Executive Chef Michael Ponzio and the culinary team at the Union League Club of Chicago came up with creative ways to minimize waste leading up to the club’s COVID-19 closure.
Clubs across Illinois found themselves facing a new reality when Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all restaurant and bar owners to close for two weeks to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Some Illinois clubs shifted to delivery, carry out, or curbside service. Others, including the Union League Club of Chicago, were forced to close completely.
We caught up with the Union League Club’s Executive Chef, Michael Ponzio, to learn about how the club worked to minimize waste in the days leading up to the its closure.
Q: What were some of the first things you did after the mandate was issued?
MP: We took inventory and came up with a plan on how best to minimize waste. We preserved as much as we could, pickled some items and made sauerkraut and homemade giardiniera, too. We made a bunch of soups and froze them for later use. Then we donated 30 cases of fresh vegetables—spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes—as well as other perishable items to the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago. We’re trying to take every measure possible to protect the the business while also looking out for those in our community.
Q: How is the club handling employees?
A: Legislation passed that said that furloughed employees are given two weeks of sick-time on top of benefits, so that’s really helping all our staff members at this time.
Q: Your wife just had a baby girl last week, right? How are you and the family doing?
A: Having a newborn is stressful, but having a newborn during a pandemic is really stressful. But the baby is perfect, her three big brothers adore her and my wife is healthy. The biggest stressor for me is making sure I don’t bring the virus into our home. So I’m showering and disinfecting constantly. My hands are raw. Added to that is the fact that I’m also at higher risk because of my diabetes. It’s a lot.
Q: How are you keeping in touch with your staff?
A: There is a lot of confusion and fear right now. I’m trying to keep in touch with everyone over email, text and phone calls. I’ve told them all, “If you need anything, call me.”
We have no way to predict what the future will look like, but I do know that the whole industry is going to change. Health guidelines will change. Businesses and clubs will have to be more creative in how they operate and connect with members.
Q: What ideas is the club launching to connect with members?
A: We’re launching some video series to send to our members. Our athletics department is working on workout tips of the day. I’m working on recipes of the day and cocktails that can be made during the quarantine. We want to make them still feel like they’re part of the club, even if they can’t physically be here.
Q: Do you have any advice to offer other club chefs?
A: This is an unprecedented time. There’s no history for this. So how do you plan? You have to be smart. Save what you can. Support your people as best you can. Find safe ways to help others. If we can help those in need, we’re doing some good.
I’ve personally been encouraging people I talk to to support local businesses and restaurants as much as possible. If you need toilet paper or paper towels, call a local restaurant and see if they’ll sell it to you. Even wine! The grocery and liquor stores are doing fine. The restaurants are not. Help them if you can.