Lift your spirits, both literally and figuratively.

By Nina Friend
March 27, 2020
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One new reality of life in the time of coronavirus? You can’t meet friends for brunch. This might seem frivolous in a moment when millions of people are out of work and battling the pandemic in hospitals. But restaurant closures and shelter-in-place mandates have robbed of us so many soothing social rituals.

Belinda Chang, a James Beard Award-winning sommelier who now has an events company in Chicago, saw this void and decided to fill it. Last Sunday, Chang hosted her first Virtual Boozy Brunch—an hour-long conversation, held on the video chat platform Zoom, that brought together chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, sommeliers, wine collectors, and restaurant lovers to talk about the current crisis. Sunday’s 75 guests tuned in from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and even Canada.

“As we move forward, I’m hoping that people will invite their friends and we’ll get people from near and far,” Chang said.

Chang’s virtual brunch was ideated on the heels of a national virtual happy hour movement. Since meeting up for drinks at a local bar is longer an option, people are getting together on their screens, using Zoom and Google Hangouts to toast “quarantinis” and catch up via technology.

Virtual Boozy Brunch does its part to solve the lack of connection we’re facing right now, but it also goes an extra step. Each week, Chang invites a laid-off or furloughed sommelier, bartender, chef, or other restaurant worker to share their talent and expertise—whether that means teaching the group about a few wines they love right now or demonstrating how to poach an egg.

Brunch participants are then invited to send virtual tips, through Venmo, in the same way that they’d tip a bartender or server had they been eating brunch at a restaurant. (The first brunch featured Cassie Sakai, wine director for chef Stephanie Izard’s Chicago restaurants Girl and the Goat, Little Goat Diner, Duck Duck Goat, and Cabra. Sakai talked about two of her favorite rose wines right now, Domaine Tempier Bandol Rose and Vina Tondonia Rose Gran Reserva 2009.)

“The primary reason for doing this is to try to raise some funds for people who need it,” Chang said. “It’s really incredible when you can look someone in the eye and know that you’re helping them so directly.”

In addition to having a restaurant worker as a featured speaker at each brunch, Chang will invite experts from different fields, both within the restaurant industry and outside, to share ideas about how to help right now. (At the first brunch, Dr. Jenny Zhang from Northwestern Memorial Hospital spoke about how to deal with the reality that we can’t be around friends. I talked about what people can do to support local restaurants right now. And chef Sarah Grueneberg, of Monteverde Restaurant and Pastificio in Chicago, gave a few tips for making focaccia at home. The second brunch featured Rachel Grisafi, the currently-furloughed sommelier at Osteria Mozza; Maria Sinskey, owner of Robert Sinskey Winery and a 1996 Food & Wine Best New Chef; and Mark Chi, makeup artist and global trainer for Beauty Blender.)

Chang hopes that each Virtual Boozy Brunch will be a mix of informative and uplifting, offering an escape from the negative news cycle. She plans to publicize the speaker lineup in advance so that participants can come ready with questions, making the hour that much more impactful.

The next brunch, held on Sunday, April 19th, will feature legendary NYC bartender Franky Marshall, who will shake and stir some brunch cocktails; pastry chef Michelle Gayer, who has been nominated for 10 James Beard Awards, will be flipping savory crepes; Margaret Pak, chef/owner of Thattu in Chicago, will show the group how to make South Indian appams; Sarah Grueneberg, chef/owner of Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio in Chicago, will be making Italian crespelle; and Kate Hayes and Darcy Jusich, the founders of Happy Cabbage, on how to make big moments memorable—even while in quarantine.

Sign up here to Join Chang for Virtual Boozy Brunch on Sundays at 2 p.m. CT / 3 p.m. ET.