Some of the rare bright moments in this slow terror are the random porch presents from masked bandits bearing treasures. Last month, prompted by a text, I leapt from my desk (couch) and found a bag of perfect morel mushrooms at the door, purchased by one friend, delivered by another, and foraged in central Illinois by someone I’d never met before but had been curious about for a long time.
Last week, the forager herself showed up on the porch with a hefty serving of everything-bagel-seasoned mac and cheese, another of cholent—a slow-simmered stew of brisket with pearl barley and potatoes, cooked down and enriched overnight with bone marrow—and a deli container of raspberry-rosewater jam.
The food was prepared in a Logan Square shared kitchen and delivered via a beat-up 2005 green Chrysler Town and Country by Eve Studnicka of the long-running underground supper club Dinner at the Grotto and her business partner of three months, Alexis Thomas of Black Cat Kitchen, a bespoke caterer I’d also just realized I’d been eyeing with curiosity all season at last year’s Lincoln Square Farmers Market but somehow failed to check out.
Sometimes you have to stay inside to get out.
Separately, in early March, Studnicka and Thomas were gearing up for a busy spring. But on March 10, the day Governor Pritzker declared a state of emergency, Studnicka had to postpone (and later cancel) an almost-sold-out April 1 “Soviet Soul Food” dinner, and was later furloughed from her job at Finom Coffee. On the same day, all four of Thomas’s upcoming catering gigs canceled, including a Friday the 13th dinner party at Helix Café. “I had a big sad day,” says Thomas. “Is my business even a business anymore?” But within a week the pair had joined forces and pivoted to a weekly midwestern-forward and wonderfully weird meal delivery system that’s sold out within a day for 12 straight weeks.
Thomas, 27, grew up in small-town Byron, near Rockford, the daughter of police officers. “My mom cooked out of function, not out of any joy,” she says. “I was never allowed to cook, so I would steal cookbooks out of the library. I had a fine of like $16 that I couldn’t/wouldn’t pay, so I would put cookbooks in my backpack, take them home, copy them down into notebooks, and then return them in the book chute. I didn’t start cooking until I moved out on my own in my early 20s. I grew a real love for it.”
Similarly, Studnicka, who’s 25, grew up in the rural Driftless Region in southwestern Wisconsin. As a young, homeschooled then-vegetarian, cooking her own food became part of the curriculum. “Neither of my parents love cooking, so instead of making me a separate meal they kind of assigned me with that task.” As a freshman studying film at Columbia College, she started Pancakes at the Grotto, a LGBTQ-friendly breakfast series, out of her apartment “in the purgatory” between Logan Square and Avondale. “All of the parties sucked, and I wanted to be able to gather with friends and not have to play beer pong,” she says.
Studnicka and Thomas met two years ago while working at Katherine Anne Confections. Thomas had just quit her special-ed social work job, burnt out on compassion fatigue. “I had no formal training but really loved food,” she says. “I had a lot of knowledge and not a lot of actual practice, but that’s when I decided I really wanted to open my own business.” As for Studnicka, Pancakes at the Grotto had evolved into an all-consuming passion project, sometimes hosting up to 45 people for the redubbed Dinner at the Grotto. She figures she’s served some 3,000 guests during her six-year run—last year they voted her best up-and-coming chef in the Reader’s Best of Chicago poll. Dinner at the Grotto won best underground dining.
They both struck out on their own a year ago, Thomas going full steam with Black Cat, and Studnicka supplementing Dinner at the Grotto by working as Rafael Esparza’s chef de cuisine at Finom. But they collaborated, too, notably on a Nordic-inspired dinner in the winter of 2019, and in January for a cannabis-infused dinner party to celebrate the state’s new recreational marijuana law.
The pair had learned they had a lot of opposing but complimentary culinary traits. “Being around a lot of wild game and foraged ingredients, and bar food, and corn and cheese growing up, that was what I was familiar with and what I was most connected to, so it’s what I naturally gravitated toward in the cooking I do,” says Studnicka.
“Eve loves meat,” says Thomas. “She cooks a lot of nose to tail. It’s indulgent. It’s comfort food to the max. I live with a vegetarian, and though I’m not one, most of my food is super veggie heavy.”
When all plans were canceled, the pair decided to collaborate and pivot to a weekly pay-what-you-can meal delivery service. Within a week they announced their first menu on Instagram, straddling the realms of indulgent midwestern comfort food and immunity-boosting health trends: a wellness soup kit, building on a 30-hour roasted duck bone stock enriched with lemongrass, ginger, star anise, shiitake, and turmeric; creamy polenta with mushrooms, greens, and farmers cheese; blackberry ginger coffee cake; pine-smoked-tea drinking chocolate.
They sold out the next day, and the next week, and the next, and the next. As conventional supply chains weakened, they increasingly sourced more from their farmer friends, and the menus became progressively more appealing and wonderfully midwestern-strange: pork belly potpie with Publican oat porridge; Chicago mix popcorn-infused drinking chocolate; venison summer sausage and duck heart cassoulet; ramp potato chowder.
One week Studnicka made a surplus of bee-pollen-and-smoked-salt bagels for herself and ended up giving them away to a randomly selected customer. That instituted weekly giveaways to customers who donate to a different charity, such as water rights advocates We the People Detroit, or Youth Act Chicago, which raises money for homeless kids.
Studnicka and Thomas agree that the day they announced their first menu was “the worst day of our lives.”
“By the time we landed on what we wanted to make, to the time we put the last lid on the last dish, it was 14 hours, and that included shopping, packaging, figuring out finances, and how the ordering system would work,” says Studnicka. “We’d never done deliveries. We didn’t know how to do spreadsheets. It was excruciating.”
They’ve since streamlined and gotten nimble. Each week’s menu is announced Sunday at 3 PM. By Monday they’re sold out of 50 orders for each of five items. Tuesdays and Wednesdays they shop and cook. Thursday and Friday they deliver. They don’t communicate at all on Saturday until the evening, when they start texting ideas back and forth. There’s a Sunday phone call to finalize the next menu. It’s posted, then they start all over again.
But with the governor and mayor phasing normalcy back into the economy, what’s next for an on-the-fly partnership dependent on a stay-at-home customer base in need of comfort and delight?
“That’s something we talk about every week, and we don’t have any answer for it,” says Studnicka, adding that a brick-and-mortar cafe is a topic of discussion. “She is the best collaborator I’ve ever worked with. She’s made so many facets of this possible and not scary. It’s the best part of working with a teammate in an uncertain time. Everything feels less daunting.”
“I wouldn’t be doing this without Eve,” says Thomas. “I know she wouldn’t be doing it without me. We would both be stuck at home.” v