A pandemic is a difficult time to open a restaurant. But against all odds, some chefs and entrepreneurs are pinning their hopes on inaugurating bold, innovative concepts at a time when many established restaurants are doing their level best to survive the coronavirus crisis.
As each day passes, and more restaurants close, the statistics paint a grim picture for many in the industry. According to the National Restaurant Association in the US, at least 100,000 restaurants in the country have permanently closed, or will do so by the end of 2020. And a similar story is unfolding around the world, especially in Europe.
But even in these dark times there are opportunities to be found. A month after closing 108, the beloved sibling restaurant of Noma in Copenhagen, head chef Kristian Baumann is back in business, now as co-owner of a new project. Opened in early October, Koan is a more authorial concept that, according to Baumann, came to fruition just a few weeks ago — although the idea had been cooking for many years.
Set up in a space granted by Empirical Spirits in their Refshaleøen neighbourhood plant, Koan is a Korean pop-up restaurant whose menu is “a reflection of our wonderful terroir and the amazing producers we have in the Nordic region, but is also inspired by the many trips we've had to South Korea over the years,” according to Baumann. “I’ve always been very curious about my birth country, despite having only worked in Nordic and French cuisines, and so it came up as the right thing to pursue.”
Baumann explains that a ‘koan’ is a paradoxical riddle in Zen Buddhism, meant to break boundaries and create an open mind, since it represents the inadequacy of logical reasoning. “This is exactly what I want to do for our guests and for myself right now,” he says.
For Koan's opening, Baumann and his team have been working around the clock to make it happen in time. "When we had to close my former restaurant, I faced two different choices: stay at home without any real plan and wait for a vaccine, or get back to work. And I'm not very good at sitting on a couch.” The chef also says he felt responsible for the people who have been with him for years at 108. "Even though I financially would be able to take a break and wait things out, many of them wouldn't, and the fight for jobs around town is rough at the moment", he adds.
The solution was taking his personal savings and investing them in a new company, where he also invited his assistant head chef, Marco Bottin, and restaurant manager, Lasse Peder, to be co-owners. “The idea is that they will get an equity piece of every place we create together, and if one day they want to leave or open something for themselves, then they will have something more than just a monthly salary.”
He believes that this is a significant step for the industry's professionalisation, and it's about time that cooks and front of house professionals get to own a piece of where they work every day. "From the moment Kristian presented the idea of Koan, I was 100% sure that this was the right thing to do. A pop-up seemed the best way to test the concept,” says Peder.
He confesses that “it was a hard hit having to close 108”, where he was also part of the staff, and that there’s an extra risk of starting a project in a time where the industry is struggling. “But we are a team full of skilled people who really enjoy what we are doing, and the pleasure of being able to do what we love the most, even in a hard time, is the best feeling,” he adds.
Ever the optimist: a million-dollar gamble in Chicago
To open Ever, their restaurant in Chicago's Fulton Market neighbourhood, partners Curtis Duffy (chef) and Michael Muser (director of operations), had to adapt to the new reality to finally welcome their guests back in July. Ever was supposed to open in spring, but like so many others, their plans were derailed by Covid-19. "Work was well underway and the opening day scheduled for a mere 8 weeks later, when the pandemic hit. So there was no questioning. We were going to open," explains Muser.
With the architects, contractors, and craftsmen all hired, there was no turning back. “We didn't know how long we'd have to sit in a completely finished restaurant. Luckily, we never really had to; the timing worked out for us. We were just ready when the city gave us permission to open,” he says.
In such challenging circumstances, Muser says they coped, losing track of all of the things they had to do to open the restaurant. "No one was answering the phones at our porcelain-maker in France. Where were the door locks for the bathrooms? No city inspector was going to give us our occupancy permit without locks on the bathroom doors. Luckily, it all worked out.”
The restaurant, which cost US $5 million, and charges US $285 for a tasting menu, is a huge gamble on the fine dining segment — a model that many, at the beginning of the pandemic, proclaimed would struggle in the face of such uncertainty. But, according to Muser, the restaurant has had a constant flow of guests. “The greatest joy I experience every day is people coming in and telling us this was their first time out to dinner all year.”
It has been a curious facet of the lockdown restrictions that many consumers have sought out high-end dining experiences. It may explain why many chefs with fine-dining restaurants report excellent results in the last months — even though many of them now have to work at 40% of their capacity.
Cura found in Lisbon
Even welcoming half of the guests it was designed to host, Cura, recently opened at the Ritz Four Seasons Hotel in Lisbon, has become the most sought-after restaurant in the city. Announced a year ago, the goal was for the venue, run by young chef Pedro Pena Bastos, to open between March and April.
As with other projects, the plans were postponed by the pandemic. “In our case, it had a bright side, as we had time to see the industry’s reaction and improve some hospitality and logistics processes,” explains Pena Bastos. “We had time to change the service dynamics and even offer different menus.”
The chef believes that the delayed opening also served to raise diners' expectations and create a real buzz about the restaurant. “Our work in this regard has increased. We need to fulfil the customers' wishes who choose to visit us.”
For him, these months of remote work were also useful for developing creativity. “This is also an opportunity for hospitality professionals, as it allows us to be more disruptive. We have to embrace the phase that we are going through, to make efforts and realise that it is a different and demanding reality, and there’s no space for drama. What we are experiencing is dramatic enough, isn't it?”
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Fine Dining Lovers teams up with the Culinary Institute of America, James Beard Foundation and Black Food Folks on the Better Business project to build stronger, more sustainable business practices for the industry.