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Nancy Silverton On Recovering From COVID And Reinventing Restaurants

After a relatively light brush with coronavirus, taking stock of what has to change.

Nancy Silverton is a Los Angeles culinary icon. Formerly of Michael’s, Spago, and Campanile, she is chef and co-owner of the Italian Mozza Restaurant Group and founded La Brea Bakery, which she sold in 2001. She’s a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef and has her own gelato line, Nancy’s Fancy. She splits her time between Los Angeles and Italy.

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I always thought I was invincible. I never get sick. I’ve never had a flu shot—now I will, but I’ve never had a flu shot. I just don’t get sick. And I thought that I would leave this pandemic unscathed.

Somebody that I was around tested positive. And because I was running a takeout operation at a restaurant worker’s relief event, I knew the thing to do was to be tested. I never thought it would come back positive, but it did.

I had to shut everything down. I felt like I let everybody in the community down. So I felt really, really badly. But I’m happy to say that I’ve been asked through José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to cook food at our Osteria for hospitals. So I get to again give back because it’s in our restaurant DNA as owners, as a community, to feed people.

When I tested positive, I obviously self-quarantined, but I never had a symptom. I was never tired. If I had to look at it like—did I really have anything? Oh, that’s why I maybe had a terrible backache that one night, or maybe that’s why I huffed and puffed going up my staircase one time. But I really had to search deep for a symptom. So I’m one of the lucky ones.

The worst part of the whole thing was for two weeks, every night when I went to bed, I thought, am I going to wake up in the middle of the night with what everybody’s describing, the sweats and the chills? But I never did.

I live with Michael Krikorian, and he wrote a blog post about a sort of a funny symptom I did have. They say, especially in older people, there is a fogginess, a disconnect. And so the day that I took the test, my son was with me, and I decided to make omelets. Michael tells it, I’m normally a very organized cook, and I always have everything lined up to use, and I work very, very methodically. But I made my son an omelet that was just a mishmash. I had stuff all over the place. I didn’t know what I was doing. I even got color on my omelet, and I never get color on my eggs. And in the middle of this mess, I thought to myself—because I hadn’t got my results yet—maybe this is COVID. And that was really the first sign that I had it.

Michael did a lot of writing during this time. The first story he put out was when I announced it because it wasn’t something that I was ashamed of. And it wasn’t something that I did wrong. I did everything right. As soon as I found that someone was positive, I left the restaurant, I came home, I took a test, I didn’t leave my house waiting for the results. I shut down the restaurant—that’s all I can do.

Unless I’m at an event or at someone’s house, I’m at my restaurant. And so I never cook at my house in Los Angeles. I’ve cooked more than I’ve ever cooked at home. And it’s not like elaborate meals—they’re simple. I’ve braised lamb shoulder. I’ve roasted chicken thighs. Again, I’ve made omelets, and because we’re in Los Angeles and we have sunshine 364 days a year, I slow-barbecue a leg of lamb in my backyard. I’ve done a couple of steaks with different sides and things like that. Not multi-course meals, but one thing I’ve done is cook.

I never bake at my house. It’s great that people are baking bread at home. I don’t have that desire to master it. For the most part, I think people are putting themselves through the challenge of always wanting to learn how to bake a loaf of bread. Well, I do know how to bake a loaf of bread, so it’s not something that has been on my bucket list. I haven’t been making bread, but I appreciate it. And I’m going to tell you, I’ve got many messages with pictures asking, “what am I doing wrong?” Or “can you give me help?” So that’s sort of fun.

But you know what’s really interesting during these times is that all of us have to reinvent our restaurants. All of us are essentially opening new restaurants with new guidelines, and we have to figure out how to make money to compensate for the lack of customers.

We’re going to see a whole new frontier coming up. Nobody’s going to be able to afford to open at 25 percent capacity. Fifty percent might be doable, but with that 50 percent limit, how many people want to go out to eat?

The new normal is that people are going to enter a restaurant, and they’re certainly going to have to have their temperatures taken. They are going to be served by people with masks and gloves. They are not going to be sitting near each other. So there’s going to be no vibe in a restaurant. It’s going to be like the feeling of picking an unknown restaurant, say on a Saturday night, where there’s two tables, and you’re like, “Wow, this restaurant is about to go out of business” kind of feeling.

You’re going to have disposable menus, which is fine, I don’t mind that. But somebody was talking about one of the guidelines, disposable plates and cutlery, which would be awful. You’re going to be sitting at a bar with a plexiglass divider between you and the bartender. That’s the new normal.

Does the plexiglass come down? Do the servers throw off their gloves and masks? I guess once there’s a vaccine, then maybe there’s no reason to have gloves. How many restaurants will we have a choice of going to, because if you see those statistics, they’re pretty grim over who’s going to make it and who’s not. It’s just heartbreaking.

I’m hearing from all parts of the spectrum, and a lot of people were saying they weren’t doing well leading up to the pandemic. They were already struggling. I am very proud to say that we were not one of those—we were thriving. So we’re already starting out on a better foot.

We want to reopen, but I’m not looking forward to having my guests sit down with a server behind a mask where you can’t even see their face. It makes it feel so sterile. I’m not looking forward to my bartenders mixing drinks and not being able to reach over and hand it to the guest. But I want to reopen. I’m not done with the industry.

I think of all of the people that depend upon me for their livelihood, and I want to give jobs to as many of them as I can. The very sad part and the reality is, I can’t hire everybody back. If we’re going to do half the numbers, then I need half the staff.

When you think of who we support, it’s not just our restaurant workers and us—the supply chain is so deep. The reality is when you rehire, you have a clean slate, and you’re going to rehire the people that worked the best for you. Some of the weak links are not going to be rehired.

That’s my issue in the long run. The short-term issue, which is a whole other issue, is I never thought the day would come where my ability to hire a person competed with unemployment. Right now, with the boost from unemployment, a number of my staff are making equal or more money than they did when they worked. So besides the safety fear of coming back, there’s a lot of people who don’t want to come back.

The people I’m just the most, most, most concerned about are the undocumented people in the process of getting their papers. None of them are in the position to take advantage of any kind of unemployment or relief. Those are the people I desperately need to get back on the payroll. They have families, they have rent. The people making the same amount of money on unemployment, I’m not as concerned with, but it’s these undocumented people I’ve got to give jobs to.

With the reopening of Mozza to-go, I had to rehire. Some things I’m doing are going to change because they have to. I’ve been talking to a number of people in the restaurant community on my level as far as the caliber of cooks we hire, our clientele, our check average, and I’m learning a lot. For instance, in California, there’s a certain amount of days you have to give for sick days. That’s not going to change. So when everybody closed, we had ten days to pay that sick leave off. Now, if a restaurant didn’t have any surplus, they couldn’t afford to do that, which means they are all going to face a lawsuit when they reopen.

Then, you have to make good within those ten days on any benefits. One of the benefits we offer our non-tipped staff is a vacation benefit. A week in the first year, two weeks in the second, three weeks in the third. So we had to make that payment within that ten days of closing—that was about $250,000 worth of checks we had to write.

I found out some other restaurants only offer paid vacation to upper-level management, and that’s something we’re going to have to do. I feel bad about it, but hopefully, I’m going to be able to add a different type of health insurance program. It hasn’t been confirmed, but we might be able to cover 100 percent of healthcare.

I need to be able to cut down on our expenses so that I can operate. I’m probably going to have to do a salary decrease across the board for upper-level management. Most likely a ten percent reduction, and I don’t think that’s unheard of. That ten-percent wage reduction is going to include me. I will take a cut as well. I’m not above any of that.

There are so many little things you just don’t even think about. There’s going to be a lot of class-action suits coming from people who aren’t going to like what’s happening. You have to stay within your legal parameters. For instance, now, when you hire somebody, they have to sign a handbook. We had just completed our employee handbook in March, which cost thousands of dollars. Now we have to redo it with new changes, so that is a whole other legal expense, and everyone has to sign those handbooks when they start again. There’s a lot of restaurants that aren’t going to be able to afford to redo their handbook.

I miss my customers. I want to assure them we will be providing a safe environment to eat at, and I’m up for the challenge. All of us in this industry are going to look at our to-go component for those diners that don’t want to come out. Moving forward, we are all going to have to actively compete in that to-go sector. If customers aren’t ready to come out, I’m going to try to duplicate my food as closely as possible where you can enjoy it in your home.

In an ideal world, I’d like to reopen tomorrow. There’s no way because I don’t have my thermometers, my gloves, my masks, my plexiglass. I’m going to get it all ready, so why not be one step ahead.