Interview: Ina Pinkney

Chicago Icon and Brooklyn Native Ina Pinkney Closes Her Famous Restaurant in Chicago

By Palmer Hasty

In the past two decades Brooklyn native Ina Pinkney has become one of Chicago’s most beloved restaurateurs, affectionately known in the windy city as “The Breakfast Queen.”
She recently published a cookbook with memoirs titled “Taste Memories: Recipes for Life and Breakfast”, and officially announced that after 33 years in the food business, she will simply close the doors of her famous Ina’s restaurant on the last day of the year.  As she said in a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle; “On the first day of the year I’m closing it forever, no party, thank you very much, that’s it.”

That’s an over simplification of course.  In her role as owner and executive chef of Ina’s for more than two decades, she once said in reference to her many customers; “…there is an honor, a responsibility, an unspoken contract, to be the receiver of there good will and their stories.”

Pinkney has the air of someone who takes her success in stride, but never takes it for granted: All her life she has had to deal with the challenges and underlying pain of a disability. She was born Ina Brody in 1943 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, at 8023 19th Avenue and 81st Street.”

BE: When did you and your family discover that you had fallen victim to the polio epidemic?

IP: “When I was just over one year old on Labor Day in 1944 I was trying to stand up in my crib. I tried to stand several times and kept falling down.  My father, who was in the room at the time, was terrified.  That same weekend a spinal tap verified I was a victim of the polio epidemic that swept through New York and Brooklyn in the 1940s.

BE: That must have changed everything?

IP: “Well, yes it did. The March of Dimes provided me with a brace, but when my “drop foot” didn’t improve, the brace was changed to a cast. During this time my father had heard that a woman named Sister Elizabeth Kenny was in New York.  Sister Kenny was an Australian nurse who had successfully treated patients during a polio epidemic among the Aborigines.  Sister Kenny was controversial at the time and was in New York trying to persuade the medical community that her methods of treating polio were legitimate and valuable.”

BE: Did your father seek out sister Kenny?

IP: “My father was an extremely devoted family man, he was desperate to help me. He eventually located the hotel where Sister Kenny was staying.  When she arrived at the our residence, my father was told that Sister Kinney would not see me unless there was a doctor present. So my father went around the corner and returned with the family doctor.”

BE: What did Sister Kenny recommend you and your family do?

IP: “She removed the cast and dramatically declared the obvious: “This is not a broken leg, this is polio.”  Instead of confining the muscles with a cast, she recommended daily hot pack treatments and massage. It was war time; my father had to find a St. Mary’s wool blanket on the black market.  He would cut the blanket into 24” x 8” pieces to use for hot pack treatments. I had to endure the daily treatments and massages on the kitchen table for years.”

BE: It would be an understatement to say that you have fought against the odds virtually all your life. Do you attribute any of your strengths to your Brooklyn background?

IP: “Even 70 years later I still describe myself with my Brooklyn identity.  I was a Brooklyn baby.  It’s true I moved away when I was 10 years old, but my DNA is Brooklyn. There’s something about people who grow up in Brooklyn, we think nothing is impossible.” 

BE: In spite of her childhood polio, she attended PS 186 in Brooklyn.  Years later she recalled her time in elementary school with a poetic image from a prose poem she wrote titled Prima Ballerina, that she read in April of this year for a local radio program in Chicago called The Second Story. “It was the beginning of my sense of otherness, my complete difference from other kids.  I was the envy sitting in my desk at school, I was so smart.  But in the schoolyard, I was prey.” I asked her about the image.

IP: “Yes, I was taunted mercilessly, isolated and marginalized.  I was the one who never had to go down the stairs during the fire drills.”

BE: A father’s devotion must have been a great comfort for a child in your situation?

IP: Yes it was. My father was a Russian immigrant who moved to Brooklyn from Philadelphia and worked in the garment district in Manhattan. Everyday I would sit on my dad’s lap and he would read the Brooklyn Eagle to me.  It was a mainstay of our house, and everybody else in the apartment building read the paper.  And news of the Brooklyn Dodgers was always an important part of our reading sessions. My mother saved the daily papers because she would use them to cover her newly waxed floors, so they wouldn’t get scuffed before they thoroughly dried.”

BE: You said you refer to the Brooklyn Dodgers as “my team”. Why is that?

IP: When I was six years old I had surgery to lengthen my ankle cord. That surgery was performed by Dr. Herb Fett, Jr., the official orthopedic surgeon for none other than the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers were our hometown team, so you can imagine, as a six year old, how proud I was of that.

BE: So the surgery was successful?

IP: “Yes. It gave me a second chance. I still carry that with me so as far as I’m concerned, everyone in my life gets a second chance. And I wrote about the experience in my prose poem “Prima Ballerina”. ‘One never recovers from polio, but one can, however, pass for normal, which I did for most of my life.'”

BE: You said you left Brooklyn when you were ten?

IP: Yes, but we always came back to visit my grandmother who lived on Bay 8th Street in Brooklyn, and my aunt Susie who lived on 53rd Street & Fort Hamilton Parkway.

BE: Pinkney moved to Manhattan when she was 22 and married Captain Bill Pinkney in 1965.  She wrote in Prima Ballerina; “I married a black man when interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states.”She and Captain Pinkney moved to Chicago in 1977.  In 1980 she started a surprise birthday cake delivery service.  Apparently she made great cakes, those birthday cakes morphed into a wholesale bakery and catering business called The Dessert Kitchen.The Dessert Kitchen did very well, and in 1991 she opened her own restaurant (Ina’s) in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.  It was this popular restaurant that would become the source of her nickname “The Breakfast Queen.”

Ina’s in Chicago’s West Loop area.

BE: Then in 2001 she relocated Ina’s to Randolph Street in an area of Chicago called the West Loop, which is part of the Fulton Market District.  At that time it was not considered an ideal location for a restaurant.  Apparently that didn’t bother Pinkney in the least. She already had an established clientele who loved her food and followed her there.  In fact; other well known Chicago chef’s also followed her lead, and today several other popular Chicago restaurants thrive there. For years the patrons of her iconic eatery have been Chicago’s movers and shakers; politicians, CEOs, celebrities, and whoever else loved good food.  Eventually Pinkney had to deal with Post Polio Syndrome which forced her to use a cane. She had to leave the kitchen and train a staff of chefs while she continued to greet people at the door and socialize with the clientele.

BE: In addition to being a local food celebrity, you also had a political career didn’t you?

IP: I don’t think I would call it a career, but I did venture into politics twice. In 2007 I was a write-in candidate for mayor, and in 2010 I ran an independent campaign for a vacated Senate seat. Someone from the press asked me why I ran and all I could say was; “It was the right thing to do.”

“Heavenly Hots”… a favorite at Ina’s.

BE: Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daly and his powerful political machine didn’t agree with you did they?

IP: (Laughing) “I think it made him nervous, he had three people running against him. I had a certain amount of popularity in Chicago but it wasn’t a political popularity. He was worried enough that he apparently had his Chief of Staff call me and tell me the Mayor didn’t think my campaign was a good idea. But I didn’t back down. And to make the mayor’s point, three city inspectors made an unannounced intimidation visit to the restaurant on the morning of the election.”

The announcement of Ina’s closing was covered by every conceivable media outlet in Chicago (including the front page of the Chicago Tribune). She told CBS Chicago:
“You know, I don’t have any family to leave my recipes to, and I have loved Chicago and Chicago has become my family, so I leave my recipes to you.”

Photos in order of appearance.
Ina Pinkney with new Cookbook “Taste Memories: Recipes for Life and Breakfast.” Photo: Stephen Hamilton.
Ina’s Restaurant in the West Loop area of Chicago. Photo: Ina Pinkney
A local favorite from Ina’s Restaurant:  “Heavenly Hots.” Photo: Ina Pinkney