Ina Pinkney can’t leave her house in Buena Park without being recognized. “There isn’t a time when somebody doesn’t say, ‘I miss your restaurant,’ ” she says. “Grocery store, Staples, the Apple Store—I mean, just anywhere I go.” As the owner of a bakery and three popular eateries over a span of 33 years, Pinkney became known simply as “Ina” to the countless customers she greeted each morning.
That affection is palpable in Breakfast at Ina’s, a documentary making its world premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival (see “Reel Chicago” below for four others with Chicago ties). The movie beautifully captures the final month of business at Ina’s, the West Loop restaurant Pinkney shut down on December 31, 2013.
In between scenes of Pinkney’s fans thanking her for years of serving dishes like her Heavenly Hots pancakes, the 72-year-old Brooklyn native tells her life story—including how she faced ostracism in the 1960s after she married an African American (Bill Pinkney, whom she divorced in 2001) and how she has coped with the persistent effects of childhood polio. Pinkney never kept her illness secret, but she didn’t talk about it often. “There was no room at the table for that story,” she says. “You came to my restaurant for an experience that had nothing to do with that.”
Director Mercedes Kane, 36, was drawn to the idea of filming Pinkney partly because Kane’s father had owned restaurants and nightclubs in Palos Heights and Wrigleyville. “I always told my dad that I never want to go into this industry,” she laughs. “It’s grueling. But it didn’t mean that it didn’t fascinate me.”
So when Kane read that Pinkney planned to close Ina’s, she decided to turn her camera on during its final days. “She’s really almost become family to so many of her customers in a way that I had never seen,” says Kane.
Sticking closely to standard documentary formula, Breakfast at Ina’s isn’t groundbreaking, but it is well crafted. And despite the lack of suspense or drama, Pinkney’s magnetic personality commands attention for the succinct 50 minutes.
Much of the movie shows Pinkney running Ina’s with meticulous efficiency, even as she presides over the dining room with a warm smile, always seeming to find an extra minute to talk with longtime customers. Pinkney gave Kane and cinematographer Sanghoon Lee free rein to film in the restaurant, but she hesitated to let them document her morning routine at home. Kane persuaded her. “Mercedes said, ‘It’s like a matador who puts on a suit of lights. Underneath, they’re scarred, but once they put on the suit of lights, they present in the bullring as if nothing’s wrong.’ And that’s really what it was like for me every day—putting on my brace and putting on my clothes and my makeup and going into the ring.” Those intimate moments, when Pinkney curls her white hair and puts on a leg brace, became the documentary’s opening scene.
A year and a half after closing Ina’s—the space on West Randolph Street is now occupied by a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria—Pinkney says she loves the freedom of retirement. She writes a breakfast dining column for the Tribune, and her 2013 cookbook, Taste Memories, is being reissued in October (under the new title Ina’s Kitchen) as a paperback and an e-book from Evanston’s Agate Publishing. But the renowned cook and baker doesn’t spend much time at the stove these days. “I don’t really cook at home,” she says. “I have no interest. Breakfast, I will always make eggs and toast and coffee. That was what I was missing for 30 years—just a quiet breakfast.”
Four more new docs from local filmmakers to check out
The Birth of Saké
The daily routines of the craftsmen who make the famous sake at Japan’s Yoshida Brewery are the subject of local director Erik Shirai’s film.
Tribune reporter Kevin Pang and local filmmaker Mark Helenowski trail perfectionist chef Curtis Duffy in 2012 as he prepares to open his first restaurant, Grace.
In her searing documentary, Chicagoan Rebecca Parrish follows members of the activist group Nuns on the Bus, who risk their place in the Catholic Church in pursuit of equality and social justice.
Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows
Rob Hatch-Miller tells the story of the South Side soul, blues, and R&B singer, who was largely forgotten until the local record label Numero Group released a boxed set of the 79-year-old’s music in 2010.
All are at the Chicago International Film Festival, which runs from October 15 to 29. For details, visit chicagofilmfestival.com.