Red Herring is a campus staple that has been serving C-U for more than 50 years. Opened in 1967 as a coffeehouse and gathering space for local and environmental groups, Red Herring continues to offer community space and provide meals that are nutritious and creatively inspired.
Last year, we awarded Red Herring the Best Restaurant Glow-Up of the Decade for their commitment to being a safe space for as many as they are able to accommodate. Two years ago, Jess chatted with co-chefs Holly Curia and Lauren Kolb about Restaurant Week here.
I was able to have a chat with manager chef Lauren Kolb about how things are going at the restaurant now, what’s in the cheeze, and how Red Herring customers help provide meals to others in Champaign-Urbana.
Smile Politely: Hello! Can you introduce yourself and your role at Red Herring?
Lauren Kolb: My friends call me Lo; my birth name is Lauren Kolb. I’m fine with the she pronoun. I’m one of the manager-chef’s at the Herring. Though, that title is a little outdated; most of the staff contribute to the creative food process these days, and the collective consciousness we’ve developed hardly needs much “managing.”
SP: How long have you worked at Red Herring? What’s a day like for you at work?
Kolb: I’ve worked for the Herring for about four years now, started my second year of law school. After I graduated, I took on a more managerial and creative role. A day in the life often begins with a trip to pick up some sort of special ingredient from one of our local grocery stores (favorites include Far East and Strawberry Fields.) Then, depending on the day, me and the team are prepping meals for the Bucket Brigade, our Meal Club program, or our Grab N’ Go station which is available Wednesday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.. Most of my days are a mix of creating culinary fusions and making sure all elements of every dish are prepped and ready. I’m all about the lists: prep lists, grocery lists, inventory lists. It’s my job to know what’s in the kitchen, what we need and what we’re making out of it. I’m also a cheerleader for other cooks in the kitchen.
SP: What dishes have been the most popular through the Meal Club?
Kolb: Every week the most popular dishes are the specials, but for the regular menu, likely the deluxe Mediterranean platter and the tahini moon cookies. The deluxe Mediterranean platter gets you falafel patties, side salad, pita, our garlic hummus, babaganoush, and creamy cucumber dill sauce. That stuff is pure bliss. And tahini moon cookies. I mean, I know sesame isn’t the most popular flavor for sweets in America, but the toasty sesame and vanilla combine with the maple and almond in a rich indulgence that’s so good for you.
SP: Which Red Herring dish is your favorite?
Kolb: My favorite dish right now is the roasted squash tahini bowl. All credit to Natan Rosenberg on this one: the roasted pumpkin is sweet divinity with toasted almond and tangy tahini sauce, and the lemon rice is oh so flavorful and bright.
SP: What’s something you think someone who hasn’t tried Red Herring yet should order?
Kolb: If you haven’t tried the Herring yet, or if you’re skeptical about vegan food in general, I would highly recommend the nacho cheeze. I’ll share the secret: it’s made with carrots, potato, and cashew, but the final product is a smooth spicy sauce that makes everything it touches stupendous: tortilla chips, roasted potatoes, or kale. You can find some at Common Ground in their refrigerated section, stocked weekly, but they sell out fast.
SP: In addition to the Meal Club, Red Herring is also selling grab-and-go meals at your location from 11:30 to 1:30 and at Common Ground. Can you talk about the grab-and-go options?
Kolb: Grab N’ Go options change daily, and the most updated menu will be posted on Facebook. However, these days you are very likely to find our soup of the week, the Philly cheeze steak (served on a soft hoagie bun and comes with nacho cheeze, grilled onion and peppers, steak marinated seitan, and jalapeño mayo), nachos and nachos supreme, and our black bean burger or roasted squash tahini bowl.
SP: During the pandemic, is Red Herring continuing to grow its own food? If so, what foods have you been growing?
Kolb: We were able to grow some food this summer; we got a good amount of cooking greens, salad mix, and herbs. But we found that the quarantine decreased public demand for locally farmed produce which meant that we were receiving more food donations than ever before, so we’ve adapted by redirecting resources to processing and storing rather than growing our own produce. However, we had a staff member purchase an industrial composter for us this year, so we look forward to growing food in extremely nutritious soil next year!
SP: Your website says that Red Herring labeled itself as “red” before other people could during a time when anything considered anti-government was labeled as “red.” Why did the establishment choose to identify with a herring?
Kolb: From what I understand, the Herring has always been an open space for radical political groups to meet. So, of course, draft dodgers, anti-war protesters, anti-racist/sexist thinkers were often in the space. By association, the Herring became “red” or communist. We called ourselves Red Herring as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the ambiguity about whether we were actually ‘harboring communists.’ I think they thought it would throw off “The Man.” Those 60’s radicals, ya know.
SP: How has Red Herring evolved over the past 53 years?
Kolb: Shucks, I’m not sure I’m the best person to describe how much has changed. I’ve only been around for the last five or so! I know The Red Herring has a rich and fascinating history. It’s been a million different things, run by a full spectrum of anarcho-artists-eccentrics. The restaurant’s original founders include Bill Taylor and Vern Fein. It’s always been a safe haven for political activists, socially consciousness folk, and counter-culture groups; as a meeting space, a gallery, an open mic, a coffee house, a restaurant, a classroom, a space for wellness classes, a publisher, and a live music venue & recording studio.
Each year I live in C-U, I meet more members of the community who have shared special memories in this space, many who offer their continuing support. The Herring is wedged pretty deep in the soul of C-U. I think the Herring’s most consistent quality is its ability to be adaptable. We’re a non-profit. We seek to serve this community however we’re able. As an open community space. As a consumer of locally farmed produce. As a provider of meals that are nutritious, creatively inspired, and filled with love.
SP: It looks like Red Herring quickly adjusted to its closing of indoor dining due to COVID-19 regulations by adapting to Meal Club. How was the transition from indoor dining to food delivery and pick-up?
Kolb: We are lucky, or Holly would say, we are blessed. Before COVID “hit,” Holly had been developing a website, so that we could experiment with a meal club program. She had essentially just finished building it when the restrictions were released. So we were primed to start with our preorder meal service right away. A lot of our favorite recipes were well suited to a ready-to-eat meal club service, and we’ve been doing our usual shtick and innovating and adapting as we go.
It was definitely a major change administratively, and I have to give Holly props for all the work she’s done to facilitate that change. We are now essentially operating four projects: Grab N’ Go, Bucket Brigade with the Cunningham Township, ready to eat products for Common Ground, and our Meal Club. Over the summer, we also provided meals for low income folks with the Champaign Township as well as contributing to the summer lunches for kids.
SP: Through the Pay it Forward program under Meal Club, customers can purchase meals for hungry people in the CU community. Have customers been purchasing meals through the Pay it Forward program? If so, how many meals has Red Herring been able to serve through the program?
Kolb: The Pay it Forward program has been very successful. A lot of our regular meal club customers will buy several meals along with their orders. I don’t have a specific count for you, but we’ve been able to serve around 100 meals a week through this funding.
SP: How has it been operating a restauarant during the pandemic? Can you tell us what it’s like?
Kolb: I think no matter what you’re doing (locked at home, stocking shelves, or making vegan biscuits), life feels heavier and more difficult. Everyone is feeling an undercurrent of emotional strain below the normal struggle that is existence.
In a very small space, like ours, there’s always potential for tense situations. However, I am indomitably lucky to be surrounded by such a compassionate and talented team. I would say every member of our staff is emotionally and socially conscious, deeply kind, intellectually curious, and radically accepting. Some days we don’t talk much. Some days one of us is on a heated political rant. Some days we’re dreaming about the ideal world we want to build. Some days we play Brittney Spears and laugh together. Personally, I have struggled to be present and productive at times through COVID, but the optimism we share with each other in this space has only amplified the flicker of hope in my heart that there’s a better future in store for us. We have to choose it. We have to build it together.
SP: What stories do you want to share with our readers?
Kolb: Maybe less a story, and more an observation about what working at the Herring has taught me. One thing I often ramble about in the kitchen is the idea of “kitchen consciousness.” It’s the collective awareness we develop within ourselves individually to know what’s happening around us: who’s cooking on the stove, who’s in the oven, who’s chopping carrots, et cetera. Not only does this allow us to avoid accidents (the kitchen is an extremely hazardous environment), but we work more efficiently as a team when we become tools and assistants for each other.
All of us responsible for the care and safety of each other; all of us responsible for the creation and dissemination of nutritious foods. Our purpose unites us. I think opening ourselves to the needs and feelings of those around us helps us better process our own lives. I think quarantine/COVID times have revealed some of the inherited harm underneath the surface of society, and we must move forward with clarity and intention.
To me, the Herring is such an experiment in alternative work life where we practice open empathy, group decision making, and environmentally-led purpose. I’m grateful to be part of such a team; thank you Holly, Caleb, Natan, Jenny, Ash, Maggie, and Ren. I’m grateful to the Channing Murray Foundation for their support and direction; Emily and Rohn are the epitome of solid support. I’m grateful to call Champaign-Urbana my home, and I’m here to contribute my part to its improvement!
1209 W Oregon St
W-F 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.