“Chefs are like snowflakes, no two are identical – how they came to the profession, whether or not they went to cooking school, whether or not their families travelled or ate in good restaurants or even had good food at home, how they first discovered the kitchen, how they settle on their own style… I think of it like a curriculum, the path they make for themselves as they make their way towards becoming a chef in their own right. It’s rarely the same for any two people.
“Chefs run the gamut of socio-economic background, cultural background, ethnicity, privilege and yet all these people wind up in the same place, in kitchens.”
Whatever a chef’s backstory, where they came from, or indeed where they are now, they are today facing a plot twist, one that nobody foresaw. The coronavirus crisis threatens the restaurant industry and almost all chefs will have to write a difficult new chapter in the story.
“There almost aren’t words for it,” says Friedman. “I started doing these nightly specials on maybe the March 14 or so and everybody I spoke to that week, chefs and restaurateurs, were burning themselves out. They were all dealing with their staff, looking into what kind of relief they could apply for, a lot of them were starting to do advocacy work, they were putting together ad hoc coalitions and petitions and they were basically working at an unsustainable level.
After the initial shock of the lockdown, many in the restaurant industry are beginning to process the reality they will be facing in the near to medium term.
“There are restaurants that won’t reopen after this,” says Friedman. “Some will. Some will open but not have the same income again, they’ll open but the owners won’t take a salary for a year or two.
Crisis and uncertainty can pave the way for reinvention and the chance to build a new model for restaurants.
“One thing this crisis has uncovered is the tenuousness of the restaurant business model. It’s not just the employees who live paycheck to paycheck, it’s the restaurants. There’s no reserve, no nest egg,
“I feel like it’s reaching some kind of critical mass in the last 7-10 days. There is a desire to take the risk of reopening at a higher price point in order to establish a more humane baseline way of doing business. That to me is stunning, I don’t know if I would have that kind of courage right now.
There’s a lot about the pre-coronavirus society that was broken and a crisis like this allows us to see it clearly and, if we’re serious about it affect the change we’ve long known we needed. As they say,