11 Boston Chefs Answer One Question: How are You Holding Up?

By Will Blunt and Jaclyn Warren

By

Will Blunt and Jaclyn Warren
Chef Lydia Reichert
Chef Lydia Reichert

Chef Conor Dennehy of Talulla:

In the last few months, we’ve watched the world go through an unprecedented time of turmoil. We at Talulla are lucky to have such a dedicated and understanding staff and loyal regulars. We closed for about 7 weeks to try to figure things out. After some careful reflection, we decided to open back up for takeout and now we’re on track to open our patio up this week. It feels good to get back to some semblance of normalcy but there are obviously tons of risks. Are we opening everything back up too quickly? Will the downward trend for COVID-19 continue? We have no idea. With the new safety regulations in place, we’re hoping to make everyone involved as comfortable as possible. Until there is a treatment or vaccine, there will continue to be an element of risk associated with being in public. It is our job to make sure that our staff, the public and ourselves are as safe.
 
I’m hopeful that we’ll slowly return to normalcy. I’m hopeful that the business will buy us a lifeline to make it through this mess and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do it in a fashion that keeps everyone safe. I’m hopeful that the recent protests will bring about actual change. I hope that my daughter can grow up in a better world than the one we’re living in now. 
 
The part of this that’s causing a lingering fear stems directly from the uncertainty of all of this. We have no idea how long this will last. Will we have to keep social distancing measures in place for 6 months? Maybe a year? Will we have to reduce staff even further than we already have? How long can we go on like this? These are the questions that we’re asking ourselves everyday. All we can do is use whatever information we do have to make the best decisions that we can for our staff, the public, and the restaurant. 
 
I am incredibly grateful to have a group of peers that is so resilient, creative, talented and communicative. I’ve never felt such a sense of community in our industry as I do right now. I’m also grateful to our family and friends that have helped keep us sane throughout this situation. And lastly, I’m grateful to my wife and daughter, who have helped keep me grounded and level headed no matter how difficult things seem to be. There’s no way that we can get through this alone. 
 
We will definitely get through this and when we do, we’ll be stronger than before. We must put to practice everything that we’ve learned from our mentors to get through this and more importantly, we need to help each other whenever possible. There is plenty of room for collaboration. We can and will pool resources to make sure that more of us get through this than the statistics say.
 
 
Chef Timothy Hixson of Sinatras at Encore Boston Harbor:

WOW! What a crazy last 90+ days this has been. I am actually back on-site here at Sinatra for the 1st time preparing for our extremely hopeful reopening in the near future. Working remotely on future projects, menus, and analysis hasn't been easy but I am forever grateful for the company to have continued to pay us throughout all these hard times. It's been nice being home, spending time with my family but also very nerve racking. Constantly asking myself—should I even go outside? Can I ride my bike? Do we really need these groceries? I know those are some of the same battles that everyone has had.
 
I haven't ordered take out much during this time. Mainly due to uncertainty and not knowing what's coming next. I have supported a few of my favorite restaurants here in Boston, even if it's $100 here and there. When getting take out it's been great to see my friends, GM'S, chefs, servers, and owners. I feel like every little bit helps the small businesses in this unprecedented time. 
 
I hope we can get back to where we were before all this started but the biggest fear is the unknown. No one knows how long this will continue for. When will customers feel safe to travel again or when can we all sit around inside and have a drink, give each other hugs, or even just see older family members. I haven't been able to get to the small town in Pennsylvania I grew up in for that reason. I don't want my parents and brother exposed to what we have up here and vice versa. Restaurant-wise, I fear we will end up losing as much as 50% of our small independent restaurants here unless things get better quickly. 
 
I've been extremely grateful for my family and friends and Wynn for keeping us afloat. 87 days getting to spend at home to allow my body to rest and actually get healthy is amazing for this next chapter.
 
To my family and closest friends. Thank you for the check ups during everything and always believing in me from moving to NYC, to Florida, and back to Boston again. 

 

Chef Didem Hosgel formerly of Sofra:

It has been a very challenging few months. We closed Sofra on March 13th. It was very hard to explain to the staff that we’d have to close and that we were not sure when we’d be open again. There were a million questions that needed to be answered but there were no answers. I tried to stay connected with my staff. I didn't know how to comfort them but checking in every now and then was all l could do.  The irony is, I had given my notice to leave Sofra back in September, 2019.  After happily working with the company for 11 years, I thought it was time for me to start my own business. I was supposed to leave at the end of April to become a private chef and cater. So when Ana decided to open Sofra back up for takeout, I didn't return. Even though I knew I was going to leave Sofra, I never imagined it was going to be this way.
 
It was very difficult to see how fast everything was changing—for people, restaurants, stores, the country, and the world. Especially since I have my whole family on the other side of the world. I was worrying about them, they were all worried about me. I learned how to be a cook, how to be a member of a team, how to be a chef in restaurants. The reason I wanted to be a chef was the connection, communication with people, cooking and sharing with people, teaching my staff how to cook side-by-side, and talking to customers. The crowd of the restaurant gives it its essence. However, it all changed and it’s going to be like this for a while. But it is very good to see things are slowly starting to change. Uncertainty hasn't ended yet, we still have so much to overcome. I’m looking forward to going to restaurants with my friends, sitting next to a bunch of strangers, having pleasant talks, and laughter over a wonderful meal. Until then, we should support our local restaurants through takeout and continue washing our hands and social distancing.


 
 
Chef Sarah Wade of Stillwater:

It has been a rough 3 months. I am sure we all have had all kinds of peaks and valleys, from busy Friday nights to what-the-hell-happened slow weekends. It has been quite the emotional tidal wave.  But friends, we made it.  I stand here on the line today, proud of my team and fellow Boston restaurateurs who made smart decisions and took the ship through some really rough water. To quote Florence and the Machine, “I did not build this ship to wreck.”
 
I know the rest of the year is lost financially and we will fight and scrape to make it to 2021, but I feel hopeful and confident that we can. Boston is a city of tough chefs. We got this.

 

 


 

Chef Lydia Reichert of Jinny's Pizzeria, formerly of Sycamore:

Honestly, my feelings have been a bit of a roller coaster these days. Some of it is just restaurants—there are always ups and downs even before this“new normal.” One day everything is coasting along, products come in beautiful, staff shows up on time, in good spirits, ready to cook, guests are jovial and easy going; then the next day it can all just go off course—one thing after another, refrigerator breaks overnight, so much food is lost, someone doesn't show up for work, a guest has such a crazy request that it throws the entire flow off...Trainwreck.
 
What is going on now is just an extreme of that. It has been great to just be a cook again. We are all having to go back to the core of it all, which is why we got into this. It's clearly not for the money.  Cook good food that people want to come back for, even if it's a bit different than before. Adapt and evolve, throw something at the wall and see if it sticks.  I am not really sure what people are looking for. Comfort food in the beginning, more adventurous as time goes on, kind of like opening a new restaurant!  We are willing to try anything: Takeout, of course; meal kits, oven-ready items, butcher shop-style… What can we as a restaurant provide that a guest can't get by going to the grocery store?  Our guests have been incredibly gracious and supportive. Of course, for some very obvious reasons, this all sucks. But we are here, and pushing along, and hopefully that will be enough.  Hopefully we all come out of this, probably not on top, but surviving, and maybe wiser. 


 
 
Chef Mike DiStefano of Oak + Rowan: 

Oak and Rowan has gone through phases of being open and closed, takeout, and reform. We tried to provide our employees with some stability, but we were not able to sustain the numbers to do so. I am thankful for all who supported us in the community—customers, purveyors, etc., to make these times easier as we navigate the unknown. Hopefully with the established restaurant coalition, we will see a more defined action to help our industry sustain the future, provide more opportunities, and create stronger restaurant families. 
 

 

 


Chef Liz Barwick of Sarma:

In the beginning of the pandemic, when Massachusetts restaurants had to shut down for dine in, I was given the option to work the takeout operation or take some time off. I opted to be off for safety concerns. I wanted to quarantine and lay low while the virus was hitting its peak in Massachusetts. I am fortunate to be back at Sarma now. We have opened a socially distanced patio as of this week (June 17). We continue to pivot to different ideas of what Sarma can be. It used to just be a dinner only spot, no patio. We have tried to do a quick service lunch window, catering style pick-up orders, parking lot-turned-patio, and of course, takeout. We are very fortunate to have the space to try out these different options. I am grateful to Cassie [Piuma] for her perseverance throughout the pandemic. She inspires me to think outside the box and never give up. 
 

 


Chef Matthew Bullock of Peregrine:

Every few years something changes the way we view the restaurant industry. Whether it was the economic downturn of the early 2000s turning dining out into a very rare occupation reserved for places that we held in high esteem, or only eating out as a form of celebration. Or the birth of Californian cuisine, changing the way chefs looked at food as a whole from the way it was sourced to the way it was presented on a plate. Right now, the restaurant industry is changing again. Perhaps it’s the greatest change yet. COVID-19 has already changed the way we do so many things. How we shop, how we travel, how we interact with the people and the world around us. It’s also changed the way we eat out. Many independent restaurants in Boston are being forced to shutter their doors for good, leaving hundreds of employees without jobs. The restaurants that do reopen will have to rethink how they deliver food to the guest. For the time being, they’ll have to take the food the people have come to love and enjoy and transform it. Brown paper bags will take the place of the table and connections that are made between the staff and the guest will look different as well. Thoughtful steps we take as restaurant professionals to make sure people leave happy will look different. Maybe a thoughtful note placed in your bag or something as simple as taking every step possible to make the guest feel safe as they wait for their to-go order. It’s not just the way restaurants will interact with guests that will change. The restaurant community as a whole will have to learn how to interact with each other.  Although COVID-19 is on the forefront of most people’s minds we also have to remember that there is more at stake than ever before. Not only will we need to keep everyone safe and healthy, but we also need to take steps to respect each other. Equality in the restaurant world has come to the forefront of headlines because of recent events. It saddens me that it’s taken so long to give voices to those who haven’t had one. Those of us that return to rebuild the industry we love in the wake of the pandemic have a responsibility to be part of this change, too.
 
 
Chef Marc Sheehan of Loyal Nine:

Obviously I am still in the process of navigating how my role and job have changed in the last few months. I'm not sure my role has changed per se, I am still a working chef, physically cooking in my restaurant. I teach and direct everyday and try to mentor as much as possible. I always knew I was stretched thin, exhausted, and living with constant stress for the last 5+ years, but I don't think I really realized what the other side of the coin looked like until we closed and quarantine began. Oddly, despite the new and massive challenges ahead of us as restaurant owners, it was the most relaxed, well rested, and calm I had been in years. And I think that was a wake up call for me to find ways to have a more sustainable life. We always tried to create that balance for our staff to the best of our ability, but creating it for me was never much of a priority. That is no longer the case.
 
Massachusetts has been one of the hardest hit states and therefore, took quite a while to reopen. Governor Baker, I think, had a very measured and scientific response to shutdowns and reopening, though it was a struggle not having much guidance from the state on how to reopen safely until a few days before we were able to open our doors. And obviously the federal government has been disastrous in their response for all Americans and small businesses. A big wake up call was confirmation that when an act of nature like this occurred, there was no one to help us. Charities were quickly put together to get economic assistance out to unemployed members of the restaurant industry, but there was never any real effort made by city, state, or federal governments to support small restaurants, one of the largest blocks of our nation's force. It was jarring to realize that you were on the wrong side of the economic triage of decisions being made. And then to watch what little programs the CARES Act put out flounder and provide very little industry specific help, was heartbreaking.
 
The future is hard to predict right now. Trying to figure out the psychology of the dining public while sticking to your guns has always been hard under normal circumstances. But figuring out who is going out, why, what do they want, and how you can make them feel safe, is a learning process we are all going through. But also, how do we keep our staff safe and happy? How do I teach a new cook to do anything with a knife if I have to stay 6ft away. Figuring out how to communicate with staff who speak different languages while wearing a mask has been eye opening. Everything is brand new, so it has been hard to try to forecast. I hope we’ll see people finally appreciate what they lost during restaurant closures, and understand that, for businesses like ours to thrive, we must be able to charge what we need to to build a safety net for ourselves and our businesses, provide for our staff, and offer better and competitive benefits to our employees. This moment in time exposed how vulnerable we all are. And I hope the dining public was paying attention. Without a new social contract between diners and restaurants, there will be no sustainable future for the restaurant industry. We are entertainment, we are not a necessity or a fundamental right. We exist to provide pleasure for customers, but also to create a business and a livelihood for those who choose to work here. You wouldn't expect a Broadway show to be cheap, so why should your food and wine be inexpensive when it is prepared and served by trained professionals? But there needs to be a unified front amongst restaurant owners in this city and across the country. 
 
Though I have been separated from most of them the last few months, I am incredibly grateful for the health and support of my family as well as my staff at Loyal Nine. One of the things that has been very sad is how the pandemic wiped many people out of the workforce, either temporarily or permanently. Whether it is childcare concerns, moving away, deciding to finally throw in the towel, we are losing a lot of talented, passionate cooks and hospitality professionals who otherwise might have remained in the industry and continued to contribute and help us all improve and evolve. There are many members of our team here who I will miss immensely. 
 
Lastly, I think this is an opportunity for a real paradigm shift in how we create our work space and how restaurant concepts and goals can be informed by it's desire to create an inclusive and happy work environment for its staff as much as it is guided by its ambition. This was always something that many of us strived for, but I think the last few months have really highlighted the need for it. I can't think of a time in my life where the inequalities in America have been stripped bare and exposed more than they have been over the last few months. To protest, to riot, to revolt against injustice is firmly embedded in the fabric of our society. Unfortunately, so is systemic racism. A few months back I was talking with a staff member about the xenophobic and racist adultering of many New England culinary traditions that took place in the mid 19th century. And I was asked, “well but do you really want the staff to know this? Or the guests?” And the answer is yes. Not in order to glorify, but in order to understand. Culinarily at Loyal Nine we have looked to the past to find how we became lost. To understand the culinary missteps that took place so that we might avoid or improve upon them, imagining “what should New England food have been/could it have been.” If we are lost as a society or a nation how can we plot a course for where we should be, without understanding how we lost our way? Loyal Nine was inspired by nine Bostonians, imperfect, but radicalized individuals who funded, directed, and participated in protest and civil disobedience to effect a change in their community. It was this ideal and this era that has always fueled and inspired the work done here from a culinary perspective. But it does not mean that those who launched our experiment in democracy were perfect and only worthy of praise. This country has been imperfect from its founding because it has always struggled to extend the liberties and equalities for which it stood to all of its citizens. 
 
Only by confronting inequality, racism, and oppression as a community and an industry can we move together to fulfill our united fate of freedom. I will listen and I will learn, and I will work to continue to create an inclusive, informed environment that can foster and support change.


 
 

Chef Adrienne Wright of Deuxave:

The last few months have been equal parts amazing and terrifying. I couldn’t put a dollar value on the time I have gotten to spend with my son,  husband, and family. At the same time, every plan I had set in place for my career has now changed. All of our restaurants are downsizing, headed back to our roots with a strong team of only essential employees each day who are all willing to do whatever it takes to get through. Many people have reevaluated their career choice and I can only be grateful that for the people who stayed with it (myself included), the hunger to make perfect food every day has only been reaffirmed. I now can appreciate more fully the luxury of a walk-ins worth of beautiful, in season produce. I have refined long forgotten techniques through thoughtful home cooking. I had time to experiment and read new cookbooks. And now I am so happy to be back in the kitchen crushing it for a hungry Boston audience.
 
 

 

 

 

Chef Chris Chung of Momi Nonmi:

This is definitely the most challenging period of time. I have been working 7 days a week since March to try to keep Momi Nonmi still in business. Doing takeout can only cover part of the expense. I really hope there is more help for restaurants. Right now I am afraid that, with all the reopening, it will happen again. That the second wave will come. Even though restaurants are open to customers, how many will risk coming out to eat again. Should I put my staff's life at risk? I am trying to find the safest way to keep the business running. During this time period I am grateful that we have a lot of very supportive customers, people willing to help and I just hope everyone can be safe. 
 

 

 

 

Chef Daniel Bojorquez of La Brasa:

My restaurants have been closed since March 14th. We continue to be closed for indoor and outdoor dining.  We have been offering takeout for the past month and it has been good to bring back some of the chefs to the kitchen. While businesses have been closed for months, I feel hopeful that the public is starting to understand why people go into the restaurant business. They do it because they care about the community. The public is also getting more educated on the monetary and personal cost associated with running and owning a restaurant, so hopefully we can start to see better policies from the government that affects our industry.
 
My biggest fears are that those in power capitalize on this pandemic to take advantage of small business owners and workers. [We] are in a very vulnerable situation. I’m grateful and lucky to have people by my side. I’m in business [with people] who have been very resilient and here to endure the ups and downs that are common in hospitality. 
 
From being encouraged to attend culinary school, to migrating from Mexico to become a chef,  to every line cook job I held in Boston, to my mentor who took a chance and believed in me, to my investors, vendors, crew members, and guests who overtime became friends, and in some cases, family, this is the community I have chosen to fight for—ride or die. 
 
Keep hanging in there and continue to fight for a better and more sustainable present and future.

 

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