If you’ve ever made or received funeral potatoes, you probably know it’s not just a casserole dish of the greater Midwest and other outposts of American culture, but occasionally an expression of overwhelming emotions where they’re traditionally kept suppressed.
In Chicago, Funeral Potatoes is a virtual restaurant redefining not just modern Midwestern food, but the thematic restaurant experience perhaps best known at finer dining establishments with far greater resources and critical acclaim.
You may be familiar with the concept at Next, the Alinea Group’s experimental restaurant in the West Loop that famously changes every season or so, now offering an 1893 World’s Fair-inspired menu. Or perhaps, to some degree, Le Comptoir in Paris, chef Yves Camdeborde’s beloved Saint-Germain-des-Prés bistro that changes the relatively modern French five course dinner every weeknight, and notes the service number on the printed menu.
Funeral Potatoes executive chefs and co-owners, Eve Studnicka and Alexis Thomas-Rice, also number their menus, changed weekly on Instagram not paper. Last month they celebrated the two-year anniversary of their collaboration, now cooking out of a ghost kitchen in Logan Square (where Milly’s Pizza In The Pan got its start) for delivery-only across the city and suburbs.
One iteration of their ever-changing signature dish has already reached iconic status in certain circles. The kimchi ranch funeral potatoes made our best new Takeout 100 list in 2021, and Funeral Potatoes was nominated for best virtual restaurant in our Readers’ Choice awards this year.
For a recent greatest hits retrospective, the dish featured hash browns, pepper Jack cheese, napa cabbage kimchi, black pepper bechamel and a spicy dill Ritz cracker crumble. I expect it will evolve, but a somewhat surprising frozen ingredient will remain.
“We start with frozen shredded hash browns,” said Thomas-Rice, who created the kimchi ranch take on the dish. While she and Studnicka work collaboratively, they credit one another with specific dishes. “Traditionally funeral potatoes are made with like a cream of chicken soup, but we make a béchamel from scratch instead with black pepper, buttermilk dill ranch powder and good spices.”
They puree kimchi (made locally, from Joong Boo, the Asian market on the Northwest Side) then mix the paste into the white sauce.
“Then we add a whole bunch of cheeses, usually sharp cheddar and Chihuahua, because it’s nice and melty, and it makes a great, thick concoction,” said Thomas-Rice. They top it all off with crushed up potato chips, more butter, and Ritz crackers for the crumble. “Once you bake it, it gets super golden brown and gooey, and it’s just cheesy, creamy carbs.”
When I worked as the chef of a small fishing lodge in Alaska, I made hash browns from scratch, until I realized what I liked best, and what my clients liked best, was actually from cartons of dehydrated hash browns. It hits those nostalgic flavor memories far better.
“I feel like what we’re doing sometimes is competing with memories,” said Studnicka. “I can’t make fried potatoes as good as my dad, because I’m competing with the memory of his potatoes. We’ve tried to embrace that by using some ingredients that our parents might have used, or other people’s parents might have used if they grew up in a small Midwestern town too. And then balancing that out with ingredients that might cost a little bit more or might be a little more specialty, or with techniques that take more time. I feel like that’s a really good, accessible way for us to balance out our time and our budget, and still make something that’s really delicious and intentional.”
That and they only cook one day a week with a very small part-time staff of two or three people.
“When we first started, we didn’t have any staff at all. It was just us two making dozens and dozens of servings of each thing,” said Thomas-Rice. “And if frozen hash browns are already more delicious than what we could probably make, and way more convenient, I would rather spend more time making a delicious sauce to put on top of them than shredding 32 pounds of potatoes.”
Most importantly, it helps keep cooking fun for them, a revolutionary social concept in the professional kitchen.
“I don’t think it would be very fun to shred and squeeze out a whole bunch of pounds of potatoes,” she added. “I think that would zap the fun pretty quickly.”
The chefs first started working together during the pandemic lockdown in March 2020. Funeral Potatoes officially launched nearly a year later on Feb. 21, 2021.
“We were actually driving around doing deliveries, which is where we get a good bulk of our work done, and we were just brainstorming,” said Studnicka. “What do we want people to feel? What do we want our name to invoke? We both grew up in really small towns in the Midwest. So, because of the pandemic, we wanted to invoke the feeling of when a neighbor is sick, and you bring them a casserole or soup or whatever.”
Studnicka was born in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, and grew up in Chillicothe in central Illinois, right on the Illinois River. She was the chef de cuisine at Finom Coffee, and ran an underground dining series, Dinner at the Grotto.
Thomas-Rice grew up in Byron, Illinois about 100 miles west of Chicago, and owned an event catering company called Black Cat Kitchen.
She suggested Funeral Potatoes and after a few stoplights it stuck with them both.
For week 95, the final week of their greatest hits month, they brought back the kimchi ranch funeral potatoes.
And pepperoncini pimento mac and cheese, “secretly Eve’s favorite,” as revealed on the Instagram menu post. No wonder, with a crisp Parmesan garlic butter crumble blanketing tender macaroni shells, bathed in a cream cheese and aged cheddar sauce, spiked subtly with pepperoncini and fire-roasted hatch chiles.
A Fruity Pebbles pudding dirt cup had me dreading un-fond memories of artificially flavored childhood mornings, but the pink cereal milk custard tasted redemptively more of good vanilla and the cupcake-sized scoop of delicately salted lemon whipped cream and a graham cracker crust.
The zucchini bread, billed as “Alexis’s famous ultra moist zucchini cake,” studded a simply lovely crumb with mini dark chocolate chips, spiced with warm nutmeg.
I kicked myself for not ordering extras of everything. Who knows when they’ll return.
Yet week 96 showed while greatest hits can be fun, albums can sometimes tell a better story. The first menu of their grocery store month was inspired by one of their favorite neighborhood markets, Kurowski Sausage Shop, the Polish butcher and Eastern European market in the Avondale area.
A grilled mushroom pretzel strata by Studnicka with ButterCrumb Bakery soft pretzels, Tilsit (a Swiss cheese) and a caraway lovage custard baked beautifully with a crackly crust yielding to a soft and deeply delicious earthy core.
Creamy dill pickle soup transformed Kurowski’s pickles with Old Bay broth, Yukon Gold potatoes, Wisconsin buttermilk, sour cream and carefully slivered mirepoix vegetables into a complex foil.
A honey roasted beet and herbed barley salad served as a hearty landscape for a fantastic horseradish ranch dressing.
Studnicka’s stunning plum and rose cheesecake swirled plum preserves through rose scented farmer cheese on a brown butter gingersnap crust.
Her Polish sausage gratin smothered big bites of Kurowski’s smoked country wiejska sausage with sauerkraut, caramelized onion, spicy brown mustard cream and Edam cheese. What was meant to be a custard, however, had broken with eggs cooked into soft curds. It’s not an uncommon technical glitch. What was supposed to be a silky cheese topped gratin turned the dish into an eggy yet still delicious bake.
“The sausage is wood smoked, and just has this wonderful flavor, very rich and peppery,” said Studnicka. “And the sauerkraut, they sell in those big refrigerated barrels, so there’s a little bit of romanticism to buy that and cooking with it.”
They caramelize the onion with a bit of maple syrup extremely slowly, for about nine hours. Meanwhile they cut the Edam cheese into chunks, so that you’ll get an occasional cheese pull.
“Eve’s got Czech heritage and I’m half Black and half Polish and Irish,” said Thomas-Rice. “It’s just food that speaks to our hearts. It feels like something you’d get at an Elks Lodge in the middle of Mineral Point.”
“A lot of the foods that I enjoy cooking are inspired by my friends from these small towns who are really incredible hunters and fishermen and foragers,” said Studnicka. “And by the rural Midwest atmosphere and hospitality. I feel like there’s a lot of merit to the food here in this part of the country that gets overlooked a lot because it’s just not quite as sexy as like the stuff coming out of California or the East Coast.”
The logistics behind Funeral Potatoes boggles my mind. They’ve personally delivered from 117th Street on the South Side to Evanston up north to Oak Park and Berwyn out west. There are delivery boundaries now for new customers, and help from two part-time delivery drivers.
Funeral Potatoes offers a pay what you can option as well.
“We’re probably not our target customer,” said Thomas-Rice. “Any time we price things, I just think, could we afford this? We don’t want people in our neighborhood that make around the same amount of money as us to not be able to afford our food.”
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“We kind of have like a specific demographic of career-oriented single women,” said Studnicka. “Often queer women, who are very busy and do not want to cook for themselves, but also don’t want to go out to eat all the time, and don’t want to just be eating Stouffer’s lasagna.”
“I once again forgot to mention that I’m a lesbian,” added Studnicka laughing. “It’s nice to know that we’re still providing a service for the queer community and making life maybe a little bit easier by taking something off the plate of our customers. And being able to even connect just through delivery texts or seeing people wave at us through the window. It still feels a little bit like, like, oh yeah, there are actual people on the other end of this, who we really value and appreciate.”
Let’s hope they keep having fun too, because that’s what Funeral Potatoes is impressively Midwestern generous about dishing out.
Open: Orders open Sunday at 3 p.m. to Monday at 10 p.m.; delivery on Thursday and Friday 10 am to 4 pm
Prices: $9 (zucchini bread), $12 (plum and rose cheesecake), $17 (kimchi ranch funeral potatoes), $17 (roasted beet and barley salad), $28 (Polish sausage gratin); $10 minimum, $5 delivery fee; message on Instagram for pay what you can
Grandstand rating: Excellent