To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for many is an understatement. It has exposed a number of flaws throughout society, but perhaps among the most fundamental is the lack of knowledge we have as a whole of how to, in some cases, do just about anything in the kitchen. Though a portion of the population with the means to do so continues to patronize restaurants via delivery and takeout, others — either by choice or circumstance — are left to fend for themselves. And as anyone would expect in this day and age, these kitchen novices are turning to the internet and social media for guidance.
Social-distancing measures have forced even more of our lives to be lived online. I’ve joined virtual workout classes to keep myself from becoming too sedentary, danced for hours at #ClubQuarantine, and listened as various people and organizations discuss the ways we can fight to protect the #TooSmallToFail restaurant industry. But most prominent in my feed are the many chefs, recipe developers, and other food personalities doing what they can to teach the masses how to boil water. Massimo Bottura recently took to Instagram Live to show viewers how to make a meal of ribs, mashed potatoes, and radicchio with prosciutto; chef Angela Dimayuga, along with Jon Gray and Pierre Serrao of Ghetto Gastro, joined everyone’s favorite food person, Samin Nosrat, on Instagram Live to make cornbread to go with some baked beans. Countless food bloggers are hopping onto Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok to demonstrate the key to soft-scrambled eggs or how to make pickled onions, and the amount of information available through ephemeral videos and static posts feels endless.
Soraya Caraccioli-Kilgore and her husband, Brad Kilgore, of Alter and other Miami restaurants — which closed for a week before reopening for delivery and takeout with new menus Tuesday — started sharing videos on their Instagram accounts as a way to pass the time. “We were home and we were really bored. I was starting to get really sad and [was] thinking, ‘What are we gonna do?’ We’ve been doing this for 14 years,” she says. “I was going to make a banana bread that day, period, and we’re like, why don’t we just do a video?” After seeing people posting their finished loaves and sharing how much they enjoyed watching the couple cook together, the Kilgores decided to do something every day, including taco Tuesdays and wine Wednesdays with their friend Amanda. “It has been very organic and it’s fun. It gives us purpose — I think that’s the main thing.”
For chefs who have seen their restaurants close or cut back operations due to the pandemic, the videos are motivated by boredom, yes. But for many, they’re outlets that can also be used to stay in contact with restaurant regulars, fundraise for their staffs or other industry organizations, and combat a sense of helplessness during this weird time.
Pastry chef and Eater Young Gun Zoë Kanan left NYC restaurant Simon & the Whale at the beginning of the year to explore new opportunities and found herself in unfamiliar territory. “Not having the umbrella of a restaurant family has left me feeling like a team of one,” she says. Her turn to the internet for a sense of community also started with banana bread, inspired by a recent trip to Vietnam. “I found old frozen bananas in my freezer and was also craving some comforting flavors,” Kanan says. “I shared the recipe online as a way to connect with my community: If I can’t bake for people directly, I can at least guide them in my way. I like knowing we all measured out the same amounts, followed like motions, and tasted something similar. It’s how I could help.”
Natalia Vallejo of Cocina al Fondo in San Juan, Puerto Rico, says she shares what she cooks at home “to motivate and inspire others by placing my talent at the service of others... Many have never cooked so much in their lives, and I consider it a good moment in time to give people back a connection to their food.” The James Beard Award-nominated chef hopes to teach, transmit love, and make people feel as if they are not alone despite physical isolation. “We are a great community and we are together in this,” she says. “In the end, the essence of restaurants and diners is that underlying connection.”
Poi Dog Philly’s Kiki Aranita’s aim was simple when she began posting cooking videos on her personal Instagram page: “It was a way to entertain myself.” She tried offering delivery and takeout at her Hawaiian restaurant, but decided against it after two days in order to put the safety of her employees first. “As much as we tried to avoid contact with people, it was happening, and I just didn’t feel comfortable, even though my employees wanted to come in.”
That’s when the motivation behind her social media presence shifted. “I wanted to do this to keep driving traffic to our page so that people see that they have two ways of supporting our staff,” Aranita says. One is to encourage people to visit the restaurant’s online shop and buy merch to keep revenue incoming. The other is to amplify “our virtual tip jar to benefit our employees and the employees of two other food trucks that became brick and mortars around the same time we did.”
Aranita also wants to help the various charities that had to cancel events. “I’m gonna start wearing the Rent the Runway dresses for the events that I had canceled while making the food so that I can also highlight all these organizations, like Women Against Abuse, Vetri Community Partnership, and No Kid Hungry,” she says. “If I wear the dresses and prepare the food that I was going to make for the event, then hopefully viewers will also donate to the charity.”
Some have been able to use online-only videos as a way to generate additional revenue. “Everyone’s jumped to delivery. And we had a little bit of delivery business prior to this, but it wasn’t enough to survive off of,” says Brian Jupiter of Chicago’s Ina Mae Tavern and Frontier restaurants. In a brainstorming session with staff, the chef landed on selling meal kits to pair with a live instructional video. The first iteration ran Monday for Ina Mae’s Nashville fried chicken po’ boy. They sold about 80 meal kits during the day, and that evening, those people tuned in to the restaurant’s Instagram page to learn how to make it at home. Jupiter already has plans for a brunch kit that he’ll demo along with his daughter “to give people ideas of what they can do with children at home.” Beyond that, “I’d do it twice a week if I can, because it’s a form of engaging with the people who have supported me over the years.”
All note that it’s been more than just friends, family, and restaurant regulars who have engaged with their content. “People from around the world have been tuning in,” Caraccioli-Kilgore says.
“I chatted with people I know and others I don’t about the comforts of banana bread, Vietnam, baking tips, and more,” Kanan echoes.
From takeout to restaurant merch, GoFundMe campaigns to virtual tip jars, the restaurant industry is doing all that it can simply to survive. “To have something that’s completely out of your control completely affecting your bottom line is tough,” Jupiter says.
“We’re in fight mode for our employees more than anything,” Caraccioli-Kilgore says. “I’m just trying to make sure that they have jobs and they’re putting food on the table.”
Overall, the support these chefs and restaurateurs are receiving from the public has not gone unfelt. “The amount of love that I feel like the industry has gotten from non-restaurant people, it’s honestly humbling,” Caraccioli-Kilgore says.
As serious at the situation is, there is often levity and, albeit sometimes dark, humor in these posts. “I think part of the humor in my videos is that I’m used to cooking for 500 people instead of cooking for one,” Aranita says. “While people are still getting used to the idea of isolation, I hope to entertain them a little bit and encourage people to stay at home.”
Aaron Hutcherson is a writer, editor, and recipe developer based in New York City.