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How the Pandemic Knocked Chefs Off Their Pedestal

In an excerpt from his book “The Next Supper,” Corey Mintz calls for a future in which workers are celebrated above chefs 

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For months now the restaurant industry has endured deep upheaval. The pandemic has changed the way restaurants need to operate on every level and, a recent book argues, many of these changes are ones restaurateurs should have considered well before a global crisis forced their hands. In The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, and What Comes After, Corey Mintz lays out the issues facing restaurants at this moment, how restaurants might change for the better in the future, and how diners can support these changes, asking: “How do we establish a set of principles for choosing where to eat? To suss out not which chefs are good and which are bad, but what ideas and what kinds of workplaces are worth supporting.”

In this excerpt, from the chapter entitled “The Chef-Driven Restaurant,” Mintz calls for an end to those one-time food media darlings that saw chefs elevated at the expense of workers. — Monica Burton

A book cover with the title “The Next Supper” and a brown paper bag with stapled receipt featuring the subtitle “The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, and What Comes Next”
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A year ago, Amanda Cohen’s restaurant offered only a tasting menu. From Tuesday to Saturday, the 50-seat Manhattan room served about 85 people for dinner, ensuring that diners had a table for three hours to leisurely enjoy 10 courses of elegantly plated seaweed caviar with crème fraîche, towers of foraged greens, tomato tarts and tomato lollipops, mushroom mousse, fennel tajine, carrot burgers, corn pasta, beet yakitori, and other exquisite creations made without animal products.

By the pandemic summer of 2020, Dirt Candy is open from noon to 9:00 p.m., serving sandwiches and salads at lunch, with a prix fixe at dinner. The plates are only slightly less composed — smoked and grilled broccoli, Thai basil pesto with spinach ramen, oyster mushrooms al pastor. But most of it is prepared to go or to be eaten on the 20-seat ad hoc patio.

Like so much of New York City this summer, the sidewalk and former parking spots outside Dirt Candy on Allen Street have been transformed into a grubby piazza, with smaller crowds and more noise and diesel fumes from delivery trucks than your typical Italian town square. The location is close to both the Williamsburg and the Manhattan Bridges. It’s a busy commercial drive, a preferred route of ambulances and fire trucks, on which no one ever fantasized about dining al fresco. Worse, this far north, patio season lasts only half the year, at best.

COVID-19 has been a throat punch to the genre of chef-driven restaurants. Since the pandemic began in March, fast-thinking restaurateurs and chefs have thrown everything at the wall to see what sticks — patio service, meal kits, delivery, and online classes. None of it is enough to meet Cohen’s revenue needs. “It’s a huge disaster, and I don’t think we understand what is going to happen. I am not sure we can understand what is about to happen. Most of my colleagues are on the brink of closure.”

Dirt Candy’s average check size has shrunk to a small fraction, with revenue hovering around 35 percent of where it was a year ago. “If I didn’t have government money, I would be hemorrhaging,” says Cohen, who has been able to rehire six of the 35 staff members she had to lay off when she closed in March. “I’m able to pay rent because of the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program]. In October, when my PPP runs out, I’ll have to be renegotiating with my landlord. There’s no way I can pay that. I’m clearly not doing the amount of business I was. But my insurance hasn’t gone down. The cost of food hasn’t gone down.” She’s also got new costs, like takeout containers and building a patio. Her only solace is regular group chats with other chefs and restaurateurs, all in the same situation, all trying to figure how their businesses can make it to a post-vaccine world, attempting every conceivable idea just to bring in a quarter of their usual sales.

Yes, there are a handful of stories that sound like successes only because a cataclysm makes survival the new standard of victory. The $38 bento boxes from n/naka in LA, lined with wagyu-stuffed shishito peppers and tuna karaage with burnt tomato puree, sold out instantly. But they need to be selling out. A pre-pandemic meal at the restaurant cost $275.

Cohen, because she has always been willing to challenge industry norms and redefine what her restaurant is, what it means to both workers and diners, just may survive this crisis. “If as a restaurant you are willing to completely reconsider what it is that you think a restaurant is going to provide, then there is a chance,” says Vaughn Tan, author of The Uncertainty Mindset, a view of innovation formed by observational ethnographies of high-end culinary research-and-development (R&D) teams at world-celebrated kitchens like England’s The Fat Duck, American food-innovation labs like Modernist Cuisine, and José Andrés’s ThinkFoodLab, and an unnamed restaurant that sounds a lot like Denmark’s Noma. But he notes: “I’m not sure if the world in this book is coming back.”

It’s not. Noma, the world’s most vaunted restaurant, is now making burgers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. “This is what’s been problematic about our dining culture,” says Tan. “We’ve managed to conflate why food is important with the trappings that surround food.” The practicality of chef-driven restaurants built around the persona of the chefs, the subgenre to which Dirt Candy belongs, has long been on the edge. Pandemic conditions are just finally pushing it off the cliff. “We have an opportunity,” says Tan, “to make a new normal that is a better normal.”

That’s something I’ve heard a lot this year. I’d go further. We have an obligation to make a better normal. Following the forest fire of COVID-19, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to regrow our food culture from its roots. How do we want that to look?

Chef-driven restaurants are ones that operate and orbit around the persona of the chef. Sometimes their culinary imagination is the center of attention. Or it’s just their personality. They stand in contrast to other categories: Quick Service Restaurants (a.k.a. fast food or fast casual), full-service chains, immigrant restaurants, and so on. Unlike these other forms of the business, chef-driven restaurants are the ones that ate up the largest percentage of media coverage for the past 20 years, when we started putting chefs on the same pedestal that film directors were on in the 1970s — auteurs credited with responsibility for all elements of what is clearly a huge collective effort. In this genre, the personality and vision of the chef define the restaurant, from investment to management to marketing.

The structure of chef-driven restaurants, the dominance of chefs both within the hierarchy that rules a particular type of restaurant and externally, through the food media that perpetuates it, exacerbates issues that are systemic and hard to change: wage theft (withholding of legally deserved pay, through a variety of schemes) and abuse of all kinds (physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, racial).

I never again want to hear about how great a chef is unless it’s about how great an employer they are. We have been celebrating a clichéd, larger-than-life concept of a chef — brilliant, abusive, insulting, demanding, loudly cruel — for the past 20 years. We have promoted the idea that this is what a winner looks like in the world of restaurants, filtered through the TV trope of the screaming mentor who will change your life and the ubiquitous print profile of the “difficult genius.” It wasn’t even that we held these people up as leaders, despite their cruelty. We exalted them as leaders because of their cruelty and allowed their corrosive personalities to define workplace culture, because that was somehow a mark of their dedicated pursuit of perfection.

They’ll change only when we change how restaurants are run.

It may seem counterintuitive, but an unfair reality of the industry as it currently functions is that the better the restaurant, the less the cooks are paid. Because eager young cooks will put up with anything to learn from their idols, within any city’s top-ten dining destinations, wage theft is rampant, income disparity divides workplaces, and abuse and addiction are common, all of it enabled by the cultlike toxicity of a certain brand of kitchen culture, the deification of chefs, and the brutal economics of tipping.

After a fire that destroyed California’s Restaurant at Meadowood, I read a generous elegy in which people remembered fondly what it was like, including how horrible it could be to work there. The chef (who declined to comment on specific allegations) was accused of yelling, throwing dishes, and throwing fish in a worker’s face. Several former cooks commented that the environment was “standard behavior for a Michelin-starred kitchen and it didn’t bother them.” I’ve encountered this narrative repeatedly, in both my cooking and my writing careers. You’ll find people in these kitchens who will say that they were treated and paid horribly, illegally even. There are just as many who will say that the harsh conditions turned them into who they are today, for which they are grateful. I could say the same. Their accounts of what work is like — minimum wage or less for 12-hour days, screams and ridicule in front of peers for anything less than perfection — rarely differ.

It’s not all restaurants, of course. That’s the good news. There are owners using different structural models for running a business or compensating staff and chefs who make great food without treating people terribly. What are they doing different? What’s the system that they are agitating against?

Great food and service allow us the opportunity to buy the experience of being a rich person for an hour or two. It’s a glorious illusion. Unfortunately, it’s primarily available through the exploitation of workers. It’s also unsustainable. Even before 2020, we’ve been watching the midrange of chef-driven restaurants evaporate in the face of economic pressures: the rising rates of rent, fuel, food, labor, and the bite of third-party delivery. I’ve seen menu prices rising. I’ve also seen chefs and restaurateurs in this segment going downstream and opening chicken shacks. They can’t make money in a 40-seat high-labor restaurant.

It’s possible that the pandemic could usher in a new age of the simple neighborhood restaurant, the type of place that is common in France: 20 seats, 10 menu items, two servers, and two cooks. In the early 2000s, before the legitimate small-plates trend, American restaurants tried to make tapas happen. Outside of a society where people go out to eat at 10 p.m., or the agglomeration of multiple other businesses serving similarly tiny dishes, enabling customers to hop from one bar to another, you can’t just transplant a cultural activity like an orchid. In France people take breaks for lunch. It’s uncommon for workers to eat at their desks. So in America, where we pride ourselves on productivity, and shame each other for taking a long lunch, there is little chance of replicating France’s meal-ticket system, in which government and employers co-subsidize the cost of meals at local restaurants. We don’t need the bureaucracy. The romance and intimacy of a nice restaurant are still possible, if we let go of the fanaticism over handmade everything.

We, as diners, don’t get to decide how a restaurant pays its staff. Private enterprise can do what it likes. It’s up to entrepreneurs to choose how to structure their companies. But we do get to decide where to eat. Real-world progress starts with changing the way we think. In pursuit of the equitable restaurant industry we want, this begins with us calling baloney on chef culture. One night, I came into the fancy restaurant where I worked to have dinner. It was my birthday. As a gag, the kitchen sent out a course, plated for four of us, with a thinly sliced cross-section of staff-meal burrito, punctuated by three red dots of sauce I knew to be sriracha. The waiter and I giggled to each other. My friends, to whom the dish looked like a complicated terrine and smelled delicious, needed it explained that my boss had sent out joke food. Was it really? We made good burritos in that kitchen. The gap between high-end and low-end deliciousness can sometimes just be presentation.

As readers, we need to reject the chef-interview profile. You know what’s in every chef’s fridge? Expensive butter, half of a roti, and whatever props they decided to decorate it with the day of the magazine shoot.

Workers need to question their allegiance to the guru/jedi/priest status of the chef. As long as there are long lines of eager applicants, ready to supplicate and be exploited, these restaurants won’t change. The occasional mea culpa from celebrity chefs, the essay about how they used to yell at staff and they’ll try not to anymore, taken in good faith, is a sign of a willingness to evolve. But it’s just lip service until they start paying staff like professionals.

At the very least, as Hannah Selinger argues in her essay about the abuse she says she endured and witnessed under Momofuku founder David Chang, restaurateurs should end the practice of requiring employees to sign nondisclosure agreements and release former employees from said agreements. Unless restaurants are developing an atomic space displacer or unstable molecules, there is no justification for expecting employee NDAs. It’s just the desire for control.

As diners, in a post-vaccine landscape, don’t be afraid to ask how restaurants are run, how staff is paid, how tips are divided, and if the boss ever yells at them and what for. If it’s impolite to ask these questions, consider what that implies about the answers. We need to think of it as a conversation, not an interrogation. I don’t think that, as customers, we are in any position to audit the restaurant’s practices. Inquiring if the kitchen is tipped, if it’s a percentage of tips or of gross sales, at a certain point becomes too much thread to pull. What about the bussers? What’s the proper percentage for the host? The answers matter less than that we start talking about these things, that restaurants notice our interest, and that the practice of dividing tips moves from under the table to something for which businesses are publicly accountable. Models that challenge the system won’t be as rare if we support them with our money and our voices.

On the other side of this crisis, the chefs who terrorized their staffs, collecting accolades for their abusive personalities and credit for the group’s cooking efforts, should be afraid to go back to their previous behavior. The insistence on running it the old way should be radioactive. The idea that excellence is achieved only through the abuse and exploitation of workers is a corrupt premise. Its time is done.

From the book NEXT SUPPER by Corey Mintz. Copyright © 2021 by Corey Mintz. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Joules Garcia is an illustrator based in Burlington, Vermont.

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