After being laid off from his job at an advertising agency in 2014, Vincent Labriola started the site Midwestern Diner, which consists of long-form interviews and videos profiling chefs, brewers, distillers, and other people involved in the local food and drink scene. A filmmaker by training, Labriola was intrigued by similarities he saw between making food on a large scale and making movies, and wanted to create a series of short documentaries about people who work with food and drink in Chicago. He added written interviews after realizing how long the videos took to complete—though those interviews, which often run to several thousand words, were time-intensive themselves. For a year Labriola worked on the project nearly full-time, taking on freelance gigs to pay the bills and occasionally recruiting friends to help with photo or video. Last fall, he put the site on hold indefinitely. The 28-year-old spoke recently about what made him start the Midwestern Diner—and what ultimately made him end the project.
I don’t relate to a lot of foodie culture. I approached [the Midwestern Diner] from the perspective of looking at the craftsmanship of food in a more artistic way. I saw a parallel between running a contemporary restaurant and running a film set. You can make a film that’s just a series of iPhone videos cut together. A chef can do a pop-up dinner where you get 16 people in a room, cook the whole thing yourself, bust your ass, and you’ve got a wonderful dinner. But in order to reach a larger group of people, to make a larger cultural impact, there’s a significant amount of logistical work, things that are not glamorous. That’s often overlooked. People are much more interested in the beautiful finished thing on the plate, the same way that people watch a film and they don’t care so much about how the filmmakers got to that.
I’ve had dining experiences that have affected me as much as any artistic thing. I was shocked and dismayed when Homaro Cantu died. I’d gone to Moto for my 21st birthday; he took us in the back and showed us how to cook with lasers. It was tremendous. I remember being really blown away by how cinematic the experience was.
- Courtesy Vincent Labriola
- Vincent Labriola
At the beginning of Midwestern Diner, I interviewed anybody who’d give me the time of day. With all the chefs I walked in with the same basic pitch: I know you guys will often be quoted out of context, or you’re asked to provide some sanitized, easy quote. What I’m going to do is the exact opposite. I’m going to let you speak your mind as fully and completely as possible.
I chose Midwestern Diner because I thought “midwestern” spoke to more of an aesthetic as opposed to a particular geographic location.
I’m of the opinion that everybody has something at least a little bit interesting to say—or their own way of saying something that maybe a million people have said before. When things would go off topic, I left it in. I liken it to an interview with Bruce Springsteen: part of it will address the thing that’s coming out, but the rest of it will be whatever else the hell Bruce Springsteen wants to talk about—and you’re interested because he’s an artist.
[In the video with chef] Michael Dean Reynolds, a significant part of it was him talking about growing up and going to see Fugazi in Washington, D.C., and playing in a Tom Waits cover band. You’d be surprised how many times chefs would be like, “And that’s why I do that at the restaurant, because it’s a personal thing.”
I was always looking at that divide between what [the interview subjects] want to accomplish creatively and how, practically speaking, they can do it. You get a sense of what their true, pure artistic goal is, but also how difficult it can be to accomplish that on a daily basis. If one of your waiters screws up or one of your chefs down the line screws up—despite your best efforts you sometimes miss these things. I was very interested in how these restaurants operate, how you balance the creative with the practical and financial and logistical demands of running a restaurant.
I really admire these guys for sticking to their guns knowing how razor thin the margins are, how long the hours are. That’s the same thing filmmakers and musicians do.
There was this notion that everybody brought up—some people were more skeptical than others—that the community supports each other. Especially brewers. Brewers would be like, “I didn’t have this sort of hops, so I just called up this other guy and was like, ‘Do you have any hops that I can have?’ And they’re like, ‘Sure!’” I think there’s a sense of community and identity here.
The original interview transcripts were all edited down at least by half, but I kept them very long. One thing that frustrated me was that food [coverage] was dominated by the conventions of social media, with certain exceptions. If it doesn’t fit in a tweet it’s not relevant; if I can’t take a screenshot of it and put it on Instagram it’s not relevant. That really frustrated me because I’m the type of person that likes to dig in.
I am not a fan of social media at all. I’m not on it personally. I grossly underestimated how important it was to getting the word out. That was a mistake. Getting the word out to the general public was the biggest—I don’t want to say outright failure, but it was very difficult.
When I started this guy told me, “Your photos are just too nice for Instagram. You need a shitty filter and a half-eaten bite of food.” I was like, “You might be absolutely right, but if you are this is not right for me.”
I tried to emulate places like Grantland and the Dissolve. And to see those sites go dark—it’s a question of being able to monetize it, and quite frankly I don’t know how. I don’t think the Dissolve or Grantland knew, and those were backed by large media companies. Toward the end of this, I was like, Is this just a hill I have to die on?
- Vincent Labriola
When the Midwestern Diner was ramped up, I was probably working at least 25 hours a week for it. I knew that in order to do this, for it to be successful, I’d need to put in somewhere close to full-time. That being said, everybody has bills to pay. It just reached the point where I didn’t feel comfortable putting my resources in it anymore. I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I am dismayed by how, with discourse in general, the pendulum has swung toward the fewer characters the better. I hope that when you look at Midwestern Diner you see someone who’s really trying to push that pendulum in the other direction—even if it’s in vain. v