The Covid-19 pandemic has been brutal to restaurants and the people who make them run: chefs, bussers, dishwashers, servers, sommeliers, suppliers. This is the year of the pivot: restaurants and their teams are getting creative about how to stay afloat as many remain closed or operate at significantly reduced capacity. They’re finding other ways to feed people through virtual classes, pop-ups, home businesses and partnerships with food banks.
Here are just three of the many, many creative side jobs restaurant staffers have started: dreamy desserts in New York, crunchy pickles in San Francisco and virtual wine tastings.
Extra Helpings (Queens, New York City)
Pastry power couple Shilpa and Miro Uskokovic started their home bakery business Extra Helpings in July. Shilpa works as a food stylist and private chef (she has previously worked at One MICHELIN Star NoMad) while Miro has been furloughed from One MICHELIN Star Gramercy Tavern since April. The pair said they started Extra Helpings on a whim to keep busy in these months. "We cook and bake voraciously at home and figured this could be a great outlet.” After talking about it on a hike with friends, the Uskokovics decided to turn their pro-level home-baking into a business.
Every week they turn out a bag of outrageously delicious treats like chocolate banana muffins with Valrhona cocoa powder; sour cherry and cream cheese buns; and seasonal goodies like buttered corn, goat cheese and heirloom tomato galettes. The “menu” is announced on Mondays via Instagram and orders are placed via DM or email for pickup — a common model for this pandemic-era style of micro-bakeries.
The Uskokovics are deeply committed to supporting their local community. They source almost all their dairy and produce — luscious heirloom tomatoes, juicy blueberries, verdant basil — from their nearby greenmarket, New York State producers and small farms like Norwich Meadows. They also donate 10% of their proceeds every two months. “We believe very strongly in the power of the local economy and strive to keep dollars within a 20-30 block radius from our place [in Sunnyside, Queens]. We managed to donate $700 to Sunnyside Woodside Mutual Aid through seven weeks of sales. They run a food pantry and each week cook around 100 meals. It was a full circle moment to see our donation feed more of our neighbors.” To order a treat bag ($48) or cookie bag ($24/6 or $48/12), check Extra Helpings’ Instagram; they sell out very quickly.
Pickle Pana (Oakland, California)
Manny McCall, a former server at MICHELIN Plate restaurant Zuni Cafe (and talented home cook) had “zero pickling experience” when he decided to start selling his signature spicy garlic pickles. But, he says, “Ever since I was a kid, I've been obsessed with pickles. I would get grounded for eating all the pickles in one sitting.” Pickle Pana started as a donation-based side project; McCall initially just asked for $9 to cover shipping and the product itself, and donated several thousand dollars to organizations fighting food insecurity in Black and Brown communities. He’s since switched to a for-profit model but continues to fundraise to bring food to those in need.
Like many in San Francisco, McCall has a tight kitchen — one he shares with three housemates — but he’s perfected his dance. For his spicy garlic pickles, he uses Persian cucumbers, which he gets from Zuni’s supplier or a shop near his apartment, and then pickles in waves; a small table and counter are the prep and canning areas; the living room is storage. At peak, he was cranking out 60 jars a day.
To increase traction on his pickles, McCall offered them to Dominique Crenn of Three MICHELIN Star Atelier Crenn and One MICHELIN Star Bar Crenn and psychedelic-folk singer Devendra Banhart, who both posted to Instagram. Pickle sales took off. On the lid of each jar is a photo of McCall as a toddler, in front of an open fridge, pickle jar in hand. “When Devendra Banhart posted, he said 'this cute little kid in the fridge is now my pickle pana.'” Pana is Venezuelan slang for friend (Banhart is Venezuelan-American), and so Pickle Pana was born. To inquire about availability and to order a jar of spicy garlic Pana Pickles ($8), DM McCall on Instagram.
Delicious Experiences (Worldwide)
Delicious Experiences began as a food tour company in Israel but experienced its own pivot to a virtual platform this May, as a result of the pandemic’s impact on travel and tourism. The platform brings together mixologists, sommeliers, food photographers and chefs from around the world for virtual classes like food styling, macaron-making and wine tastings. Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at One MICHELIN Star NoMad in New York, is one participating sommelier. He joined the platform while the restaurant was closed (it re-opened in mid-October) and has been hosting virtual wine tastings called Adventures in the Wine World ($250/90min).
Clients tell Pastuszak what wines they’re interested in drinking or learning about and whether they already have them at home; if they don’t, he’ll suggest a local shop and bottles to buy. “What I do as a sommelier is everything from talking to a couple who want a delicious bottle of wine under $50 to connoisseurs who want to open something rare and special. For one Delicious Experiences session, we tasted a white, a red, and a rosé and talked about the basics of wine making. We featured a 2017 Presqu'ile Winery chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley in California, a 2016 Brun Avril Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a 2019 rosé Blaufränkisch that I make in the Finger Lakes (NY) under my Terrassen label. With that, I was able to share the experience of being a vintner as well, which was a fun component."
He added, "I did another session with a collector of Chave Hermitage who had a big selection going back to the ‘80s, so we did a four vintage vertical of 1988-1991 and talked about the domaine, the terroir and the unique vintages. It’s one of the wine regions I’m passionate about and this was a great opportunity to do an intimate tasting with this collector who was enjoying a meal at home with friends.”
Hero Image: Chocolate puddings courtesy of Shilpa Uskokovic.