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Compliments to chef Judy

Highlights from the Epic Systems kitchen.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

Over the past couple weeks, as Epic Systems finally faced the scrutiny it deserves and abandoned a disastrous re-opening plan for its campus in Verona, I got ahold of some food items from the tech company’s in-house kitchens. It isn’t hard to do. In normal times, Epic employees can have friends or family visit for a meal. During the pandemic, Epic’s food-service operation never entirely shut down. The cafeterias are still providing food for some of the employees who still report to the office, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported in May that Epic is now providing food to other health-care companies in the area, and apparently it has worked out some ways for employees to place wholesale orders through the food distributors that usually supply the kitchen.

If you’ve lived in Madison for any length of time, you’ve probably already heard enough about Epic’s ostentatiously cultivated corporate culture, a blend of overwork and whimsy that recalls the “Grass Valley Greg” sketch from Mr. Show. Keep moving and wave to Humpty Dumpty. Epic’s food program has brought in chefs from high-end restaurants including L’Etoile, and it’s known to aim higher than your average work cafeteria. I’ve definitely heard that Epic’s founder, Judy Faulkner, will sometimes personally involve herself in decisions about food, but there’s also much more to it than the wishes of an eccentric billionaire. For better or worse, it’s one of those things we talk about when we’re not holding a powerful company accountable. 

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It was surreal—after several days of watching local press outlets doggedly report on Epic workers’ concerns about the initial plan to force them back to the office—to try out a light and spring-y dish of pasta with zucchini. While taking in Jacobin‘s report this week on Epic’s “culture of control,” I was putting a dent in a loaf of challah bread, a decent bargain at $2.50. The standouts for me were a little slice of chocolate cake with the frosting rolled into it, and grilled chicken with coconut lime slaw. I worked my way through all this as I pondered the arrogance of Epic executives arguing that a public-health order requiring people to work from home somehow actually allowed people to work in the office. 

The people working in Epic’s kitchens have my respect. Like most of us in Madison, I know a lot of Epic employees who strive to do meaningful work and are in every sense better than the company’s leaders. To its credit, Epic’s ongoing food service has helped the local food industry during a time of utter collapse: The Journal-Sentinel article linked above noted that Epic business enabled one big local food distributor, Golden Produce, to hire back some laid-off workers.

It seems so perfectly emblematic that a company in the healthcare industry can fail so miserably to lead on COVID-19 safety while continuing to produce this vivid aspect of its office culture, one of the many perks its employees enjoy instead of actual labor rights. I’m also strangely touched at the craft and care these food items convey, even under stressful and dystopian conditions.

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