Not too long ago (though some might feel different), our team of anonymous inspectors were busy managing a full schedule of restaurant meals—lunch and dinner, five days a week—mapped out weeks ahead of time, and across several time zones. But in a matter of weeks, the $863b restaurant industry has come to an unprecedented standstill due to social distancing measures put in place in order to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Our inspectors, along with millions of others across the country, have been staying home to keep themselves and their communities safe. But standing by and watching our industry slowly and painfully unravel is a punishing consequence of confinement, and sometimes it helps to just focus on the task at hand—today, that’s sorting out what’s for dinner. So how does a restaurant critic, who usually eats out every night of the week, feed themselves at home?
Stocking the Kitchen
It’s no surprise that the top pantry essentials for our inspectors include long-lasting, dried and shelf-stable ingredients. Beans are a recurring favorite, ranging from bulk black beans to heirloom cranberry beans from the Rancho Gordo specialty store in Napa, California. Of course, there is also a wide variety of dried pasta (notably, the Faella brand from specialty retailer, Gustiamo); ideally served with a sauce made from the farm-fresh New Jersey canned tomatoes prepared by one of our inspectors each year.
Inspectors agree that some kind of hot sauce is a requisite for enhancing a meal at home. One uses a spoonful of spicy mushroom sauce from MáLà Project, a Chinese dry pot specialist, and Bib Gourmand, in Manhattan; while another opts for Cholula Hot Sauce—the perfect midpoint between heat and acid. And dessert? Chocolate was a resounding must for these trying times. Thomas Keller’s K+M dark milk bars are an indulgent favorite, as is the creative selection from Los Angeles-based chocolatier, Compartés.
On the Table
As former restaurant industry professionals-turned critics, inspectors are acutely aware of the devastation ravaging the industry. Since suspending their rigorous dining out schedules, inspectors have been doing what they can to support restaurants by ordering takeout, and also turning to the kitchen for some stress relief.
“I wish it were under better circumstances, but getting back in the kitchen has been just as comforting as snuggling up with a blanket," said one inspector. "It seems to be the healthiest way to pass the days."
In one household, Mexican cuisine is a favorite and pozole rojo has been on the menu a few nights in a row. Others are planning to tackle more involved kitchen projects like soup dumplings and croissants. Some have efficiency in mind, preparing batches of a favorite sauce—a Thai red curry, for example—and freezing it in ice trays for quick, single-use occasions, or relying on shortcuts to a quick and delicious meal, like a gochujang-spiked tomato sauce, which can be poured onto practically anything.
Finally, we asked inspectors for their most coveted craving—something they wish was in their fridge or pantry right now, regardless of how extravagant. A few specialty ingredients were mentioned (white asparagus and whole trays of Maine uni from Regalis, for example), but the resounding message is that inspectors, like the rest of us, are perfectly content with their comfort foods. And when it’s time to get back on the road—a time that can’t come soon enough—inspectors will be more than ready for their next reservation.
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