “outsider” put in the work, we’ll accept them. There’s a level of transparency this city demands, for better or worse.
The disturbing thing about the word “pedigree” is the gatekeeping aspect. Who gains the cred among chef’s networks for taking unpaid internships? Who is trained in culinary school? There are several reasons there are few black chefs in the fine dining world.”
Selvam added, “…the transition from chef Iliana Regan was never going to be perfect. Regan didn’t want to cast a shadow. Lacey didn’t want to ask too much of his friend. The marketing was going to take a deft touch and when you’re opening a fine dining restaurant in a neighborhood like Lincoln Square, pouring your heart and soul into the daily operations, coming off a pandemic… [the] marketing part can take a back seat.”
There’s a lot of truth here, but even without rigorous marketing, every media person, even the few who are left, like to be the first to laud a talent or be first to break a new spot.
The Infatuation has built on empire on this with their first looks and capsule write-ups of restaurants before they do formal reviews. And yet, when you search for “Atelier” on their website (as of October 10th) this is the result.
You could argue that maybe the Infatuation’s audience doesn’t love tasting menus and they don’t do them, but I checked and they have reviewed Alinea, Esme, Kasama, Schwa, and Oriole.
I asked Selvam, who is in a similar business, covering the entire city’s food scene online, how he thinks something like this could happen?
He said, “I’m not sure. It could be a tech snafu. These things happen. Not everything is agenda driven, and mistakes occur. Chicago’s a large city and my hat’s off to them, they cover a large swath. But, again, this is a publication that put up a video via social media in late August, one that was quickly taken down after commenters ripped them. The video asked “who gives a fuck” if a chef had won a James Beard award. Chef Hunter was nominated for one earlier this year for his work in Connecticut. Perhaps Connecticut doesn’t captivate the team very much. It’s not a budget thing for Infatuation. Don’t forget, they earn triple the amount in dining points with each use of their Chase Sapphire Cards.”
Now, if like The Infatuation, you hadn’t visited and experienced Hunter’s pitch perfect pupusas and terrific Thanksgiving one-biter pheasant course, this all makes perfect sense. You don’t know what you don’t know, and the silence may just reflect that.
But, I also did an informal survey of some of Chicago’s critics and editors to determine who had been to Atelier. Some had not, but more than a few had and decided not to write about it.
I knew no one who had visited Atelier but didn’t review it would admit to that publicly. But, even privately some of these folks who had visited Atelier refused to answer or ignored my follow up question of “Why they didn’t publish a review?”. Even off record it was clear that Atelier’s lack of coverage wasn’t always because people weren’t aware of it.
There are two schools of food criticism, one which says, only write about the restaurants you do like and the other that says write about the restaurant no matter what.
I subscribe to the latter because I fundamentally believe food journalism is a service business. I don’t want my readers spending tons of money on places where I wouldn’t spend my money.
I also believe it’s a service to the restaurant. Whether you believe critics are stupid donkeys or not, genuine feedback is often a way to improve. When Pete Wells told Thomas Keller his mushroom tea at Per Se tasted like murky bong water in the New York Times, Keller could have posted a picture on Instagram taking water pipe rips in the kitchen with the caption “Whatever, dude.” In the current climate, this probably would have brought more diners in the short term.
Keller instead did what the very best chefs do. He took responsibility, listened, continued to refine what he does, and opened, in my opinion, some of the very best restaurants he ever has including The Surf Club north of Miami. The greats all process feedback well. The critic isn’t always right either, but these guys listen and know what’s worth responding to and what’s worth dismissing.
In the case of Atelier I know there were at least two critics who visited Atelier that regularly write positive and negative reviews like I do, but for some reason decided not to write a review at all. Why would they pull their punches when they usually don’t?
Ultimately it feels like they treated Atelier, helmed by a black chef, differently than they would a restaurant run by a white chef? How else explain how a media so hungry to elevate black chefs during black history month, or because of the BLM-driven pandemic awareness, suddenly wasn’t hungry to write a review about, in my opinion, one of the best chefs (period) working in Chicago right now?
I think what’s happening in this case is not an overt but more of a subconscious racism (which I know sounds like a luxury phrase only a white dude could say – and that might be right). It might also be overt too though.
Is Atelier the best restaurant in Chicago? No. Does it have things that can improve. Yes, I noted those things in my review. But, by any definition is it less than three stars? Hell no. Restaurants can change over time. But if someone went recently and didn’t like it so much they couldn’t review it, I suspect that person is looking through a very clouded lens.
If they went months ago and it did suck, then they decided not to treat the restaurant helmed by a black chef like they have treated restaurants run by white chefs. This is, no matter your moral justifications, the very definition of racism. Even if you disagree on this specific point, it’s still a disservice if you really believe someone has room to improve and you don’t offer that help.
Selvam who has been a true leader discussing BIPOC-related restaurant issues at Eater said, “And though folks will put up their black squares on social media during Juneteenth, there’s little commitment to actually put marginalized folks in positions to succeed. Chicago’s food media, as a whole — there are exceptions — is too fragile to engage in good-faith conversations about identity, including race, without turning themselves into victims.”
Even though I fundamentally believe he’s right, I also appreciate that Selvam is courageous enough to say this, because as we know, being right is never enough.
It’s easy for me, a white dude who has a job in another industry, who does not have to worry that the politics of the food world will punish me. Generally speaking, as a white male, I get to communicate without much consequence except the occasional former subscriber telling me my work is “fucking tedious”. Usually that’s another white dude.
BIPOC folks speaking about BIPOC issues though are often derided as being complainers or Cassandras or worse. They risk a lot more.
But, that’s also why I do this newsletter the way I do it. By being independent, not relying on the industry or it’s political machinations for support and creating the conditions that remove the risks of being honest, the dialogue gets better.
This comes with its own tribulations, but if more people take this leap, maybe we can normalize the conversation to a point that we’re more comfortable debating in public without feeling like we’re all gonna get cancelled. And by doing so, maybe food media and society gets better. And maybe great places like Atelier don’t get overlooked.
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