Beneath the steely exterior of any kitchen professional runs an undercurrent of compassion. Chefs may have a famously coarse reputation, but their hard edges are often there to protect a tender-hearted warmth—a kind of emotional armor formed after years of long hours and low pay. It's passion and a calling to take care of others that keeps a chef in the kitchen.
Cooking professionally is a true labor of love in the very best of times, let alone in the midst of a global health crisis. In good years, restaurants average a frightfully slim profit margin of three to five percent. The financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the food and beverage industry especially hard, with independent businesses taking the brunt—a storm many will not survive. A recent survey by the National Restaurant Association found that over three million restaurant jobs (not to mention $25 billion in sales) were lost in the first three weeks of March.
In the shadow of this economic upheaval, Bay Area chefs have responded with considerable grace. They have shown firm commitment to both supporting each other and extending aid to the surrounding community by doing what they do best: feeding people. Many establishments have closed, but some chefs are finding creative ways to bring people together while maintaining physical distance. Demonstrating enviable agility, they have changed business models and essentially opened new restaurants overnight.
Formerly dine-in-only eateries are turning to curbside pick-up, and elaborate tasting menu establishments are pivoting to provide hundreds of meals a day for overwhelmed frontline healthcare workers, food-insecure families, and the medically vulnerable. There is also considerable outreach for hospitality industry workers who have found themselves abruptly unemployed (and who often live paycheck to paycheck due, in part, to the Bay Area’s astronomical cost of living). Restaurant folk frequently volunteer their services to causes they believe in, but this generosity of spirit has never been so clear.
In San Francisco, Chef Kim Alter of MICHELIN Plate restaurant Nightbird has shifted gears from serving her farm-focused tasting menu to sending out 200 meals a day to beleaguered medical workers as part of Ryan Sarver’s Frontline Foods project. Sarver, a venture capitalist, created the organization to support both restaurants facing financial devastation and overwhelmed healthcare workers. Donations fund work for restaurants and meals for hospital staff.
For the time being, Alter has decided to focus exclusively on charitable community outreach, forgoing offering take-out in order to minimize the threat to her staff’s health and maximize their ability to make as many meals as possible for frontline workers in need.
Alter keeps her ingredient quality high and her food costs low by working with her local farmers and meat purveyors, who are seeing their own supply chains disappear. She is as concerned for the farms’ survival as she is for the restaurant community. As part of SF New Deal, a newly formed nonprofit that aims to help food businesses stay afloat and keep wage workers employed, Alter has taken on the role of liaising with farmers and connecting restaurants with small producers. By doing this, Alter says she hopes to assist the supply chain businesses that prop up the restaurant industry.
“I think we who work in restaurants have always risen to solve problems. We have always been a part of charities to raise money and awareness. When a disaster happens, it is no surprise that, not only are we struggling to save our staff and our businesses, but [we're] reaching out to help the people who can't help themselves.”
The appreciation she receives from organizing and cooking gives her hope. “It sounds cheesy, but the gratitude that comes from people when we drop off the food has been overwhelming.”
Chef Chris Cosentino has channeled his jarring, newfound free time into organizing. His MICHELIN Plate restaurant, Cockscomb, is currently closed as he felt the health risk to his employees was too great.
Cosentino is a leading member of the Bay Area Hospitality Coalition, alongside chefs Kim Altar, Mourad Lahlou, Brandon Jew and others. The coalition’s mission is to provide informational resources and support to local restaurants, their staff (with specific resources for mental health and undocumented employees), and their supply chains. The organization also acts as a grassroots lobbying group, advocating for government aid on behalf of the industry.
As a veteran television personality, Cosentino is harnessing his celebrity to raise awareness, encouraging his followers to reach out to their representatives and demand comprehensive support for independent eateries. He's also having frank discussions about mental health. “Realize that it’s okay to not be okay. We are all not okay together,” says Cosentino. “Find a familiar routing that gives you a sense of purpose. Read, call a friend, but most of all, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Across town, Chef Pim Techamuanvivit says her two San Francisco restaurants, One-MICHELIN-Starred Kin Khao and the seven-month-old Nari, are adapting as best they can while also committing to feeding frontline healthcare workers.
“It’s really a fight for survival. My first responsibility as a business owner in these extraordinary times is definitely to my staff, and then to my guests, plus of course keeping the business afloat so that the staff have jobs to return to when all of this is over.”
To buoy her altruistic efforts and help cover wages, Techamuanvivit’s restaurants are for the first time providing limited curbside pick-up and a delivery menu. The small kitchen at Kin Khao is not conducive to stringent social distancing guidelines, so she consolidated her salaried staff in the more spacious kitchen at Nari, where everyone is careful to wear gloves and masks.
Wage workers, on the other hand, had to be removed from the schedule. Nari’s Chef de Cuisine, Meghan Clark, remarked that telling the staff they wouldn’t have work for the foreseeable future was the most painful and difficult day she’s had as a chef. But despite not having shifts for her hourly workers, Techamuanvavit hasn’t laid anyone off. “This is very important to me. I’ve made a promise to my staff that I wouldn’t leave them out in the pandemic without health insurance.” She has already covered benefits through the end of April and is committed to continuing to do so.
Techamuanvivit conceptualized her plan to feed hospital staff when her friend—ER physician Dr. Christian Rose of Zuckerberg SF General Hospital and Trauma Center—ordered take-out and posted an effusive Instagram story about how happy it made him to eat something so delicious and nourishing instead of cafeteria food. She asked if she could continue to feed him and perhaps even his colleagues. Rose connected Techamuanvivit to the ER department heads and she rose to the occasion.
“I’m not really soliciting donations for this, because we’re not a non-profit, but we have private support from friends and family who are happy to keep my team working and these medical frontline workers well fed with MICHELIN-quality food.”
An hour and a half north of San Francisco lies the quaint wine country hamlet of Healdsburg, home to the kaiseki-inspired SingleThread restaurant and inn. The restaurant is among the world’s most hallowed bastions of fine dining, ascending to their third MICHELIN star less than three years after seating their first guest.
Chef Kyle Connaughton and his wife, Katina, who is head of the restaurant’s farm, are no strangers to crisis management. After multiple devastating fire seasons and the February 2019 flood that left Katina’s crops ten feet underwater, this is yet another challenge. And just as they have in the past, they plan to get through it by cooking for the community.
The pillars of warmth, family, and community have always been central to the restaurant’s core ethos. During the 2017 Tubbs fire that ravaged Northern California, SingleThread partnered with Sonoma Family Meal, an organization birthed from the literal ashes to feed those who were effected by the fires. Now, once again, the Connaughtons have partnered with SFM and Corazon Healdsburg (a local organization that supports hospitality and agricultural workers). They are eschewing an 11-course tasting menu to prepare 200-plus meals per day for people in need.
In addition to personal donations to SFM, the Connaughtons have galvanized a network of wineries and other donors to sponsor meals. On a micro level, those lucky enough to snap up a four-person family meal are given the option at checkout to sponsor an additional meal for a food-insecure family. (There are only 60 available for pre-purchase per night and when the weekly meals were released on Tock on April 8th, they sold out within 20 minutes).
The pick-up meals include four dishes that change nightly and achieve the same gorgeous precision and inspired gastronomy as Connaughton’s kaiseki, but with more humble ingredients. He priced the meals at $20-25 per person (roughly 1/15 the price of SingleThread’s normal menu); he said that affordable comfort is what's right for the community and that they didn’t want price to alienate people.
“We are just trying to give people what they need…meals that are nourishing and restorative. We are putting a lot of thought into ingredients and dishes that will both boost immunity and are just good for the soul."
These examples of community care, along with so many others in the Bay Area, are especially inspiring in light of the fear and uncertainty all restaurants are facing. Each chef agreed that this kind of response speaks to the spirit of what hospitality is all about.
“I think those of us who are truly passionate about what we do first and foremost have the desire to take care of people, whether through a special 11-course dinner, a take-away meal, or a donation meal,” said Chef Connaughton. “We know the lives of people who are receiving these donation meals are difficult and stressful, now more than ever. We think about how we can take away a bit of that stress, how can they enjoy that meal with every bit of dignity that is deserved.”
This generosity of spirit may distract from the precarious future chefs are facing, but it doesn’t change the difficult reality. Those of us who love restaurants bear some responsibility to help if we want to be able to belly up at the bar of our favorite places again. Diners can purchase gift cards to use at a later date, order take-out if the restaurant offers it, donate to staff fundraisers, and sponsor hospital meal drops.
Overwhelmingly, the main request was that you go out for your favorite meals as soon as eateries are open again, because if you don’t, they may not survive.
“The future of our industry is unknown,” says Alter. “It’s what keeps me up at night. I think what would be most helpful is to support us when we do reopen.”
Chef Connaughton agrees. “We can't take restaurants at any level for granted and expect that they will just magically make it through this. By supporting them with your dollars and patronage you can help assure they continue to exist and thrive. Can you imagine a world without all of your favorite places?”
It is a heartbreaking future to contemplate.