A long career in restaurants is no guarantee of health insurance—or much else.
By Pichet Ong as told to Daniela Galarza
Pichet Ong trained as an architect before deciding to pursue a career in food. In 1998, he was hired as a pastry chef for Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York City, and he helped open Spice Market in 2004. In 2007, he opened P*ONG, where he served a menu of sweets and savories, followed by a bakery, Batch, in 2008. His desserts have been awarded three stars by the New York Times in three separate reviews. Until recently, he was the pastry chef at Brothers & Sisters at the Line Hotel in Washington, DC. He is currently at work on a restaurant project in Baltimore with chefs Lisa and Peter Chang.
In early March, I went to the hospital for spinal fusion surgery. It was meant to alleviate numbness and increasing pain down my right arm and leg—a result of pinched nerves due to slipped and broken discs down my neck—that was getting to be too much to bear. The following day, they canceled all elective surgeries. I had been waiting years to have this done, so I’m glad I got to do it. I was told I was the last patient in the hospital.
I self-isolated after the hospital stay to recuperate, and also just in case I had been exposed to the coronavirus. I took time off work—both my consulting work and my work as pastry chef at Brothers and Sisters and Spoken English at the Line Hotel in DC—and just tried to stay focused on getting better. I have family and friends in China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and Singapore who were keeping up with the news reports about COVID-19. I heard about people living with restrictions, like social distancing, temperature screening, sanitizing. I knew all this was coming our way.
It’s strange, right? To know and not know what is happening, what is coming. I was afraid for the business, afraid of losing my health insurance. Well, everything I was afraid of happened. First, the restaurants at the Line started making cuts. I volunteered to furlough myself so my two pastry cooks could keep working, since I couldn’t work anyway because I was recovering from surgery.
Before the hotel closed, the pastry staff still had to make breakfast pastries and desserts for the guests staying in the hotel. But business quickly started slowing down. The restaurant limited the number of people in the dining room, then tried to do delivery and pick-up for online orders. Occupancy took a huge dive by the second week of March. Every day, the management team would make more cuts to the staff, and to the menu offerings. A week of constant change.
Then everything shut down. Everyone was laid off. Some people were paid until the end of March, some people I think through the end of April. My employer worked to make sure those who had signed up for the company’s health insurance were covered for a couple months. Some of the food that was in inventory went to staff, which hopefully helped them a little. I stayed in self-quarantine for two weeks despite no symptoms because I found out I had potentially been exposed. Someone I came into contact with had it, and someone in my apartment building had it.
I knew about the social distancing mandates in other countries before they hit the US. We should have started them sooner. But that means all of these businesses have to close, or they cannot continue to operate in the same way. Some people can work from home. The restaurant industry, obviously, cannot. The restaurants that stayed open through this had to rewrite their business plans overnight. They had to adapt to new regulations, systems, and menu offerings. They have been working very, very long hours.
The company at The Line Hotel offered health insurance to everyone, at different tiers, but it was optional and I don’t know how many people took advantage of it. I had an HMO plan that worked OK for me. But when your health insurance is tied to your job, and your job doesn’t exist, well, what do you do? COBRA is supposed to help, but I have preexisting conditions—including muscle atrophy in my hands, causing me to drop things as I work, symptoms that are quite common among chefs—and both COBRA and the insurance offered through the Affordable Care Act are extremely expensive.
And if you are undocumented, I don’t know how you will manage. That is the group I am most concerned about, because often they are paid under the table, and they live paycheck to paycheck as it is. I am still doing some consulting work, fortunately. But I know it must be very hard, actually impossible, for others who have been laid off from the restaurant industry to afford health insurance right now. It’s an especially scary time for immunocompromised people like me to be without insurance during this crisis. I still cannot get tested for COVID-19 where I live, outside of DC.
I’ve been in this industry for more than 30 years, and have often gone without health insurance. This isn’t a line of work where every job comes with health insurance. I had it when I worked under Danny Meyer, Jean-Georges Management, and Coppelia. I had my own insurance after 2008. A few times I let it lapse. It sucks.
I don’t know how we can fix this system without major changes, but obviously something has to change. It’s too expensive. The cost of operating a restaurant is very high in this country. Independent restaurateurs cannot afford the extra cost, especially in cities with higher operating costs and taxes. Obviously other countries have addressed this in other ways, but we would need a whole and comprehensive systems overhaul.
It’s basically impossible to retire in this industry if all you have done is work in kitchens. I’ve been a chef, a restaurant owner, I’ve been a partner, consultant, I’ve been involved in food-related businesses such as food provisioning, recipe development and book author, teaching, and systems implementation. I hate to say it, but unless you own a multi-unit operation or have capital invested in other areas, you might have to work for the rest of your life. When I was coming up in this field, it seemed like being a chef was like being a rockstar, like fame meant success, but wage increases don’t always come with recognition. We pay cooks too little because the skill of cooking is not valued.
But it is much like other work that involves personal creativity and artistry. Career paths that are driven by passion will continue to exist, so I will never discourage anyone from going to culinary school, or wanting to be a chef. Everyone should do what they want to do, but be aware of the obstacles in making a living in this field. And we need to be aware that change will continue. Ultimately, passion prevails because it keeps you on track. I love to cook. I will continue my life as a chef, but I’m in pursuit of more sustainable ways to prepare and serve food.
I think the piece of this that is hitting a lot of us that have been in the industry a long time is that we need to take care of our health. My friends and I have joked that we will die on the job. There were several Instagram posts that compared us cooks to the string quartet in Titanic as the ship was sinking. But this crisis is no joke.
I worked with Floyd Cardoz at Tabla shortly after it opened in New York. I learned so much from him as a chef. Both of us were trained in primarily European culinary technique. But Floyd taught me so much beyond that. He was an incredible chef and person. I think about the dishes we created together, and the way he worked, worked, worked. I remember fondly the meals my family and I had at his restaurants. Upon learning of his condition early on when he posted on social media, I was immediately concerned for him and his family. Life is fragile.
You wake up and you look at the news on your phone, and it’s a mix of good and bad news, and eventually it will be more good news. I am still working with Peter Chang and Lisa Chang in Baltimore on a new restaurant called NiHao. It was supposed to open April 1. It will still eventually open. I’m still working, tidying up all aspects of life from home pantry and closets to personal finances to identifying clearer goals for the next chapter of my life. I’m working on a cookbook. But for the first time in a long time I am not working at a bakery or restaurant. We first have to learn to cope with the changes that are coming. As much as we can, we all have to adapt, and we all have to keep going.