Ina Pinkney, the Breakfast Queen, Stole Our Hearts and Made Us Heavenly Hots!

“How did I get the name ‘Breakfast Queen’? I gave it to myself!” announced Ina Pinkney. As we learned during the two demo classes she recently taught at BAKE!, the iconic Chicago restaurateur isn’t exactly one to sit around and wait for things to happen. And in truth, the regulars who flocked to her legendary Chicago restaurant Ina’s for over 30 years, probably wouldn’t argue with her self-proclaimed royal status.

Ina’s story, which she told as she prepared some of her most popular recipes, including her ultra-fluffy, sour-cream-based Heavenly Hots pancakes, is one driven by tenacity. Born in Brooklyn, New York in the 1940s, she was stuck with Polio at 18 months old, leaving her with permanent damage in her right leg.

“I knew the inner Ina would never match the outside world,” she said.

Ina’s easy-to-make Pasta Frittata

But the experienced gave her a sense of fearlessness, she says, which has followed her throughout her life—it’s what carried her through when she was disowned by her family for marrying a black man in the 1960s (when interracial marriage was still outlawed in many states), and what helped her meet the challenge of living in a new city when the couple moved to Chicago in 1977.

Once in Chicago, which she said felt like a “small town” compared to New York, Ina started a cake delivery business even though she’d never even beaten an egg. “If you can read, you can bake,” she says. As her following grew, she added restaurants to her client list. It wasn’t long before she decided to open a breakfast restaurant.

Ina’s became an institution in Chicago, so much so that a documentary called Breakfast at Ina’s was made about its last days in operation when Ina decided to close shop. When asked if she misses Ina’s, she’s not overly sentimental. “I think when you do something well, when it’s over, it’s over,” she told us,  adding that the day-to-day stress of running a restaurant is exhausting.

Ina’s Moroccan Sweet Potato Stew with Raisins

She does, however, enjoy doing personal appearances like the one at BAKE! when the mood strikes her, and she was definitely in her element cooking and sharing anecdotes about everything from an ill-fated stint on a cooking competition reality show (they told her the ovens were pre-heated, but they weren’t) to making Governor Rod Blagojevich hang up his phone before she would serve him (the whole restaurant cheered).

Ina prepared four of her favorite dishes for the BAKE! crowd. In addition to those aptly named Heavenly Hots, which had most of us asking for seconds and thirds, she also whipped up a delicious Moraccan Sweet Potato Stew with Raisins, Pasta Frittata, and New Old Fashioned Vanilla Bean Pound Cake. All of the recipes Ina demonstrated were easy to make and suited perfectly for brunches, potlucks, and weeknight dinners.

Heavenly Hots look like average pancakes. They’re not!

If you couldn’t make it to BAKE!, you can still try them out for yourself. Her book Ina’s Kitchen features these delicious dishes and more—it would make a great addition to any cookbook collection. Look out for the documentary Breakfast at Ina’s. It played at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2015 and will hopefully be coming to your favorite streaming service soon. You can see the trailer right here. And keep up with Ina with her breakfast column at the Chicago Tribune.

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