A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate in Between Bites, a lovely philanthropic quarterly literary event that tasks food people (chefs, journalists, advocates, etc.) to write and read stories with a common theme. The theme for this one was Home/Away. I jumped at the chance/challenge to write about something I think about, oh, I don’t know, maybe ALL THE TIME.
As per usual, when I sat down to write it, the story ended up going in a different direction than I thought it would. Because I sat down to write it... and couldn’t write anything. I was stumped, blocked. After erasing the first couple of lines a few dozen times, I shut the computer with a defeated sigh. I stared at the wall in my office. I stared at the upper left corner, at some pictures of a red leaf wall. And stared. And stared. And then… the words came in a flood.
Here is a story about being home and away at the same time.
There’s a wall in my apartment that I write on. Like, ACTUALLY write on. Landlord be damned. I took to the off limits canvas like a kid does to candy. The rebel in me is somehow verrrrrry satisfied when the colored pencil makes contact with the wall, and I scrawl over its bumpy surface.
The wall is one of four in a room that serves functionally as my office-slash-living room, but in practice it is my creative space. I go to this wall when I need inspiration. Or have something to say. Or something I want to remember. Something I’m looking for. Something I’m missing.
The wall is a collage of ideas, quotes, snippets of things I like, and tacked up pictures that significance. Within all, are pieces of home.
I lived in the city of Chicago for 22 years. It is “home”, by definition and default. But I’ve never been able to find that sense of HOME in solely one place. To me, home is a feeling. I find it in people, places, objects. I mostly have travel to blame for this. Some might call it a passion, a few might call it an escape. To me, travel is a calling. Something I need to do periodically to feel whole.
I travel when I can, with respect to my chef and restaurant owner schedule and responsibilities. But it’s hard. Living this way. I always kinda feel simultaneously at home and away wherever I am. A friend of friend recently said it best: “I have come to the realization that I will always be a little "homesick" no matter where I go. It's a blessing and a curse to love so many people and places.” How profoundly those words resonate.
This wall that I write on has become a map of home. It allows me to be home and away at the same time. While there are no pictures of food, many of the images on the wall carry food memories. Food deepens our connection to our experiences, to that feeling of home. Rarely, at least for me, is it not the direct connection but rather a thread that weaves through it. So it makes sense that when I look at the picture I took of a cemetery in New Orleans, I’m reminded of beignets. (It’s not as morbid as it sounds.)
I went to Cafe DuMonde with Nick, a former Honey Butter employee, and now a friend. We met at the famous fried dough mecca and caught up on life since he had left Chicago. I asked him why he moved to New Orleans, after only visiting for a couple of days. He said “I felt like I was home.” That struck a cord, and we delved further into that subject. We talked for hours, late into the evening.
Dense, swampland fog filled the streets around us. Powdered sugar concentrated on our fingers like paste, waiting to be licked off after the last bite of beignet was savored and swallowed. Cafe Du Monde was just one part of my experience there. Obviously, a cemetery pic made it on my wall for a reason, but that powdered sugar magic is permanently imprinted on my taste buds and in that picture as well. Because of my conversation with Nick over beignets about home, I found a piece of home in New Orleans.
There’s a picture of rope swings on a beach in Tulum Mexico. Which I will forever associate with some of the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten and some of the worst Montezuma's revenge I’ve ever experienced. DO NOT EAT STREET FOOD WITH RAW VEGETABLES. (My business partner Josh told me that… after I returned.) But I definitely found a piece of home in Tulum. Walks up and down that seemingly endless coastline soothed me during breaks from harsh Chicago winter.
Across the road from the beach, the dining room of Hartwood is carved out of jungle trees and lit by candlelight. It’s the restaurant that all chefs, including this one, dream about opening but rarely do because you’d have to give up your whole life and move somewhere off the grid and set up a restaurant with no electricity. (... maybe someday...) If you’ve never made the journey down there, and savored their ceviches, the honey and beer glazed pork ribs, and mezcal cocktails, please considering doing so. I keep the Hartwood cookbook next to the wall. If I want to travel to Tulum home, I just flip through the pages.
There’s an image of Lake Michigan, which reminds me of time spent in Milwaukee. Milwaukee is a great place to go if you wanna get away but don’t have the time or money to get on airplane. I like to go to the lake to get some perspective. It’s the same lake we have in Chicago, but somehow it feels different.
Afterwards, I usually make my way to Honey Pie Cafe and order the chicken biscuit pot pie. The buttery biscuit is golden brown delicious on top, and gooey sticky awesome baked into the filling on the bottom. It wins the blue ribbon for comfort food. I’ve sat at the restaurant bar, picking at that pot pie during high and low points in my life, and also the quiet and mundane ones in between. That place is a like a big hug that always envelops me and welcomes me home.
Most people associate my restaurant with the crispy crunchy fried chicken with melty honey butter that is its namesake, and rightfully so. But HBFC is so much more to me. It is a BIG home. There are four images tacked together in the upper left corner of my wall. Each is snapshot of the HBFC back patio brick wall. I take the photo at the same time every year, in fall when the leaves that crawl up the brick turn bright red. Each photo is a portal for a year’s worth of experiences. Looked at together, it is a series of benchmarks reminding me how just far we’ve come.
Flashback to 6 years ago. Before there was a red leaf wall in my life. My business partner and co-chef Josh, our two cooks and one server, and I sat on my back porch, taking a few moments to eat a small taste of the food we had just served to guests of our Sunday Dinner Club. What happened in that moment was not so much an accident, but a sloppy plate up of family meal. But there we were, eating fried chicken that somehow had managed to land in some honey butter.
It seemed so incredibly insignificant at the time, but I remember every detail. The way the porch light dimly lit our quick family meal chow down between courses. Where I was sitting on the steps. The sounds of the dining room inside and down the hall. We bit into the first honey buttery fried chicken and said out loud: Oh man... this is really fuckin’ good. Something compelled me to jump up, run to the dining room, and tell our diners to put the butter on the chicken. They did. And look what happened.
From that one moment, everything shifted towards now. 6 years later, I own a restaurant that has 40 employees who have a safe and nurturing work environment. Many of them tell me that it is home to them. We have thousands of wonderful customers, and I wonder if any of them have found pieces of home at HBFC.
The first picture I took of the red wall was the day after we bought the building. Before we had employees, customers, equipment, leases, exhaustion, good problems, and all that good press that connected so many people to our little restaurant that could on Elston Avenue in Avondale. Countless memories reside in the three pictures taken since. All of this I can extract from four images of red leaves on a brick wall. If that isn’t the essence of home, I don’t know what is.
The wall in my apartment allows me to time travel while being present. I can zoom in and find the people, places, feelings, memories, and meals within. I can zoom out and see the big picture. When I move away from this apartment someday, I know the wall will get painted over. The photos will come with me, but the words I wrote will vanish beneath latex coats and the home map will cease to be as it is. But for now, it is all of my homes in once place.