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Preston Clark On NYC Outdoor Dining And Getting Back To The Grill

Joining the lineup of New York's pandemic-driven sidewalk cafe culture.

Preston Clark is executive chef of Lure Fishbar in New York City.

When the pandemic first went down, we started cutting shifts. That was pretty hard, because we knew it was impacting people. When they finally pulled the trigger to shut down, it was heartbreaking going through the walk-in and getting rid of so much product that we were working on, products we had put a couple of days or weeks into. We cleaned the place out pretty good and just closed down. We took about two months off. Then we started opening back up again with takeout and delivery.

All that had actually been a really good portion of our business beforehand. We had a pretty good off-premise catering program going. The restaurant was always packed, so we were doing tons of business in the restaurant and were really pushing our off-premise catering.

We do takeout and delivery across a lot of the platforms, like GrubHub and Caviar and Postmates. It takes a little bit of time to update those platforms, so you can’t really do specials as easily as you can in the restaurant. We change the menu quite often here. Well, I change the menu quite often, whenever I want a change. If I see a product that I want to work with, or I get some sort of inspiration from somewhere, I have the freedom to do that.

There’s definitely been significant price fluctuation, but for the most part I’m able to to get what I need for the kitchen. The purveyors are working with us, and we’re working with the purveyors, because everyone understands that everybody’s very light-staffed and restaurants aren’t opening as early as they were. The opening receiver who gets to the restaurant at 7 a.m. is not normally there. There might not be someone there until noon. In that case, the purveyor will work with us to get a later delivery. But it plays havoc with their scheduling and their delivery guys who want to get the job done, drop their stuff off, and go home.

Once we got the okay for outdoor dining, we built a deck in front of the restaurant and on the side. We have a little bit of sidewalk space. We go about seven feet into the street over the cobblestones. We call it the “lower deck.” I would say the biggest problem that we’re having is because the restaurant is pretty long—you know, in the shape of a boat—so running the food from the kitchen to the outside is a challenge.

Once the city started telling us they were looking at this outdoor dining plan seriously, you began to hear about some guys who were spending $100,000, $150,000, or $200,000 to prop up their outdoor dining. At the other end of the spectrum, you heard about guys who had a couple of two-by-fours, an umbrella, and duct tape. So you get the whole breadth of the restaurant industry. I think we’ve struck a balance. We’re making it look really nice. We have planters out there, which also serve as a barricade, and it looks gorgeous. If you look around Soho now, the neighborhood has tons of outdoor dining. It almost looks like these European cafes, dining outside, which is pretty cool.

I think we’re expanding a little bit down the street so we can try to get some more tables and get more people here to enjoy the food. We’ll only have it until October, so I don’t think it makes tons of sense to dump too much cash into it, then have to take it right back down. But in the meantime, while there’s no indoor dining, it is a little bit of a relief. We will never will never be able to make up exactly what we had, but it’s good that the guys get to come in, and we have a crew here. I’m here every day. My sous chef is here every day. It’s a good situation for what it is.

The consensus has been that you have to be able to lose a little money. This restaurant has been here for about 25 years. I’ve been the executive chef here going on six years. And there are other restaurants across the street. I come from Jean-Georges, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen is right across the street. They’re open. Fannelli Cafe is open. So it makes sense for us to open. Even if you’re only serving a little bit, your customers still know that you’re there. You see that we have a presence.

We’re trying to make it work. And even in the process of making it work, our execution is still top-notch. We’re able to deliver the best product, even if it means sitting outside. If you shut down temporarily, you’d have customers think you’ll never come back. But this way you see people who are like, “Wow, Lure’s open.” They’re unbelievably grateful.

Photo: Courtesy Preston Clark.

I think it says a lot for the kitchen and, at least for me, what it means to be a chef. You’re able to just go back to how you came up in the business. I’m in the back shucking oysters, or I’ll jump on the grill. I’m able to utilize all the techniques that I’ve spent so much time learning and honing for so many years. It never leaves you. It’s like riding a bike.

I think it’s great, because I come in and I’m super excited and I set my station up. You marry it with the executive level of having time management. I had such a large breadth of bandwidth before COVID, and now I don’t have to use as much, but it’s a little bit different because I’m able to set up a station and do payroll and go to my P&L meeting and deal with the guys. And then the last couple hours of the day, it’s just service. It does a lot for me. It gives me a chance again to lead by example, to show the cooks where the skill can take you. I’m a positive guy. I’m optimistic and I look for the best.

Over the span of my career I’ve definitely been through some crises, from the recession to Hurricane Sandy. I was cooking in the city for almost all of them. This one is more all-encompassing. It’s across the board, from coast to coast and all in the middle and everywhere. I’ve heard people suggest that it feels like restaurants are becoming extinct. I would never go that far because people are always going to have to eat, and people are always going to love going to restaurants. But it definitely feels like we are all in the same boat. It’s a really shared struggle. People are feeling some things that they just never felt before. They’re empathetic to other restaurants, aside from competition. That’s what I think is different.

I’m a Black man, so there’s no way I’m able to ever fully escape discrimination and injustice. But I am very blessed. I definitely have a thick skin, which I’ve grown up with from my parents and learned in kitchens. Things never really bothered me so much.

I owe everything to my parents. I lost my father when I was 16, but my mother and my father were the foundation of all I am. My father used to say, “What you do now sets the precedent for what you can do later.” I got that work ethic from him.

I’ve always been able to keep my head down and work and learn and hone and get better to try to maintain that focus. That doesn’t mean I’m completely blind to some of the injustices in this industry. But I was fortunate enough to work in some of these high-end places and prove myself. I started in Charlie Trotter’s, I worked with Michael Lomonaco at Windows on the World. I was at Jean-Georges for about seven years. I did my externship from the Culinary Institute of America with Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit over at the old Rockefeller building, which was awesome. It was very important for me to always strive to make sure that I had the respect of my peers. I wanted to make sure that I was a chef first, and then I was a Black chef.

On the flip side, for the Black community, I think you set an example that it’s possible, and that anything can be done. But we have it harder. I think that’s one of the most important things that’s coming to light and that people are having a really hard time dealing with emotionally and trying to figure out how to cope with. As a person of color you have to be better. You have to shine, and you have to be able to get out front and be noticed. But that makes you so much better. I’m not going to say that it starts to fade away, but you’re always going to be judged on performance. Once you get to a high-performance level, being the best is great.