Los Angeles-based chef Michael Cimarusti, of Two-MICHELIN-Starred Providence and the MICHELIN Plate restaurants Connie & Ted’s and Best Girl, talks to us about the status of his restaurants in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak and coping with the fallout of social distancing.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hi, Chef. How are you doing?
Good. You know, just trying to figure out our lives.
I know. This is a disaster. Can you give me some insight into how you came to the decision to shut down Providence and Connie & Ted’s rather than offer take-away or delivery?
Number one, if we continue to have employees here and we make an effort to cook food for people to take home or delivery, I still feel like the restaurant is a transmission point or a possible transmission point. I really did it out of a sense of responsibility for the welfare of our staff and the welfare of our guests.
We decided that we were going to close after Sunday service, and that was before the mandate came down from the mayor of Los Angeles. It didn’t seem like the right thing to be doing. And our guests were clearly telling us that they didn’t feel comfortable being out in the city. We saw a huge dip in reservations, as did everybody, so it became clear to us that our guests were feeling like the better choice would be to stay at home.
We have two children that are at home, out of school, and I know that there are all sort of Angelinos in that same boat. We’re worried as much for our business as we are for the health and safety of our family and our employees, and we just felt like it was the right thing to do.
Are there things you’ve been able to do to support the people you work with?
We did what we could with the staff. We furloughed pretty much everybody except for managers. We distributed all the perishable food that we had and tried to do it equitably among the staff. The chef came in on Monday and divvied it all up and told the staff to take a share of whatever we had to give.
We have plans to bring everybody back as we can. As of this moment, [the mandated shutdown] is from the 16th to the 31st, but who knows if it’s going to actually end on the 31st. Restaurants are going to need time to get back on their feet. You can’t just throw open the doors the same day they say you can open. Certainly not at Providence, there’s way too much mise en place to be done. There’s too much work to be done.
In a way, I’m also looking at this as an opportunity. It’s a reopening, it’s a rebirth. For the whole world and specifically our industry to be going through this much upheaval, there has to be something positive to come from it. At least I would hope. I’m always the one that’s trying to looking for the silver lining.
We need that right now.
Yeah, and seeing peers making these big, sweeping changes within their own business, industry leaders like Danny Meyer, we’re miniscule compared to a business like that. It gives me pause; it makes me think. I suppose even big guys are in the same boat as us smaller operators, which I was surprised to learn.
I guess that means collectively as an industry we have a lot of work to do. You see these tremors that have rolled through our world and it makes you realize just how quickly you become vulnerable. Not just physically but financially. And that’s something that we as an industry need to address collectively for the sake of our own businesses, for the sake of our employees and our guests.
What is the one thing that you need to address right now? What are you most concerned about?
As restaurants, we’re all part of a web. We have our employees who rely on us for a paycheck. We have our vendors that rely on us for their livelihood, and those vendors have vendors. We’re all interconnected and without sales coming in to our restaurants, not just mine but everyone’s, it creates these big holes in that web and it’s scary because it’s difficult to see exactly how the web is going to be mended.
We’ve employed thousands and contributed millions in terms of sales tax and payroll tax to the state and to the federal government and there needs to be recognition of that, and there needs to be some sort of fair and equitable distribution of relief so that we can continue to do all of those things.
There are some business that are going to be more fit than others to weather the storm and be able to get back on their feet quickly and be able to bring back their employees and serve their guests, and I think there are others that are more vulnerable and will be shuttered. There will be a huge wave of that, not only in this city of Los Angeles but across the country and to a greater extend across the world.
I feel like I could speak for lots of my colleagues when I say that we feel let down.
Can you recommend some course of action that people can take?
Support the businesses. Support businesses that are still doing takeout and delivery. Buy gift cards for the restaurants who aren’t doing delivery or take out and make use of those once businesses reopen. Once this whole thing is lifted, get back out there and support the restaurants that you’ve always loved because they’re going to need it more than ever.
Do you have any words of encouragement for your peers?
To my colleagues, no matter what, the one thing that the coronavirus can’t take away from us is the skill and ability that put us in The MICHELIN Guide in the first place. We will not lose that as a result of this. That skill and that ability will always have value somewhere. Even if you don’t navigate through this, you still have all of that. You still have the skill, the ability, you still have the drive that made The MICHELIN Guide recognize you in the first place.
Thank you, Chef. Good luck.
To support Chef Cimarusti's restaurants, you can purchase gift cards directly from the websites for Providence or Connie & Ted's.
Photos by Noe Montes