Covid-NYC: Simone Tong of Little Tong

By Simone Tong | Jaclyn Warren

By

Simone Tong
Jaclyn Warren
Chef SImone Tong of Little Tong Noodle Shop
Chef SImone Tong of Little Tong Noodle Shop

IT ALL ADDS UP

When this all started, my biggest concern was my people—my cooks being ok. I don’t welcome chaos, but when there is a challenge, I become calm and start to figure out what can be done. If my people can't get paid, they could starve. Cooks go paycheck by paycheck. Rent, health expenses, travel, it all adds up. 

FEAR FACTOR

Then, when they come back to work, how will they stay healthy while helping other people? The fear factor is that you can’t calculate the risk of the virus. I told them, the minute you feel unsafe, we cut it. I can't have employees getting sick in the name of feeding others. And if they don’t feel well, the food might not be safe. The level of risk people are comfortable with varies, but all are valid. I have to keep my distance since I’m pregnant, so I have to trust that others will be responsible. 
It’s very stressful not being there for staff. The pandemic is like a wall that we never had. Nothing else matters when survival is in question. 

A VERY WEIRD BUT IMPORTANT TIME 

I think about myself as a new immigrant, and I reflect on my journey. I so passionately choose to be American, and have ever since I was a college student here. There is such a romantic value in democracy and social justice. It’s like a marriage, you have to take the good and the bad. When the Black Lives Matters movement began, it made me reflect on American history, and it became a big lesson for me. I’m using this opportunity to learn and understand the history of the systems here. We are living in a very weird, but important time. Tara Westover wrote a book called Educated, about coming out of rural Ohio, going to college, educating herself, and being able to totally change the mindset she was raised with. When people were deciding not to eat at Chinese restaurants at the start of the pandemic, I mentioned the argument that if the virus had come from Italy, people wouldn’t not eat pizza. It’s stereotyping and ignorance, but I don't believe it was meant to harm anyone, just poorly thought out caution. I think it’s good to open Chinese restaurants and to continue challenging the stereotype. 

 

TOUGH DECISIONS

Business is not really happening. But we are making hundreds of meals a day for ReThink through June. They give us funding, and we break even. My people get paid, people get food. The East Village location of Little Tong was supposed to close the end of May, but our landlord extended our lease to allow us to do this. The ultimate decision to close that location was made to put more energy into our other locations. We can do better on a smaller scale right now. 

The West Village restaurant will be a new concept: seasonal, technique-driven Chinese cuisine in a more creative light. It’s dedicated to exploring Chinese-Americans, but not Chinese-American food. When it comes to ‘ethnic food,’ it’s always expected to explain what region it’s from, but it's not always necessary. It doesn't have to be a grandmother thing anymore. Now, it can just be us and what the region provides. The idea is to roll out a set menu every week for preorder, and we will demonstrate how to simply warm it up and plate it. As long as we can pay cooks, pay rent, pay everything, and break even, that’s better than not doing anything. 

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