By Juliet Izon
Beyond restaurant owners, operators, and celebrities, hundreds of thousands chefs, cooks, and restaurant workers nationwide are experiencing tremendous change and uncertainty as a result of the pandemic. Some are attempting to adapt with the industry, others are seeking new training and skills, and all are trying to plan for a future that’s far from clear. Here are five stories providing a glimpse of what it’s like right now for chefs outside the limelight.
Tish Deonarain, New York
Tish Deonarain is the executive sous chef at The Modern in New York. She is currently cooking food for the app WoodSpoon and also giving digital cooking lessons through Luminary Experiences at Home.
I remember it being the middle of March when we were told that our Friday lunch would be the last service we’d have for a while. And it went from one service, to closing down the restaurant, to getting all the folks out of the building.
We as management stayed on until the beginning of April, just collectively trying to sort out what to do with the business. And then in April, the company laid off like 90 percent of the employees, because it was clear that the city was about to stop for a second.
I laid low and tried to figure out what the industry would even look like. Takeout was still available, but restaurants didn’t have a clear-cut opening path, or know what the safety regulations were going to be. An old coworker of mine, his girlfriend is a chef and she found the app WoodSpoon. I looked into it, and I thought it was a really good concept. It was a way to still do my job without having to be in the restaurant itself. It’s like you’re in charge of your own mini-restaurant, in a sense. How are you going to price things out? How are you going to offer them? How big is your menu?
I’m in Prospect Heights—there are a lot of restaurants around here, but there are no good West Indian or Guyanese restaurants. So I thought on WoodSpoon I could showcase that culinary side. Everything I’ve done before has been fine dining or French or American, and just very formal. What I wanted to bring was my mom’s curry—what I grew up eating. It’s honestly all the same ingredients you find in any curry. I just think it’s the ratio and the type of spice. The spices I have are from my mom, and they’re from Guyana. And then it’s potatoes, onions, garlic, lots of tomatoes. The secret ingredient is my mom’s hot chili sauce, which it gets finished with at the end.
I think it was a small blessing just to take a moment. I mean, obviously, it’s been a long moment, but it’s an opportunity to create something new and create a new culture. I’m not saying we have to work three days a week. I’m just saying instead of just being so hyper-focused on only the work, I think it’s making people realize that they don’t have to miss all the weekends and all those birthdays. Maybe take a few moments for themselves, while still pushing forward to do amazing things.
Jenna Sprafkin, Rockport
Jenna Sprafkin has been working as a chef around the country for over a decade. This summer, she worked with chef Sara Jenkins at her restaurant Nina June in Rockport, Maine.
I work seasonally, mostly. In March, I was actually in Portugal. I had planned to be gone in the Azores, Portugal, and then Italy for January through April to travel, eat, learn, do all the things that chefs love to do in food-focused countries. In the second week in March, I woke up to my phone just going off, going off. It was my mother calling from New York telling me that Trump had just announced that anyone who was not in the country would not be able to get back in. And I kept thinking, “That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m in the southern tip of Portugal.”
Eventually I flew to Boston and then traveled up to Maine. My parents have a house in the mid-coast area, and I thought we’d be safer up here while we figured stuff out and saw what was going on in the world. I had to do my mandatory two-week isolation, which was interesting in a house with my parents. My mom would be telling me what she had in the kitchen, and I’d be yelling to her from the other room, like, “This is how you cook a steak. I can hear it, just leave it, don’t touch it!”
I have a friend up here, Sara Jenkins, who was the porchetta queen of New York City before she moved to Maine. Sara, as an operator of a 40 seat-restaurant was like, “What am I supposed to be doing during all this?” We started plotting how to shift the model of her restaurant, Nina June. Her space has a beautiful deck in the back, with one of the most gorgeous views in the country, of Rockport Harbor, Maine. It’s really magical.
With this deck, we had the opportunity to allow people to kind of form their own pods. We created a five-course meal—prix fixe at $125 a person—and everything was sourced as locally and responsibly as possible. It was amazing. It was so satisfying on so many levels. I kept making the joke to everyone, “I’m like the only person in the restaurant industry that got hired during all this!”
People would thank me and tell me, “It’s the first time we’ve been out—it’s the first time things have felt normal.” And I’m like, “Thank you so much because you’re allowing me to feel normal. I have chef whites on right now, I’m putting food on plates. I’m using tweezers sometimes ‘cause I can!”
The last dinner there was the middle of October. My current plan is to set up some sort of a pasta workshop in my apartment. I plan on spending a lot of time just making pasta at home. It’s therapeutic, meditative, and delicious.
Sarah Listrom, Austin
Sarah Listrom is the former executive pastry chef at the ARRIVE Austin hotel. She is currently baking desserts for clients around the city. She recently finished her eCornell Food & Beverage Certification, and she’s currently working on concepts and creating an LLC to launch without a brick and mortar presence.
In March, I was working for ARRIVE Hotels in Austin. Career-wise, I had the strongest staff I’ve ever had. We were trying to hire more people because we were that busy.
Of course, at a certain point they closed the hotel, and we all got furloughed. ARRIVE did a really good job of trying to take care of people to the best they could. ARRIVE funded meal packs twice a week for about 70 laid-off members of the staff.
The furlough put me in this hold. Where a lot of my friends that were just let go were able to make decisions and move forward, I was in this purgatory. I got brought back in June with the PPP loan, and we reopened at the end of June. The first week was super busy, and gave us all hope and motivation. And then the next two became deathly slow. Some nights we would only have one two-top the entire night. That’s when I got let go. At a certain point, when you try to take care of too many people, you end up losing everything. But I have no hard feelings, and they did as much as they could to hold onto me for as long as they could.
My brain was initially racing. Like, “What do I do? Where do I go from here?” I posted something on social media that said, “Just to let you know, I’m no longer at ARRIVE,” that kind of thing. And immediately I had people messaging me like, “Hey, I need a birthday cake this weekend. Hey, I need a small wedding cake.” I had to buy a planner because I needed to keep everything straight! It was regulars of the restaurants, friends, former coworkers, plus others in the industry—some people that I had never even met—that had tried my desserts, appreciated me and my flavors, and just wanted to support me.
I’m still trying to figure out how to put it all together. I’m taking some online classes through eCornell for food and beverage management. And I’m starting a course with a pastry chef consultant on startup businesses. The last thing I want to do is rush into something. The industry is already hard enough to make money in, and at a time like this, it only gets harder. I don’t want to miss the mark or not predict the things that are going to happen in the next couple of years.
I got into this business because I loved how food made people happy. I loved going to tables and talking to people—they get excited when they get to talk to a chef, and I really enjoyed that part. And I feel like a lot of hospitality and connection has been kind of stripped away in restaurants. Doing my own thing, I have that connection to people again that fuels me to do what I do.
Eugenio Gasca, Los Angeles
Eugenio Gasca is a former chef at Otium in Los Angeles and is currently working as a private chef.
I came to the United States from Mexico City to work at Otium. It’s a really nice kitchen and a really fun type of cuisine because we have influences from all over the world.
The restaurant told us in April that we were on furlough, but that we could apply for unemployment. I tried to apply, but I realized that I didn’t qualify because I came here on a J-1 visa. At the end of the day, I am like a temporary citizen. So I was basically here on my own. And then on top of that, I couldn’t get a job elsewhere because my visa is conditional for me to be working at Otium.
At first, I felt a little bit like my hands were tied. Thank God my girlfriend, Marissa, still had a job, but it wasn’t enough to support both of us. So I needed to figure something out. Eventually we found out about Instacart, and at the beginning of the pandemic, we did it for a couple of months. It was not the dream job, but it was paying the bills. But obviously, the word spread around and it started to get really hard to keep doing that.
That’s when my girlfriend and I had a conversation about doing private catering and cooking. We started asking around, and I am very lucky because Marissa has been in the culinary industry for many, many years. We were talking to some of her friends, and there was a birthday party coming up. They asked us to make the food for that. It was not the first time I was cooking for people, but it still made me nervous.
People loved it. That really boosted up my confidence. And that allowed me to decide to become a private chef, at least in the meantime. I’m really happy because I’m cooking for people who want to experience Mexican cuisine. Not the Americanized version of Mexican food, but actually traditional Mexican food. The people who have been to Mexico will be like, “Oh yes! This brings back so many memories because this is legit.”
It has been really fun to see how we pivot in this time of uncertainty. And at least for me, it has helped me grow as a person, as a partner, as a boyfriend, as a professional, and as a chef. I’m figuring out and discovering what I’m capable of doing.
Lee Harman, New York
Lee Harman started working in restaurants at age 13 as a dishwasher, and worked their way up to sous chef by the age of 26. During the pandemic, they worked out of the Foods Arts Center kitchen in midtown Manhattan on a freelance basis and for the culinary program they helped develop at CUNY. Harman is currently teaching third grade in New York City.
In March, I was working for a culinary education program program at CUNY called First Course NYC. I was teaching students how to behave in the workplace, one-on-one on techniques, and skills that they needed help grasping. The day that my students’ internships ended was also the day that the restaurant industry shut down. All of my students got hired and then immediately fired the next day.
I was also working part-time as a recreational culinary instructor and as a banquet chef. I was super busy and very heavily involved in the industry.
I actually went to graduate school at NYU for food studies. The reason that I wanted to do that was because I hate the restaurant industry. I hate the way the hierarchy works. I hate the lack of a safety net. I especially hate the toxic bro culture where everyone is just trying to outdrink each other. So I went to school to change that—that was my goal with my CUNY program. And obviously, that didn’t work out since we only existed for six months.
When the pandemic hit, I did my best to keep myself busy. I did a lot of mutual aid work. When all of the unemployment money ran out—I guess at the end of July—I continued to look for jobs in the industry, but I couldn’t find anything that matched my exact skillset. I made the decision to pivot and change my career to education. I’m currently working as a third-grade teacher at an independent school.
At CUNY, I was working with adult learners—19 was the youngest, and I believe the oldest was in their fifties. That is a very different student population than working with third grade, where all the students are eight or nine. A lot of similar temperaments, though. I did a lot of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy work with my students at CUNY, and I do it with my students here as well. And those are skills that I picked up working in restaurants, because there’s no mental health care in the industry.
Everyone is just in a really bad, desperate place right now. And that’s why I’m not in the industry. Because I know that there are people who don’t have the resources and don’t have the privilege that I have. And I feel like the most effective way to leverage my privilege at this point is to stay out of the industry. There are other people who really need those jobs a lot more than I do.