On Restaurants

and the death of the chef.

Imagine we let restaurants exist the way we let hardware stores exist. Has there ever been a rock star garden-hose expert, a celebrity buyer of hammers and drills? I’m sure there is a niche magazine dedicated to these professions, but they’re not given endorsement deals or TV shows. Maybe they deserve them.

Why have restaurants been a different beast—is it the presumed artistry? We know that argument doesn’t pass muster after Chicago’s Alinea was dragged for serving “a canapé that looks like the CDC’s illustration depicting the novel coronavirus” and failed in using art as their defense. We know that the restaurant industry, for the most part, doesn’t keep its workers safe in a pandemic, that even at the most successful restaurants, workers can be locked in unventilated spaces as mold spores swirl in the air. We know that restaurants, as we once understood them, should probably no longer exist if they cannot keep people safe from viral contagion, paid a living wage, and free from harassment and abuse. Where does that leave the restaurant—do they suddenly become as culturally significant as a hardware store, or do they transform into something else altogether, with chefs as keepers of community and stewards of knowledge rather than icons? Does cooking for strangers become just another job? Does the restaurant become recognized as a collective effort with no one true “chef”?

What Roland Barthes wrote in “The Death of the Author,” we could apply to chefs, who have been showered with all praise and all responsibility as the representatives of their restaurants, which we know are the work of a literal many, from farmer to fisherman and all the way to server—each dish a “tissue of citations”:

The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions…

To truly conceive of the collective effort (actual, historical) that goes into creating a restaurant really does explode the vision of the chef that’s been built up as a “food god,” in which they maintain a vision wholly distinct and superior to the home or survival cook. I think of what Tali Bek Marelli of Americano, a restaurant in Buenos Aires, told Kevin Vaughn for MATAMBRE: “No business can be run on its own. We all need each other. You quickly realize that effecting change isn’t this competition, it is very much community work.”

While it might seem a bit lofty when considered in terms of wholly capitalist enterprise, it’s true: What we’re watching because of the pandemic and the publicity around labor issues in this industry is the way overdue death of the chef, and those who’ve taken the title are responding to this reckoning in different ways.

For María Grubb, based here in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this isn’t her first brush with disaster. “After Huracán María, we have definitely proven to be resilient,” she tells me. But this is different. After Gallo Negro, where she had been executive chef, closed at the end of last year, she’ll be returning to a supper club format.

“My north star is returning to my former Underground Dining Club dinners—themed, intimate events where I can pre-sell tickets and control my food cost and labor,” she says. “This would also help control the amount of people at my table and therefore the social distancing issues. Right now, I still think it’s too risky to run a brick-and-mortar space.”

Eric Rivera of Addo in Seattle, Washington, has totally re-shaped his restaurant by offering sales of pantry items on their website for shipment, from sazón to beans and more, as well as offering online classes and games, and even more options for locals. But not dine-in, nor outdoor dining. He doesn’t think the restaurant—as an entity—is coming back, at all.

“I really truly feel like a lot of people are trying to ignore reality,” he says. “What people have perpetuated for a really long time, it doesn't exist anymore.”

That’s what Chloe-Rose Crabtree in London wants people to know, as well.

“For every person who asks after our well-being or sees us as actual humans, there is another right behind them who hasn’t confronted that we are not returning to pre-pandemic ‘normalcy’ anytime soon,” she says. “This is the hurdle the food industry has to overcome and in order to do that we have to use this moment to make people accept that change has to happen.” Workers are taking on the added stress of staying safe, of working with chapped hands from constant washing and, in some cases, building-out new space to allow outdoor dining.

Her restaurant usually operates as a take-out operation during lunch hours, but they’ve lost a majority of their clientele as it’s located in a busy tourist and commercial office district. They’ve launched pre-paid dinners, which only help the business stay afloat and keep them off of predatory delivery apps, she explains:

“Our guests pre-pay for ticket–options: £25 pp or £45 pp with additional supplements available on the night. With the ticketed model we can predict exactly how many people we need to cook for which helps us reduce waste and appropriately plan for staffing each evening. We can usually upsell a wine tasting (at £35 or £50pp) on the night and while we’re booked up through August, these dinners which should be silly money makers are really only allowing us to break even and pay our rent. Our 4- person managerial team (owners or salaried) make up the core of the dinner service team so we’re able to pass on the earnings to pay for our hourly day-time team. The cost is that we’re pulling 60-hour weeks with at least 2 doubles in a row. This week all of us came out pretty much physically and emotionally broken but are still discussing an additional dinner service so the business can survive.”

In Puerto Rico, where erratic changes by the government enforcing what is open and when alcohol can be served are making it especially difficult for all food businesses, chef Sherleen Camilo says that while the industry had been starting to move toward necessary changes, the pandemic and lack of help and clarity from the government could send things backwards.

“I am scared that the progress and efforts that some restaurants (especially small operations) have made towards giving their employees decent salaries, health insurance, and benefits will be thumped by the Covid-19 economy and regress,” says Camilo. “It seems like a complete disregard of the lives of those who cannot afford to not work and of businesses that can’t afford to stay closed any longer without any real relief.” She is hopeful, though, that supply chain breakdowns have proven the local significance of food sovereignty. “Hopeful is what I’m trying to be mostly,” she says, “because the other options are not so great.”

Shannon Roche of Crust Vegan Bakery in Philadelphia has made perhaps the most hopeful and optimistic move one can make in a pandemic: signing a lease on a retail space. Many of the restaurants and coffee shops her wholesale business had relied upon have closed down, and with extended unemployment benefits running out at the end of July, she had to act quickly to put her staff back to work while still spread out enough to accommodate social-distancing rules. Thus, she’ll be keeping the separate kitchen and running the retail space, once it’s approved by the health department. 

“It feels like this is kind of our only option,” Roche says. “I keep kind of describing it to people as we're putting all the cards on the table. Most people are going to struggle to get their food businesses out of the pandemic, so it's our most hopeful way forward, to have an established, sustaining business that can pay my staff a living wage, give them their paid vacations, and keep increasing their benefits. So I've learned to do something that's a little risky and see if it works, because otherwise I just don't think that waiting it out, having a trickling business, and picking and choosing my staff is what I want either.”

Many with a small, independent business, it seems, are coming to terms with new ways of existing in the food industry by prioritizing staff compensation and safety, as well as pivoting to unanticipated modes. On Twitter, I’ve seen people share dreams of collectively owned restaurants, perhaps with connections to farms. There’s interest in the supper club format that Grubb is returning to, where there is more control and less overhead. These are models that are less about the chef-as-star than they are about the chef-as-creator-and-collaborator—putting community at the forefront, as well as (yes) a bit of art.

Though at the start of the pandemic, many small food producers saw their clientele shift from restaurants to retail, as Roche has, that has begun to swing back the other way as restaurants reopen, but for some, this time has radically altered their relationship to food and to going out. Who’s ready to sit inside a restaurant? Who can do so without worry for their server, for the cooks sweating in the kitchen in their masks? Where is the joy in that exchange anymore? Do people crave actual engagement now rather than service, a hospitality that extends in all directions?

Crabtree, who’s written about the subject for Resy, is struggling with these questions, because many want everything the way it once was in a model that was already broken, the true costs made invisible through low wages for staff and farmworkers, as well as government subsidies.

“Sometimes I worry that when I’m outspoken about the labor behind food and disheartening interactions with entitled customers that I’ll be seen as ungrateful for people’s business,” she says. “The reality is my work at the moment is driven by someone else’s craving and desire to satisfy that craving without experiencing the labor that craving creates. This is why we still have people asking about menu specials in the middle of a pandemic. Anything cooked outside of your home right now is the fucking special.”

How does that entitlement end? This could be a stage for revolution, for shifting expectations and focus in the media and beyond. The chef as an ego is now irrelevant; the chef is dead. It has to be. What’s next? 

On Wednesday, the paid-subscriber discussion will focus on the metaphorical death of the chef.

On Friday, the paid-subscriber interview will feature Devita Davison, the executive director of FoodLab Detroit, about what the future of food justice looks like.

At The Nation, I wrote about why I think it’s important to be clear about bake sales having no inherent political nature—which is a funny thing to have to write!

James Hansen of In Digestion interviewed me for his paid subscriber interview that went up on Saturday. You can read the inverse here, if you pay for this newsletter, but please be kind in your criticism: I was quite ill that week.

Watch the panel I moderated for MOFAD on the pandemic and meat consumption + the future!

The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by the one and only Sandor Katz. I am continuing to dip back into the big books I’ve been reading, as well, such as Theory of the Gimmick and My Struggle, Book 1. Finishing large texts that aren’t set up for one-to-two day binges has been my struggle, but boy do I identify with Knausgaard!!! I will see this through to book 6!

This ABRASIVE toast, pictured; ingredients found in Instagram post. Once I’d eaten all the tomatoes and the bread had, sadly, gotten moldy quite quickly because of the intense humidity, I lost my lust for cooking once again. More tomatoes, more sourdough, more Calabrian chilies I bought on impulse at Marshall’s. They are all I want!

My friend Nadya Agrawal edits Kajal and they are looking for food submissions! Details: Kajal Magazine has put out an open call for their next issue – Vol. 4: Food. They are looking for art, photography, reported pieces, and essays from writers and creators of South Asian descent. Contributors will be paid. Send your pitches by August 10 to submissions@kajalmedia.comFind more information here.