Tony Balestreri Credit: @whatwasbreakfast

In the early weeks of the pandemic I felt like I was thrust to the height of my creative powers, snatching perfect combinations of words and sentences out of thin air and lining them up like ants on a log.

That didn’t last. Adrenaline is a bad guest, always sneaking her boyfriend Exhaustion into the party. But on days I feel dead inside it hasn’t been difficult to find jolts of inspiration on my beat. Just as there were too many restaurants to keep up with in the Before, so too are there too many chefs doing amazing things outside the traditional restaurant paradigm now. I recently wrote about a handful of them, operating under the Snack Collective rubric. One of them, Darlene Phan, told me that she’s simply been drawing on ideas she’s been keeping in her back pocket for years that didn’t have a home in any of the restaurants she was working for.

Same is true for Tony Balestreri, who was the head chef at the Welcome Back Lounge when COVID-19 struck, but before that had worked a bunch of places like Marz Community Brewing and Kimski. When he got the axe this spring, he had an idea incubating too.

“We can’t sit still,” he says. “We can’t just wait for the government to hand us a check. We have to go out even if we’re sitting in a bathtub eating cheeseburgers and smoking grass.” (If you want to know what he means by that, check out his Instagram alter-ego @grubtubtony, which he adopted three years ago after he quit drinking).

Balestreri was doing R&D a few years ago when “a mix of the jazz cabbage and doing something incorrectly” led to inspiration. “I’m from Wisconsin,” he says. “I grew up eating beef jerky as a snack and always thought it would be cool to put it on a menu someday.”

One day he screwed up, rendering thinly shaved eye of round into something almost entirely devoid of fat and moisture: meat in a crunchy chip form. Tony B’s Steak Chips were born. In the spring Balestreri began giving them away to his friends, and they took off almost immediately. “I had one dehydrator at the time,” he says. “So I was making them every day and I was selling out every day. It was a constant hamster wheel of making them and selling, then making them and selling them.” Balestreri scaled up with another dehydrator and a couple more prep tables and began making 100 bags of Sichuan Peppercorn and Coconut Curry steak chips at a time, deliverable via Instagram, and available for retail at a handful of outlets such as Antique Taco in Bridgeport and Off Premise Liquors in Lincoln Park.

“I had no intentions of actually selling these,” he says. “I just wanted to get my product out there and I knew I was gonna take a little loss. But the response from everybody was ‘I need to buy these.’”

The response has been so good, Balestreri has been working with a distributor and a co-packer to go full-on retail. Until then he’s put a pause on developing new flavors, but that only meant there was a world of dips to explore. He recommends hummus with the Coconut Curry. And for Sichuan Peppercorn?

“As a midwesterner I have to go with the canned nacho cheese,” he says. “The fatty creamy cheese dances in your mouth with the floral notes in the Sichuan [peppercorns].”

See what I mean about chefs? Always inspiring.  v

This post started life as a Food & Drink newsletter. Want stories like this sent directly to your inbox? Sign up here.