On June 11, Chicago officially moved to Phase 5 of pandemic restrictions, which means most capacity limits, social distancing requirements, and mask mandates were lifted citywide. This, of course, included restaurants. When everything more or less reopened fully, I swear I felt the whole city breathe a sigh of relief, especially the restaurant industry.
Though I’ve been a full-time staff writer at The Takeout since last October, my previous full-time job was working as a pizzamaker at Paulie Gee’s Logan Square, and I still moonlight there on occasions when someone needs a shift covered. Until leaving eight months ago, I’d been in a restaurant environment for over five years, and it has felt strange stepping away nearly cold turkey. But honestly, it was time. I’m not sure I could have handled it much longer, physically, mentally, and financially, pandemic or not. (Plus, come on. The Takeout? Dream job.)
I worked at the restaurant through a chunk of the pandemic last year, and it was nerve-racking beyond belief. Business was slow. We’d converted to a strictly takeout and delivery model and modified one of our windows to slide open, just big enough to complete transactions and hand over precious pizza. Regulars still came to visit often, waving to say hi on the other side of the glass, shouting muffled greetings through their masks, which was a great morale booster. We added New York slices (great walking-around food) and whole pies to our existing menu of woodfired and Detroit-style pizza.
Even though Chicago was periodically open for in-person dining at limited capacities during some phases of the pandemic, Derrick Tung, owner of Paulie Gee’s and a good friend of mine (whom we’ve featured on The Takeout many times before), decided against opening up the restaurant until the staff was fully vaccinated and everyone was comfortable with it. And last Thursday, the restaurant finally opened back up for in-person dining. It was a momentous occasion. For the first few days, reservations would be available online with limited walk-in capacity, mostly for friends and family, until the staff could work out operational kinks.
I agreed to cover a shift for someone who wanted the night off on Saturday, just to see how I’d feel being back in the kitchen, cooking in a restaurant whose dining room was fully open again. I wasn’t sure if I was ready, but that’s a big part of why I said I’d take the shift: to kick myself out of the nest.
There were a few big changes when the dining room reopened. To curb a bit of human interaction and because of short-staffing, each table now had a QR code on it. Customers scanned the code with their phone to be redirected to a website from which they could order their food, and a staff member would run over their pizzas and drinks. On paper, that sounds really impersonal, but in practice, it was totally fine. There was still plenty of interaction between customers and staff, all of it jovial. Naturally there were a few technical glitches with a few orders not going through properly, but overall, it seemed to work out.
Because the staff was vaccinated, it was up to our own comfort level to decide whether or not we wanted to wear our masks on the line. After some deliberation, I decided to take mine off. I wanted to examine how I’d feel, and maybe this would be like a pair of training wheels to test my future desires to be in a room full of people, of my own accord. Maybe a movie in a theater (wouldn’t that be nice?), or just a Friday night dinner in someone else’s restaurant.
I’m going to be honest and tell you that I was pretty uncomfortable without my mask for a while. I felt vulnerable and naked. But little by little things got better until I stopped actively thinking about it. At one point, I made a strange realization: This was the first time I’d seen two of my fellow line cook’s faces, unmasked, because they were hired during the pandemic. It felt good to see their smiles.
At no point did we get slammed, but we definitely stayed occupied. When it was a little slower, we’d crack fart jokes and laugh our asses off with each other, and when we got busy, we’d get quiet and crank out pies. It felt good to stretch out the dough and move my hands like I used to; I can still stretch out a pizza in my sleep, and topping every pie from memory was easy. I fired a few off in the oven and they came out beautifully.
But wow, did my body feel rusty. When you cook for years, your body is plenty used to moving around on your feet for hours, doing manual labor, and being around the ambient heat of an oven. Now, spending most of my time writing, I’m squarely on my butt in a chair, exercising my creative mental muscles instead.
After two-thirds of the shift I could already tell my knees and back would be grouchy with me the next day. And I realized I’d completely lost what I call my “kitchen fingers,” aka, my tolerance to picking up very hot metal pizza trays. I never thought I’d miss that.
But here’s the part that was most important to me: Working in an open kitchen.
I stared out into the dining room and saw families and groups of friends, many with faces I knew, just enjoying each other’s company over dinner. It all felt familiar, but dreamlike. Many came by to say hi while we were working. Some new diners came up to tell us they liked the food, or to take photos of us cooking, presumably to show friends or put up on social media (which happened pretty often in the beforetimes too). But even now, sitting here, writing this, I’m having a difficult time parsing how I felt, because nothing during that service felt like it used to.
I couldn’t tell if I was happy, relieved, or uncomfortable. Maybe it was a mix of all of those things, with a sprinkling of unexpected grief. It was hard not to wonder if any people I’d fed before would never be able to come back in.
After my shift, I said goodnight to everyone and went back home. I took a shower, had a few drinks, and watched some television, just like most nights. Then I went to bed. I don’t remember what I dreamt about. All I know is that I had a hard time falling asleep.