Chapter III. Quarantini
For my sixth week, I show up to the Roscoe Village LUSH to find owner Mitch, the man in black himself, in a tool belt building a patio by his lonesome. I am horrified to learn that I am to be a waiter for the first time in my thirty-three years. How does one do this? I’d never actually paid any attention to the ins and outs of the profession. Maggie, LUSH wine, beer, and cider guru, laughs when I drape a serviette over my arm: “This is what the somms teach, right?” I say.
Naturally the weather is perfect and we are slammed the entire weekend and unfortunately for everyone else they have me, the professional tourist, to rely on. Although most patrons are just happy to be outside their homes and are quick to excuse the missing menus and water carafes. Excepting me, the LUSH hospitality, service and kitchen staff are dialed in. Matt, Lush Roscoe Beverage Hospitality, and Adam are performing the perpetual maintenance and coding for the point-of-sale system in between drafting real-time menus, ringing up produce, boxing up wine and recommending spirits for Father’s Day gifts. Maggie is making a Moscow Mule while chilling a rosé while washing dishes while sanitizing tables while charging $500 to a gift card. I used to believe multitasking was a myth but here it’s an understatement.
As I wait for a computer to charge a table for their veal and pork grinder, Josh plates deviled eggs with and without lobster for table PE3, which I’d incorrectly charged to PW3. Maggie swoops in to refund and exchange—”Patio East, Shane, can’t you tell which direction from the sunset?” “That keg is tapped; offer him this IPA, he’ll never order the other one again.” “That’s a Last Word, right? Don’t forget the Luxardo, it’s the tall bottle braided with a picnic hamper.” When Chef David emerges from the kitchen in his yellow kerchief to find me breathing into a paper bag, he phlegmatically clears one of my tables before serving a fromage plate to PE1 along with the cutlery I’d neglected to provide.
Despite my handiwork, we receive no complaints apart from the occasional reminder about that errant glass of Chateau Nomad rosé. I had seen how the sausage is made and I do not envy anyone making it. It is a hard, constant and frenetic business keeping a restaurant running with as many moving parts as a SpaceX launch. It’s a small wonder why so many fail, and why the few succeed. There is a scrappy synergy at Lush to press on, weathering any storm, be it plague or revolution. It is an enterprise serving the needs of human decency in providing good food and wine, which are meant to bring us together and no less essential in times of uncertainty.
Chapter II. Hot ‘n Ready
“Just trying to keep these three rings in the air,” Adam, LUSH partner, tells me during my second week. From a safe distance, I observe the circus as Rosie, Chef de Cuisine at LUSH Evanston, and Inez, culinary team member, prepare and package duck confit-cassoulet and Beef Bourguignon to be delivered or put in coolers for in-store customers. I watch as Adam shakes up a Pisco Sour then steals entrées from the kitchen with an order of smoked Baby Back ribs for an impromptu photoshoot on the patio for LUSH’s newsletter. Adam has a knack for ferreting out and utilizing the skills of his employees; Crystal and Jack of LUSH Evanston are now executing the many moving parts of holiday kits, Izzi, daughter of LUSH co-owner Cliff, is producing our biweekly LUSH newsletters, and Joey, culinary staff member at the Roscoe Village location, is producing LUSH YouTube videos. And then, of course, there is me and this charming little blog.
All day long Evanstonians come and go to replenish their proprietary LUSH growlers off the tap, or Uber Eats delivery people pick up orders of artisanal Belgian and Piedmontese beers out of the cooler. And then there are the inimitable LUSH to-go cocktails that Carlos, formerly the Evanston bartender, concocts hours before opening each day. LUSH was making to-go cocktails since before it was cool, and we simply cannot keep the Hellfire Margaritas and Old Fashioneds on the shelf. At the expense of his morning yoga routine, Carlos shows up to work earlier each proceeding day I’m in Evanston to exercise the alembics.
When I’m finally settled in at Evanston, Adam senses complacency and picks me up by a fin out of my bowl to drop me at the LUSH in West Town. Here, Melanie, Guest Service at LUSH West Town, placidly gift wraps a bottle of Champagne for a customer. The Twisted Spoke may have the most eclectic Bourbon and whiskey selection in the Midwest, but LUSH is no slouch either shelving everything from charred Tennessee whiskey to Japanese gin. (Be on the lookout for Inverroche, a floral gluten-free South African gin distilled from sugarcane— the distillery even has their own botanist!).
Chapter I. The Alarmist
The following is a record of the black swan event of 2020 and how we managed, adapted, and survived.
Definition of “boulevardier”:
1: a frequenter of the Parisian boulevards (broadly): man-about-town
A vocation to schmoozing about wine coaxed me to Chicago to sell it rather than continue making it in Eastern Washington. Surely a provincial town in a desert with three restaurants and a state prison is no place for a boulevardier. It was rather the bustle of a cosmopolitan epicenter which flew my fancies. I dove into the vibrant atmosphere distributing wines and spirits from Portugal, South Africa, Spain, France, Morocco, Austria, and California for a small company with the desired latitude for autonomy and longitude for entrepreneurial growth. After several months of stalking buyers and calling on the multitudes of restaurants, hotels, bars, groceries, and retail outlets, I was about to make my mark on an industry oversaturated with food and beverage and fraught with competition in the hordes of longwinded sales reps with their tote bags and foldout widgets . . . before the bottom dropped out from under us, that is.
The COVID-19 lockdown began in the vicinity of Saint Patrick’s Day. I remember because I was trying to review an Austrian Riesling as the excessive vacuuming of the manic neighbor above drowned out the fiddles of The Chieftains in my garden apartment. Two months of house arrest ensued, fretting in petty isolation. I’d gone from boulevardier, the moveable feast of Chicago, to Howard Hughes with the beard sans the urine jars, disinfecting every foreign object. Human beings were no longer things to be trusted or interacted with but feared. All we had were ourselves, spun up like helpless flies in our webs of technology; consuming the endless speculation, sensationalism and fearmongering of the news, the claptrap of social media, the paroxysm of opportunistic pundits politicizing and exploiting the pandemic to further divide us.
On some unmarked quarantine date, LUSH owner Mitch Einhorn called to ask if I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of reestablishing a connection to the human race; that perhaps it would be good for me to brave the elements and immerse myself once more into the world of food and wine at any of his three LUSH Wine & Spirits. Thus, I struck out to the surface with my hazmat suit and Geiger counter. My first assignment was to make contact with a survivor named Adam (proverbially fitting I thought as well) stationed at the LUSH in Evanston. Adam is a one-man think tank, who sheds ideas and innovations for the LUSH brand like an auctioneer calls bids.
LUSH was originally envisioned by Mitch Einhorn (the same owner of the Chicago institution The Twisted Spoke) as a wine bar/retail outlet. Yet the LUSH in Evanston before the outbreak had been functioning as a wine cellar, retailer, cocktail bar, and full-service restaurant. In typical LUSH fashion, it underwent yet another quick-silver evolution in response to the mandated shuttering of restaurants in the country—as if there weren’t enough labels and services before. As Adam on my first day put it, amid email alerts, phone calls and text notifications from both of his phones, “There isn’t enough neon left to put under the LUSH sign for everything we are.” Mitch has over fifty employees at four different businesses. Not one has been let go since the lockdown. Instead, everyone has padded their résumés by assuming roles they never imagined they’d have. Like me, for instance, and my baptism-by-fire in retail.
Picture, if you will, a boulevardier generally dressed like a cocaine cowboy from the 80s with paisley shirts, or a dubious Southern attorney in a linen jacket, thrust behind a register to ring up customers on an alien POS system, oiling wooden tables while staining navy Golas, or sorting produce. Yes, LUSH had become Evanston’s own farmer’s market with fresh produce displayed outside and festooning the shotgun layout like the Shops of the Colonnade in New Orleans. LUSH is supplied by Tom Cornille & Sons, the same fifth-generation supplier of Alinea, and it’s a scene for Evanston locals out for a stroll, whose eyes are caught by a ripe peach, stalks of rhubarb, morel mushrooms and country loaves from Hewn. They wander into the store and avail their hands of Adam’s proprietary rum sanitizer and decide a chilled Vinho Verde might not be such a bad idea to be enjoyed outside in the glorious weather. They will then notice the menu or Chef David’s specials that day and decide to order a LUSH Burger (the best I’ve had in Chicago) to go. Or they will call a friend once they realize the back patio has just opened and politely impose on me to make them a reservation, which I invariably do not know how to do and must impose on Susan, LUSH hostess with the mostest, for employee/customer support.
The patrons, who can finally unburden themselves of their surgical masks outside, reconnect with their past as human beings in a civilized society as they order a French 75 and a Bourbon Mule from the friendliest server you’ll ever meet in Tony. Then they’ll order lobster bisque or a Chef’s Choice charcuterie platter or any of the revolving French Bistro options that David and Mitch dream up. And if it rains they are cordially presented with a survival kit of ponchos, dry socks, rubber duckies, and “Raincheck Bubbles” guaranteeing a complimentary glass of sparkling wine for when they return. Meanwhile, I’m inside handselling for the first time in my career as a sommelier a Barolo, or a Sancerre, or two Provence rosés to curious and open-minded customers. Refreshing, I note to myself, in contrast to harassing tastings out of blasé restaurant general managers in the city.