‘WE’RE LOSING A REAL GEM’
Miss Lee’s Good Food, a South Side soul food fixture, closes as owner retires
For 21 years, Lee Hogan felt called to cook.
“God gave me a gift,” said Hogan, owner of Miss Lee’s Good Food, a fixture of the South Side’s soul food scene. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
But all that use has taken a toll. Hogan, known to her many admirers as Miss Lee, closed her counterservice eatery in September, in advance of having knee replacement surgery. Now she is selling the business her regulars say is one of a kind.
“There’s lots of soul food places, but this is real down-South cooking, what we grew up with as children,” said the Rev. Denise Collins, of Hyde Park, who would frequent Miss Lee’s the first Sunday of every month. “We’re losing a real gem in the community.”
Hogan, 75, opened the restaurant at 203 E. Garfield Blvd., in Washington Park, in September 1998, using savings from her 31 years as a waitress at Gladys’ Luncheonette in Bronzeville, a historic soul food institution that has since closed.
“My intention was always to open up a place for myself,” Hogan said in a southern drawl as she rested against a counter in the restaurant’s kitchen, her cane propped against a wall.
A native of rural Marks, Mississippi, and one of 10 siblings, Hogan moved to Chicago in 1968 in search of a better living than working the cotton fields with her family, which paid about $3 a day.
She landed a late-night shift at the
Hayes Hotel in Woodlawn, originally built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition and since closed, but “there were a lot of pimps and hustlers, and I didn’t go for that too much,” she laughed. She said she passed the exam to work for the U.S. Postal Service, but at that point was in the thrall of all the tips she got waiting tables.
“I didn’t even have to cash my checks,” Hogan said of her years earning tips at Gladys Luncheonette, whose customers included Martin Luther King Jr., comedian Redd Foxx, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan.
When the small storefront on Garfield Boulevard became available to rent, Hogan felt it time to bring her own food to the neighborhood. Though she’d watched her mom cook growing up, and learned some techniques from a South Shore barbecue joint where she briefly worked, she describes her culinary talents in more divine terms.
“You’d be surprised how He speaks to me,” she said.
Miss Lee’s became known for its baked or grilled “herbal chicken,” generously seasoned with Greek or Italian herbs. Each day had a slightly different menu of about a dozen dishes — smothered steak and onions ($12.25)
“The feel of her restaurant was like you were stepping into her home.”
— Trillis Rollins, chef at Peach’s at Currency Exchange Café
on Tuesdays, pig ears or salmon croquettes ($11.95) on Thursdays — and she would add new ideas as the spirit moved her.
Take her buttermilk pie, a dish she had never heard of before a customer requested it a couple of years after she opened. She tried making it, swapping in buttermilk for whole milk, and put it on her menu.
“Two years later, I was making some and the spirit came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you put lemon in there?’” she said. She’s been selling lemon buttermilk pies ever since, alongside her peach, apple and sweet potato cobblers and other puddings and sweets.
Fans say Miss Lee’s stood apart from competitors.
“The feel of her restaurant was like you were stepping into her home rather than a soul food restaurant,” said Trillis Rollins, chef at Peach’s at Currency Exchange Café a block away, who would go to Miss Lee’s with his friends for her peach cobbler. “You would think that you were in her kitchen at home.”
“Her cooking is like you knew your grandma would make it,” said Collins, who on her monthly Sunday visits would order turkey and dressing, with a side of string beans and sweet plantains while her husband, Robert, who grew up in Mississippi, would get spinach and butter beans. “No one will take the place of Miss Lee’s.”
Though people call it soul food, Hogan prefers to say she made “homecooked meals” to customers from all walks of life. She made turkey burgers for the “kids” and had a vegetable plate for her more health-conscious customers.
The restaurant’s following was widespread. Threequarters of its business came from outside of the neighborhood, with some customers traveling from Wisconsin and Michigan to eat in the standing-only shop and others having her send dishes to Florida, Hogan said.
“I sold dressings by the pan full,” said Hogan, who employed five or six people at the restaurant at a given time. “Y’all call it stuffing. Blacks in the South call it dressing. I don’t ever call it anything else.”
Hogan counted celebrity customers of her own, and a stack of photos includes her posing with Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose birthday she catered at City Hall. She was respected in her tough neighborhood, telling the young men who occasionally would sell drugs outside her door: “I don’t mess with your business, so don’t you mess with mine.” They would move along, she said.
During more than two decades of business, through the ups and downs of the economy, Hogan said she had very few months without profit. She lived simply and was always able to stay afloat.
“God’s been good to me,” said Hogan, who lives in Hyde Park. “I tell everybody that.”
But she got tired. There were the decades on her feet, and the work days that would stretch from 6:30 a.m. until past 10 p.m. Looking back, it might have helped to hire a manager to relieve some of the burden, she said. She wonders if she should have entrusted someone else to cook her peach cobbler, rather than insist on making all of her desserts herself.
Signs in Miss Lee’s windows say she is on indefinite vacation. But Hogan says she is selling the business — though not the name, which is hers, and not the real estate, which she doesn’t own — ideally to someone who wants to open another restaurant in the same spot, with her double ovens and deep fryers and refrigerators and dozens of gleaming pots and pans.
She is not passing on her recipes, for fear they won’t be followed faithfully.
“If I thought one person would actually do that recipe the way I do it, I would have tried,” Hogan said.
While closing was hard — “I felt that I was going to crack up,” she said — being closed has been less so. She has caught up on sleep. Once she sells, she hopes to spend time doing missionary work for her church.
“I don’t have nothing special planned,” said Hogan, who never married or had children. “But I feel that the Lord is leading me right.”
Lee Hogan has closed her restaurant, Miss Lee’s Good Food, after 21 years in business on East Garfield Boulevard in Chicago.
Lee Hogan is seen outside Miss Lee’s Good Food on Feb. 6. Hogan is selling the business, ideally to someone who wants to open another restaurant in the spot.
Lee Hogan, 75, opened her restaurant in September 1998, using savings from her 31 years as a waitress at Gladys Luncheonette in Bronzeville. “My intention was always to open up a place for myself,” Hogan said.
Gleaming pots and pans are among the restaurant equipment Hogan is looking to sell.
Hogan is seen taking a call from a longtime customer on Feb. 6. Hogan waited tables at another South Side restaurant for decades before opening her own business.