A culinary confession – Chicago Reader

Last July I told myself I was done with Abe Conlon. But here I go again.

If you’ve paid much attention to the Reader‘s food coverage over the last nine years, you know Conlon as the once obscure underground chef who opened Logan Square’s Fat Rice and went on to build a national reputation for food inspired by the southern Chinese peninsula of Macau.

If, for some reason, you were paying attention to Chicago restaurant social media two chaotic weekends ago, you know that reputation got dragged—and dragged hard. In fact, the issue arose out of the collective agony and protest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder: a number of Chicago chefs and restaurants were called out on social media for various forms of alleged bad behavior after posting seemingly self-serving support of the Black Lives Matter movement (or in one case, outright rejection of it).

But the Conlon Affair was the real popcorn muncher. Spearheaded largely by another onetime underground chef and brief Fat Rice employee, Joey Pham, it took the form of a blizzard of Instagram posts quoting former employees accusing Conlon, and in some cases his partner Adrienne Lo, of everything from racism, to cultural appropriation, to wage theft.

But what comes across strongest is the picture of Conlon as arrogant and dismissive; a belittler and a berater prone to unpredictable explosions of rage; exhibit A in the case against culinary toxicity.

Some might find it easy to dismiss the complaints of former employees with suspicion, or downplay their severity as disgruntled snowflake sniveling, but the stories took me right back to a warm summer morning in a narrow condo kitchen when Conlon treated myself and two colleagues to the mother of all temper tantrums.

But let me back up. I moonlight as an editor for an independent magazine about cooking with cannabis. It’s called Kitchen Toke, and like my job at the Reader, it’s lots of fun. I get to work with chefs from all over the country, most of them passionate about their work and thrilled to see it featured in a coffee-table-gorgeous, internationally distributed print magazine.

I’ve written about Conlon a bunch of times over the years for the Reader. There’s no question he’s a brilliant chef. I’ve loved his food. His stories were funny, interesting, and entertaining. I always took Abe’s calls.

I had heard him, on occasion, be a bit curt and dismissive to employees—and even to Lo—but I chalked it up to the everyday pressures of a busy chef on the rise. Some chefs punch their way up in the business by punching down on their staff. It’s an all too commonly accepted truth about the industry. You could say I was among those in the media who considered Fat Rice a “darling,” as Pham described the food press’s infatuation with the chef and the restaurant.

Conlon had served cannabis-infused dinners with his underground supper club X-Marx before he opened Fat Rice, and I knew he loved to smoke weed, so of course I wanted to feature him in Kitchen Toke. Independent of myself, the magazine’s founder and designer Joline Rivera had the same idea, and we each pitched Conlon about featuring him in our upcoming fall issue.

Rivera floated the possibility of Abe cooking at some high-profile events she’d been commissioned to curate (for a New York City clothing designer, a hip-hop festival, a New Year’s Eve party). Meanwhile, Conlon and I spitballed ideas, imagining a twisted Gourmet-style photo spread with recipes, set in a forest preserve, with Abe cooking an outdoor feast infused with compatible strains and terpene isolates for his friends. Rivera and I told him he could cook whatever he wanted.

But it was a busy spring leading into a busy summer. In May, Abe was cooking at events surrounding the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention and the James Beard Awards, and later things got hectic when Fat Rice got an expensive new kitchen remodel.

Rivera and I were busy putting together the rest of the issue, and working our other jobs, and communication became erratic. But in late June, Conlon proposed a menu of five dishes, and per his specs, I purchased a few hundred dollars’ worth of cannabis for him to play with in his recipes. I also arranged for several hundred dollars’ worth of terpenes to be shipped my way from a San Francisco manufacturer eager to get them into the great chef’s hands. (Terpenes are aromatic organic compounds that give different cannabis strains their distinctive aromas and flavors. They’re fun to cook with.) Like a drug dealer, I delivered it all to Abe at Fat Rice’s back door in a paper bag.

He seemed excited to get started, but by then our deadlines were fast approaching. It was too late to mount an outdoor photo shoot, and over the phone Rivera and Conlon had tense disagreements over locations and timing. After this, Rivera told me Conlon tried to “throw you under the bus” for the poor communication that had so far stalled the process. In a separate exchange with me, Conlon blamed her for the same thing. “Some shit might be coming your way,” he texted me. “Sry.”

One thing you can count on about Rivera is that she doesn’t take shit from anyone. And another: she’s fiercely loyal to the people who work for her. A third: she has no time for drama. She suggested that we kill the Conlon feature and move on to something else, but I was panicked that we had nothing to replace it with in time, and I convinced her to stay the course. “It’s just one day,” I argued. “You’ll shoot [photos of] him. We’ll get the recipes. I’ll write the story, and we never have to deal with him again.” I vouched for him, even after he tried to get me in trouble with the boss. I didn’t tell her about Abe’s text describing her as “kind of a mess.” I desperately wanted to make it work.

A date and location was finally set, and Rivera distributed a detailed schedule with deadlines to all involved. Photographer Frank Lawlor would shoot Conlon in Rivera’s kitchen while Conlon prepared one of the five recipes he promised but had yet to deliver: Pâté-Stuffed Onion Petals With Cannabis Brown Butter Aromatized With Terpenes and Shatter Sherry Gastrique. I was going to sit in, a fly on the wall, there to report on whatever came out of the ever-quotable Conlon’s mouth as he did his thing. The other dishes, by necessity, would have to be shot later, in a studio with a food stylist.

In the days leading up to the shoot, we repeatedly asked him to tell us what he needed in terms of ingredients, equipment, and props. We asked him for the recipes he committed to develop because we had a commitment to send them to the tester in Los Angeles ASAP. But stretches of days passed between communications, usually e-mails sent from Lo.

These were not ideal conditions for a photo shoot, but Kitchen Toke is a scrappy operation. We roll with the punches.

When the day came, I met Abe at the door. He seemed perturbed. He couldn’t find a good parking spot, so he had to huff and puff a stack of plastic storage containers full of ingredients from a couple blocks away. On top of that, he’d cooked for the governor the night before, so I figured it had been a rough morning.

Maybe that’s why I kept my mouth shut after I introduced him to Lawlor and Rivera, and he demanded she remove her little Malteses because he didn’t want to “stomp on one of them and kill it.”

There wasn’t much time to process the level of threat in that statement before things went completely off the rails. Conlon became increasingly agitated as he set up his mise en place, complaining about what a shitty week he’d had, how the whole process had been fucked up and a huge pain in the ass for him, and how he wasn’t getting paid for all the trouble he’d taken. That subject had never been broached—Kitchen Toke, like any journalistic endeavor, doesn’t pay its story subjects. So I finally spoke up: “Abe, when Food & Wine does a feature on you, do they pay you?”

This stunned him into momentary silence before he schooled me: “But I get the equivalent of $30,000 in free advertising! And you know what, Mike, you guys aren’t Food & Wine.” But the question set him off. He began pinballing around the kitchen, slamming ingredients around, and bellowing about the things we promised and never delivered, all punctuated by numerous salivary F-bombs. I couldn’t help but notice his knife kit was open on the counter. At one point, Abe stepped toward Rivera, and Lawlor stepped between them.

That’s when Rivera pulled the plug. “This is over,” she said, and left the kitchen, while Lawlor and I offered Abe increasingly urgent encouragement to get out, as he continued to rant.

“Abe, shut up,” I said. “Nobody wants to hear it.”

“Keep your mouth shut and get out,” I said.

And then like a dime-store Don Corleone: “You’re dead to me,” I said. “Fuck you.”

Between Rivera, Lawlor, and myself, we’ve worked with hundreds of chefs in our careers, but this was something entirely unprecedented. In the aftermath, we were pretty shook up. But we shook it off. Within 20 minutes we had a new chef on board, ready and raring to go. Forget him, we told each other.

When I reflected on it later, I actually felt bad that I’d lost my cool and spoken so unprofessionally. And I thought about the restaurant industry and its endemic problems and figured Abe might be dealing with issues a lot more troubling than a low-budget indie photo shoot. All I could think was “Thank God I don’t have to work for that lunatic. That must be awful.” I told a few friends what happened, but I mostly kept it to myself.

I’m not writing this story now, in all its ugly detail, because it feels good to kick Conlon when he’s down. He’s issued his apologies and promises to do better on Instagram and in interviews in the Tribune and Block Club. (But if you’ve ever spoken to Conlon for more than ten minutes, you know that they sound like they’re coming from a completely different person.) By the time this went to press, he hadn’t responded to my request for comment.

I’m writing this story a year after this all happened because I can’t stop thinking about all the times I got hints and full-stop red lights that something was seriously wrong—and I continued to champion Conlon and his work.

There’s been a debate in food media in recent years about whether it’s ethical to cover the work of known abusers, and I’ve paid lip service to it myself. So I could’ve stopped for a minute and reconsidered writing about Conlon the time he broke away midsentence during a phone interview to chew someone out in the background.

I could’ve told him to fuck off when he started talking shit on my boss.

After that ugly morning last summer, I could’ve started asking questions instead of trying to put it all behind me.

And this spring, I definitely could have spoken up when a colleague secured a recipe from Conlon, via Lo, for the Reader cookbook project we were working on. But instead I let it slide. “The world’s a mess right now,” I thought. “That’s all in the past, and it’s big of them to help.”

I’ve been looking back and wincing at some of the gratuitously shitty things I’ve written over the years as a restaurant critic. A few days ago a friend texted me their opinion that “every man, and certainly every white man, has behavior to regret.” Maybe I’ll end up regretting writing this story, but not as much as I regret using my platform to boost a media darling who turned out to be no darling at all.   v