Two years and four months ago.
Ina Pinkney never will forget the day she closed the doors or her beloved namesake restaurant, Ina’s – not out of necessity, but it was time.
The date does not haunt her. It’s merely a gentle reminder of new experiences to come.
“December 31, 2013. That was the last night I locked the door,” Pinkney said.
“At the time, if you asked me what I would be doing in two years and four months, I would have had no idea.”
Pinkney found her flare for food later in life than most, but once she found it, she charged forward at full speed.
“Here’s the interesting part about my life. I baked my first cake when I was 37, opened my first restaurant at 48 and retired at 71,” Pinkney said.
“Now is really the first time I get to tell my story. I’ve always been a brand, and now I’m just a regular person. In my restaurant, I was always focused on the guest experience. There was never room at the table for my story. I finally get to share how I went from a polio survivor to ‘Breakfast Queen’ and the path along the way.”
Pinkney will serve up her personal success story at the 36th annual Spring Luncheon for the Arts in McHenry County. Presented by the Woodstock Fine Arts Association, the luncheon will be at 11 a.m. April 29 at Boulder Ridge Country Club in Lake in the Hills. Reservations still may be made at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-337-6233.
A notable chef, restaurateur and subject of the documentary “Breakfast at Ina’s,” Pinkney will speak about how she grew from a child in Brooklyn living in a kosher home to breakfast royalty, dubbing herself the Breakfast Queen of Chicago.
“I gave the name to myself. When I opened Ina’s, I changed the landscape completely of what breakfast was,” Pinkney said. “I ate breakfast out every day on the way to the bakery I owned, and it was always horrible. It became a big decision every day. I realized every day I play with butter, flour, sugar and eggs – the main ingredients to most breakfast dishes. In my head, I already knew how to do this. I had no idea how to open and run a restaurant, but, after eating out so much, I knew exactly what I wanted you to experience. So I built a restaurant backward, basically, for you, the customer.”
Chicago is full of establishments that serve breakfast. Some do it poorly, and some do it well. Ina said she was able to make the distinction of what “worked.”
“I decided that I loved hotel dining rooms more than diners,” Pinkney said.
“The clanging of the dishes, butter coming wrapped in foil, the noise. I decided to go in between niches and make a fine dining breakfast restaurant that was thoughtful, with high-quality service and food. And I knocked it out of the park.”
Though the restaurant is closed, some of Ina’s recipes still are alive and well in the Chicago area.
Pinkney’s “Ina’s Heavenly Hots,” one of the dishes that put Ina’s on the map, is on loan to the menu at Miss Ricky’s in the Virgin Hotel in downtown Chicago.
“We took what you might consider food and brought it to a new level. I pioneered fresh food and big flavor, not a lot of grease,” Pinkney said.
“I put high-quality coffee on the table when coffee wasn’t a big deal yet. We imported it from Seattle because they were ahead of the game. We cared a great deal about what you ate and drank. We didn’t do Styrofoam to-go containers; we did paper. We started the smoking ban. We used pasteurized eggs. We always set the pace. We never followed it.”
As for the future, Pinkney said she looks forward to whatever it may bring.
“I have no idea what next year brings, and I’m very open to it. That’s the magic of this time of life. It’s very cool to be me right now. I don’t miss the business. I miss the people, but they always come out to see me,” Pinkney said.
“Life is like baking a cake. It’s raw for a really long time. It’s perfectly baked for a short time. It’s over-baked forever. I always look for the time it’s perfectly baked and go right for it.”