Chef Tom Colicchio has put himself at the centre of the coronavirus crisis affecting the restaurant industry in the US.
The chef was one of the first to realise the scale and breadth of the oncoming pandemic, and the long term effects it would have on the hospitality sector and its workers. Not content to comment from the sidelines, Colicchio was one of the founding chefs of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a lobbying group that sprang into action at the beginning of March.
Now, some seven weeks after restaurants were forced to shutter their doors overnight, Colicchio spoke to The New Yorker about the fragility of the food system in the US, workers’ rights and the uncertain road ahead for the industry.
What does actually reopening look like for restaurants?
“For me, it’s about safety,” Colicchio tells The New Yorker. “I’m looking at various plans, and I just don’t know how it’s going to go. Someone walks into your restaurant and they touch the door handle—do you have to go right behind them and disinfect it? Waiters with masks on, bartenders with masks on.
“Customers are going to have to have masks on, and what are they going to do? Lift it to eat their food and drink their drinks? There’s so many questions to ask. Clearly, we’re going to have to take at least half of our seats out of the restaurant. That doesn’t work for revenue.”
“There’s no way restaurants are going to be able to open and maintain the staffing levels they had before covid, unless we get this stabilization fund we’re asking for or P.P.P. is expanded. Is it better to just not open right now and try to regroup in December? I don’t know what the answers are. You can just go into a straight model where you’re doing takeout, delivery, some sort of service, plus community feeding, and then combine everything and hope it works. There are plenty of restaurants that are doing that, but whether or not it’s successful, whether or not it’s sustainable, I don’t know.
The chef was pretty much on-the-money about how this whole situation would play out, and yet again, he is able to get a bird’s eye view of the crisis beyond the push to reopen, either this month or in the summer.
“My concern isn’t actually getting open, though. My concern is, once you’re open, how do you last for a year? So many restaurants will open, and then in six months they’ll close and they won’t open again. Just like there could be a whole second wave of the illness, there’s going to a whole second wave of closures.”
He is not alone in his concern for a supply chain that is really feeling the pressure from the lack of demand, and how that flows upriver. Farmers and producers will be hit hard by the closure of restaurants, upon whom they rely for the majority of their business. The break-up of the supply chain would have long-term repercussions, and Colicchio understands the importance of keeping it functioning wherever possible.
“Dan Barber is doing something pretty neat up at Stone Barns. He’s trying to keep the supply chain intact, so he’s still using all of his farmers that he uses, his fishermen, all that, and he’s creating these takeout boxes. It’s roast chicken, a couple things of squash, some broccoli—he’s just using whatever his farmers have. He’s realized that he’s no longer a chef—he’s a food processor.”
The full interview in The New Yorker is definitely worth a read. It’s clear that restaurants are so much more than a place to eat, they are the fulcrum of so much in our society – social hubs, the bedrock of the economy, the conduit of food in the supply chain and the support of independent agriculture.