Good evening, friends and neighbors.
The weather this weekend could have been better- cloudy, muggy, windy, rainy. No good for going out and doing much, which made it picture perfect for my days off.
See, lately, I’ve been on a big kick of not trying to do something every fucking minute. With the parade of nightmares, hatred, anger, righteous rage, and natural disasters happening outside my little corner- as often as I poke my head out to try and do some good, I want to spend some time remembering what still IS good. The “eternal verities” of a culinary life.
Everyone wants to “return to normal”- the pandemic to go away, hurricane season to pass, and the protesters to shut up and go home (after November 2016, I’ve learned that the people screaming and begging for “peace” tend to actually mean “peace and quiet.”)
Here’s the problem, though- that “normal” wasn’t working as well as you think it was. It won’t come back. It can’t, and if we’re being honest, it probably shouldn’t.
The accomplished and talented chef Gabrielle Hamilton wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about the complex emotions of closing her beloved restaurant Prune amid the madness of COVID-19. She recalls opening the restaurant with no idea of how to manage one- no idea of permits, inspections, legal hurdles, taxes. Her thoughts were “I’ll have this one the menu. The space will feel homey. I’ll have flowers over here.” The nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts crap she learned by necessity and on the fly. She admits, though, that the culinary industry has had a labor force-sized Achilles heel regardless of the size of individual operations- a sentiment shared by big-name cooks and small-time entrepreneurs alike. It just took a single virus-sized arrow to hobble the giant- and the hospitality industry in America is only now scraping together its broken parts.
Twenty-five years after opening her beloved restaurant, Hamilton wonders if the post-pandemic future will need a place like Prune, let alone have room for it.
The reason is that, as states start to “open” back up and businesses are forced to either work around new public health parameters or stay closed, we are being faced with what public radio and internet thinkpieces have repeatedly dubbed “the new Normal.”
That normal looks like people checking that they have their masks and hand sanitizer with them before leaving the house- assuming they aren’t going to throw a fit like a toddler with an M-16 because they need to wear them in Walmart.
It looks like reduced staff, reduced hours, and increased revenue as the businesses that were able to pivot and adapt grab up the sporadic foot-traffic left by their shuttered neighbors.
It looks like bottle shops, breweries, distilleries, and dispensaries taking a long hard look at the labyrinth of liquor laws and figuring out just how they can sell their wares when bars are closed and there are population density limits in buildings. You can order beer, booze, and weed from your phone in Portland, Oregon- and either have it delivered to your door for a fee, or have it handed to you in our vehicle. Individually packaged, minimally handled, sanitized, and consumed with voracity. After all, you’re stuck at home- why NOT day-drink a bit and toke up on the porch?
It looks like favorite bars and the restaurants of friends forced to close- the end of good memories and the beginning of hard times- tempered by the discovery of new foods and concepts by enterprising cooks who decided “Why NOT now” for their side projects, alternate menus, and trialing business models. A fine dining restaurant opens a window, puts some shelves on rolling partitions, and offers up stock and sandwiches as an East Coast-style bodega. Eight blocks over, the only window of the kitchen to a small neighborhood bar pops open, and the cook offers a selection of bar-room favorites in addition to a few sandwiches. He had a cheesesteak truck before he bought the bar. Recipes and signage he held on to for years- why not offer people something different?
Normal looks like the Death of the Public Dining Room, and reviewing new restaurants based on the quality of their carry-out. What deals can we shake out of GrubHub, Caviar, and Doordash- companies that have, with much belligerence and gritted teeth- established themselves as the Cosa Nostra of commercial cuisine. A stranglehold weakening in spots where the urge to “support local business” is strong, and the customers are conscious to call orders in directly- cutting out the mafioso middlemen. Where once my wife and I would eagerly plan dates nights and geek out over fine food, we now compare notes over Netflix and “this new place we just found- I brought home a sandwich.”
We are realizing now that time commuting and time spent in the office is wasted. My wife can teach her students in fuzzy slippers as well as she can in heels.
We are realizing that, when enough workers are told to stay home because we might get sick, the wealthy “job creators” we were told are all-important to our economy feel a painful squeeze.
In the restaurant industry, we are realizing that our Achilles heel was called “an extensive, underpaid workforce working in generally miserable conditions.” All the growling, screaming chefs, the appeals to “tradition,” the belly-aching about “kids these days” and the romanticizing of abuse and mistreatment can’t change that fact. Nor the fact that all of it, unless the cook themselves was an owner or investor, was for someone else’s profit.
I mourn for the loss of good businesses. I ache for the hardship of my friends and colleagues trying to find their way through the fallout. I can’t help but feel the weight of the world pressing in on all sides, and I know the feeling of wanting to dig a pit, pull the Earth in over me, and wait for it all to go away.
When it’s all fallen down, there’s nothing left but to rebuild- ideally, better. It’s a moment of pain that we, as an industry, cannot let go to waste.