The Question on Every Chef's Mind...

22 October, 2020

Photo by: Fine Dining Lovers Artwork / iStock

Take, for example, Joshua Smith. Before the pandemic, Smith, a thirty-year veteran of top kitchens who formerly owned his own businesses, New England Charcuterie and Moody Street restaurants, took a role as director of culinary innovation for Alltown Fresh, a collection of markets along the United States’ Northeast Corridor owned and operated by Global Partners. The markets offer groceries, prepared foods, catering, and coffee, with the convenience of fuel pumps outside. 

It might not seem like a logical role for Smith, but he enjoys the challenge of overseeing existing locations, opening new units, collaborating with their chefs, and bringing his discerning criteria to sourcing and honing new dishes.

He also finds opportunities for creativity, even in the decidedly non-restaurant setting.

“To scratch that itch,” he says, “I still do private dinners and pop-up events where we get to go off-script and do fun things. A lot of those situations are where our next Alltown Fresh dishes are born: tacos, flatbreads, pizzas, sandwiches.” During the pandemic, one offering—wagyu roast beef sandwich on rosemary focaccia with pickled jardinière, arugula, shaved parmesan, and a lemon-garlic aioli—was conceived as a meal for frontline workers Smith served in New York City.

Smith spends a good deal of time on Zoom calls, email threads, and in his car, visiting locations up and down the East Coast. He collaborates with his chefs, serving as an editor, helping them realise dishes they have in mind, or reviewing kitchen designs. 

He doesn’t get the same adrenaline boost he did working service, but finds that the lifestyle is healthier.

“I’d call it PTSD,” says Smith. “You’re always looking over your shoulder, thinking it can’t be like this. You’re always waiting to put out some kind of fire. It’s not that we don’t have them, but there’s an unease to settle in. But the reality is that I can get my job done and feel good about it at the end of the day.”

Also, at a time when many conventional restaurants are downsizing or flatlining, Smith has been hiring. “I have consistently had positions open up and being created as need has increased,” he says.

For other chefs, the lockdown has been a chance to jump in on long-delayed passion projects. Harold Dieterle, formerly chef-owner of Kin Shop, Perilla, and The Marrow restaurants, and winner of Top Chef’s inaugural season, shifted into consulting a few years ago, founding HD Hospitality

Even in the traditionally slow restaurant months of January and February, Dieterle had about a half-dozen clients on the eve of the pandemic’s arrival in the US, providing services including writing business plans and financial models, doing recipe development, and working with fast-casual chain Chopt, which he had been involved with for four years.

By June, none of those accounts were active and Dieterle’s lone client was a ghost-kitchen developer.

Dieterle has used the unbidden downtime to bear down on a project he’d had in the works, but always in the background—developing a line of “chef-driven edibles” that bring quality ingredients to the sort of cannabis products (e.g., gummies) often dragged down by artificiality. 

“The lockdown accelerated the timeline of the cannabis project. The original plan was to wait for it to be legalised for recreational use in New York,” says Dieterle, who lives in Brooklyn. “Now I’m looking to partner on opportunities in Massachusetts, which is the closest state where it’s legal, and in New Jersey, where it’s on the ballot in November. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in that market.”

In a quirk of timing, Patrick Miller, formerly the chef of Rucola, a popular Italian restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, also realised a new, non-kitchen ambition during the lockdown, launching Faccia Brutto, which produces Italian spirits (aperitivo, nocino, amari). 

Before 2020, the project had been in the works, but stalled in a bureaucratic morass. It finally began producing in mid-spring, and now has a national distributor. Though he felt buttressed by a traditional four-year college degree with a double-major in Spanish and international relations, Miller put himself through a self-designed curriculum to surmount what he describes as a steep learning curve.

“I got an online [business] degree,” says Miller. “I educated myself on accounting, marketing, everything. I’m not saying that was something that helped me a ton, but it did get me out of the line-cook mentality and showed me how to think about the world instead of prepping enough for dinner service.”

Miller believes that others can make a similar leap if they’re so inclined: “Cooks that have a drive to have a good life and want to succeed, will do it and will be fine,” he says. “Cooks who want to just get by, will do that. There are all sorts of people with all sorts of motivations and skill levels.”

For many of you, the short-term solution might resemble something like what restaurants have been forced to adapt—a patchwork of revenue streams that, with some pluck and good fortune, might generate a pre-pandemic bottom line, or at least a liveable wage. 

Just as restaurants that once subsisted exclusively on dine-in business are now offering packaged foods, take-out, mail order, and/or delivery, some chefs and cooks are finding the answer in a mix of gigs.

The most obvious pivot for an individual would be to private or personal chef jobs, which are more plentiful as those with the resources to hire in-house chefs turn to that option as a way of avoiding restaurants and the threat of contamination. 

But there are other avenues as well: Amy Yi, who this month took a job as culinary director of Genuine Foods, left her position as chef of West-bourne in New York City on the cusp of the lockdown in March. She spent the summer improvising—guest cheffing at Daniel Eddy’s new restaurant Winner, and selling Korean-American lunchbox meals out of her home, a venture that dependably sold out.

“The more I did it, the more I realised how much ability I had to carve my own path or do what I wanted,” says Yi. “As much as a chef position allows that, I don’t know if I ever thought that way.”

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When looking for your next gig, you might find ways of just popping up, as some other chefs are doing. In what might be a sort-of model for the near or long-term future, you might consider partnering with a company like Resident, a New York City-based business that stages pop-ups and private dinners prepared by chefs with Michelin-star pedigrees in luxury apartment buildings, usually in vacant or showroom units.

The business is two years old, but seems custom-made for a pandemic, and the post-pandemic dining landscape.

Founder and CEO Brian Mommsen, who hails from the world of hedge funds, got the idea after inviting a chef acquaintance to do a recurring supper club out of Mommsen’s home in Brooklyn. He saw an opportunity to create bespoke dining experiences that would give chefs a creative outlet, real-estate companies a new amenity to offer residents, and diners a way to interact more intimately with chefs.

Ayaka Guido is one of the chefs currently featured on Resident’s rotating roster. In just the past few weeks, Guido has done three dinners with Resident. She relishes the creative freedom - which is absolute so long as chefs stay within the food budget - and the chance to experiment with new ideas.

It’s not a full-time job, and doesn’t provide income enough to live on, but it’s part of the matrix for Guido in what seems to be the new normal, for at least another several months. Over the summer she served as chef of The Greens, a seasonal job that wrapped up in early October. At the same time, she did three dinners via Resident, which adheres to Covid protocols—private dinners can be staged indoors, but all public dinners are served on open-air terraces (temperature checks and health surveys are also de rigeur). 

Guido appreciates the opportunity to overcome her shyness, and hone her ability to interact with guests, introducing each course to them. She also appreciates the ability to just cook—Resident provides a sommelier, a prep cook or sous (if necessary), and even a photographer.

She also appreciates the ability to hone her personal style, mingling her Italian and Japanese heritage, in dishes like a takoyaki accompanied by head-on shrimp in a shrimp brodo, which is made to order and so would be impractical in a restaurant setting. If they ask, she’ll even demo how to prepare each of the shrimp heads for them.

“I really enjoy working for them,” says Guido, highlighting a silver lining of this tumultuous time. “Just because you’re a chef you don’t always have full creativity.”

So you know this year's whiplash-inducing shutdown was traumatic, no doubt about it. Overnight, the dining landscape changed from a cook’s market where there were often more jobs than restaurants could fill, to a Wild West where only a lucky few are employed on the regular.

It would be pollyannaish to suggest to you that a personal pivot will be easy, or that cobbling together a patchwork of income streams can be accomplished without great effort and within a humane number of hours. But you’ve never minded hard work, and there is opportunity hidden in the gloom.

For all the pessimism coursing through the industry, this is also a time when honouring your personal passion, turning that side-hustle into a full-time gig, or staging that pop-up you’ve long been dreaming of aren’t indulgent distractions, but might actually be the most fiscally responsible things you can pursue.

After all, if there’s one universal truth in 2020, both good and bad, it’s that anything goes. 

Cura dish presented by the chef

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