Despite suffering its most difficult period for generations, the restaurant sector stepped up in an incredible way in 2020. Restaurateurs opened their kitchens for chefs to cook for those in need. The ‘Great Pivot’ saw chefs think differently about how they could serve their customers. Some looked to a future after the crisis and risked it all to try a better way.
Innovative, altruistic, inspirational and visionary… the hospitality sector has shown its true colours in this crisis, putting the welfare of people before their own. It was, in a dark time, a reminder of our shared humanity and of restaurant workers’ innate desire to serve. It has been a real inspiration to watch the agility, inventiveness and creativity of hospitality workers in action.
Next year will bring a vaccine and a slow, steady return to normal. There will be lessons learned and new ambitions, new restaurants and reinvented classics. There is a lot to look forward to as the ecosystem returns to full bloom after a forest fire of coronavirus, but for now, let’s look back at 2020 and just a few of the visionaries who did extraordinary things.
Jesse Ziff Cool / Flea Street Café
The veteran Bay Area restaurateur Jesse Cooleliminated tipping and shifted to what she calls a Heart Of House (no front or back of house) service charge system during the pandemic. Employees help out in the kitchen and dining room, and all partake of the service charge pool. Cool has founded five restaurants, starting in 1976 with the first organic restaurant in the US, and is a lecturer for Stanford’s Department of Education. She uses her home garden and kitchen as a model classroom. After four decades of championing sustainable agriculture and cuisine in the US, Cool proved she remains as innovative, relevant and important as ever.
Brian Canlis took the concept of ‘family restaurant’ and extended it to staff, customers and community. With its early pivot to takeout and TV Dinners - with endlessly inventive online accompaniments, from piano music to bingo as well as a community college - Canlis showed us that a restaurant can be so much more than a place to go and eat. The Canlis brothers, Brian and Mark, and their staff have reimagined what a restaurant brand can be and have diversified in so many ways - in media, education and products. The community college enrolled 6000 people into classes where Brian and his brother launched an educational TV show for children.
Almost every restaurant in the world can learn from what they have done in 2020. Listen to their inspirational story below.
Lara Gilmore, Massimo, Charlie and Alexa Bottura
The Bottura family opened up their family kitchen to the world with their Instagram series Kitchen Quarantine. With nightly cooking demonstrations, orchestrated by his daughter Alexa behind the camera, and co-presented by wife Lara and son Charlie, the Bottura’s helped thousands of people through the darkest hours of the pandemic, and won a Webby for their efforts. Massimo became a UN Goodwill Ambassador this year for his work with his non-profit Food For Soul, which feeds the marginalised in cities around the world, but his web series Kitchen Quarantine reinvented the chef cooking show for the digital age, connecting with viewers on Instagram, but more importantly, involving his family to really invite the viewer into the Bottura family kitchen.
Teague Moriarty / Sons & Daughters
Flipping the restaurant business model on its head, San Francisco-based chef Teague Moriarty used the pandemic to create a more inclusive, equitable business for all staff. Taking a risk with his Michelin-star restaurant Sons & Daughters, chef Moriarty increased wages, provided healthcare and paid vacation for staff, giving them more of a stake in the business while reducing his own. The pandemic has exposed the restaurant business model as broken, as well as pointing to a wider macro-economic model that serves only a few. If real change is to happen, it will come from innovators like Moriarty showing us the way, working at a local level.
Meals On Heels
Giving the gift of drag in difficult times. The performers of OASIS, San Francisco’s internationally acclaimed drag show nightclub / cabaret delivered, meals, drinks and a kerbside drag performance throughout San Francisco, spreading joy and humour while providing an important service to restaurants and diners. During a global pandemic, these performers put their own heath at risk to support an industry, but most of all, to lift spirits, demonstrating their own fearlessness.
Douglas McMaster / Silo - Zero Waste Cooking School
The London restaurant at the vanguard of the fight against food waste brought their unparalleled knowledge to the masses with the Zero Waste Cooking School. A pandemic shouldn’t narrow our vision for a more sustainable future. Before sustainability was the first word on every restaurant’s menu, Silo was reducing, reusing, recycling and innovating to do extraordinary things with food, often at great financial cost to the restaurant. Sharing and disseminating their wisdom is just another example of the altruistic heart of this organisation.
Vikas Khanna / Feed India Initiative
The New York-based Indian Michelin-star chef, TV personality, writer, director and humanitarian mobilised a huge movement to feed millions of hungry Indians during the pandemic. Over 20 million meals served so far in 2020. Khanna works tirelessly to elevate awareness of the rich diversity of Indian cuisine around the world. While other major chefs take the plaudits, Khanna gets on with the job at hand, making a difference on a scale that never ceases to amaze.
Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz / Tock To Go, Alinea
At Alinea, Grant Achatz showed the world how pivoting to takeout and delivery could keep the light on in restaurants. Kokonas’ Tock restaurant reservation platform branched out as Tock To Go, enabling restaurants to manage their pivots to takeout as efficiently as possible. With Kokonas' strategic brain, and Achatz's creative flair, the Alinea Group continues to be an exemplar of innovation, pushing boundaries and triumphing in adversity.
By extracting colours from the food she eats every day, and by applying them to textiles, Kusmaya showed how the food chain can bleed into fashion. Kusmaya also uses carbohydrates and protein-based food waste as growth mediums for colour-producing microorganisms. She represents how the food system and gastronomy can influence multiple sectors. Her work is a reminder that food and the culinary arts are central to our shared, sustainable future.
Dan Barber / Kitchen Farming Project
The chef, innovator and farm-to-table guru turned to the land during the pandemic. His Kitchen Farming Project worked to regrow and nurture the mycelium of the connected food chain, and save small farmers from the disappearance of their restaurant customers. Barber represents a convergence of chef, farmer, food activist, media figure and above all inspirational leader, who works at a grassroots level, creating leaders for tomorrow and elevating our consciousness for the things that really matter.
The food writer and food PR guru reminded us that there is opportunity in crisis, urging restaurateurs to rethink their business model. His advice to ‘run your restaurant like a business not a restaurant’ became a mantra for the hospitality industry during a period of unprecedented uncertainty. Barake was also the brains behind Restore.biz, an online platform designed to create alternative, supplementary revenue streams for restaurants and chefs. In the future, restaurants will be different, Barake is helping to shape what the future looks like, by making a real difference today.
Camilla Marcus / ROAR Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants
Camilla Marcus, chef, entrepreneur and advocate for industry change, founded West~bourne, a cafe in SoHo, in January 2018, and was named one of Fast Company’s 'Most Creative People in Business' in 2020. Her socially-conscious zero-waste Manhattan restaurant operated a flat hierarchy system with equal pay and a free childcare option. Since the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of the restaurant in September 2020, Marcus has grown an e-commerce business as well as curating culinary experiences. Marcus is a founding member of ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants), a statewide coalition of NYC-based independent restaurateurs and chefs formed to fight for governmental relief for independent restaurants. She is also a founding member of lobbying group, theIndependent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), an organisation dedicated to advocating for the rights of independent restaurants through national legislative action.
Michael Elégbèdé / ÌTÀN Restaurant and Test Kitchen
Chef Elégbèdé left Nigeria to pursue his culinary dream in some of the best restaurants in the United States, before taking the decision to return to his native country in order to change the food system. Elégbèdé developed the Abori Marketplace, an online marketplace for Nigerian suppliers to reach customers by filling a missing link in the country’s food system. Thinking globally, but acting locally, Elégbèdé is a visionary chef who is building a network of suppliers and empowering an entire food chain.
Sasha Correa / The Basque Culinary Centre
The Basque Culinary Center’s Sasha Correa - food journalist, innovator and ghost thinker - applied her creativity to asking the broader questions about how the pandemic might shape post-pandemic restaurants, the industry and society. Correa was the driving force behind Reto Coronavirus, a major project by the Basque Culinary Center to provide a platform for hospitality in Spain and Latin America to share and monitor all the important developments during the Covid-19 pandemic. The initiative was also responsible for a series of debates and discussions challenging the status quo of the industry.
Hear more from Sasha in the podcast below:
Ed Lee / The Ed Lee Initiative
When Louisville chef and James Beard Award winner Edward Lee closed his restaurants - 610 Magnolia, MilkWood and Whiskey Dry - due to the pandemic, his small non-profit The Lee Initiative launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving over a million meals to hungry hospitality workers. Lee has been working to promote equality and diversity in the restaurant community for years and his work with The Lee Initiative has made a major difference to a struggling industry in a time of great uncertainty.
Roshara Sanders / The Culinary Institute of America
Chef Sanders - Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduate and Chopped champion, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and all-round inspiration - pivoted from working as chef de partie at New York’s Oceana to become the CIA’s first black female instructor. With an inspirational story of her own, surviving tough beginnings and the trauma of losing her best friend, Roshara has triumphed over adversity. She has big plans at the Culinary Institute of America to change restaurant culture from the inside and with such determination and talent, it’s only a matter of time. A living example of the transformative power of food and gastronomy, if applied in the right way.
Kreuzberger Himmel / Be an Angel
What started as a Berlin restaurant team helping refugees by opening up their homes, became a project that brought together diverse individuals, initiatives, companies and the media, all in an effort to make a positive impact on the lives of people fleeing danger in their home countries. More than 500 refugees have been through their doors and thanks to the work of Be an Angel, they managed to avoid homelessness or living in refugee camps.
Rafael Rincón / Comida Para Todos
Rafael Rincón, food activist, co-founder of Latin American Cooking Festival Ñam and president of Chile’s Social Gastronomy Foundation set up Comida Para Todos(Food for All) in the midst of the pandemic. A solidarity platform that works to eradicate hunger, as well as reactivating the country's gastronomic sector. An effort that unifies the private and public sectors in Chile, Comida Para Todos empowers restaurants to prepare nutritious and delicious dishes that are delivered to those in need across soup kitchens chosen in conjunction with the municipalities. The network has served over 40 thousand meals prepared by the Boa, 99 and La Cava del Sommelier restaurants in Santiago and Aurora in Antofagasta. So far over 190,000 solidarity lunches have been served, activating 36 restaurants in Chile, Spain, Ecuador and Perú.
Honorary mention - Vaughn Tan
The professor, author and researcher provided invaluable strategic visions for 2020, offering innovative tools for chefs and restaurants to turn a landscape of uncertainty into opportunity. Despite not working directly in restaurants or food supply, Tan provided tangible ideas and a strong vision that was followed by thousands of people in the industry.
The team at Don Julio have taken over an unloved corner of Buenos Aires. Organic produce harvested at the community-focused urban garden Huerta Luna de Enfrente will exclusively benefit local soup kitchens. Read on for the full story.