Dear Los Angeles: Chef Jonathan Whitener's Love Letter to L.A.

By Jonathan Whitener


Jonathan Whitener
Illustration of Chef Jonathan Whitener by Sarah Leituala
Illustration of Chef Jonathan Whitener by Sarah Leituala

It's been a really hard year. Actually, that’s a serious understatement. It’s been one of the hardest years of my career and even harder on us as a city. I love my industry and its constant changes. Those of us who gravitate toward the restaurant industry thrive on creativity and chaos. 2020 threw something at us that we weren't prepared for. Stillness, uncertainty, loss.

I’ve seen so many of my favorite places close, some temporarily and others forever. Watching the list of closed restaurants compile was heartbreaking. We had almost 50 percent of our small businesses close. I had to shutter one of my own restaurants last July. As a city, we experienced some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country. Being a hospitality worker became one of the most dangerous jobs in the state. We were in survival mode.

Everything looked bleak. We felt abandoned by lawmakers and community leaders. It would have been easy to give up, but that isn't our style. We like hard. We know hard. As a city, we are often characterized as shallow, vapid, and image-driven, but beneath that, there is something deeper. 

We are a city of resilient, hard-working survivors. Living in L.A., you get used to rejection and difficulty. We had to hustle harder than ever before. It was no longer important who you knew. We had to focus on what we knew, and that’s how to feed people.

Our industry needed us. Our community needed us. Now was the time to step up to the plate and support those in need. I witnessed countless nonprofits and in-house programs feed those who would have otherwise gone without. Food banks for displaced restaurant workers opened. Community fridges popped up. Desperately needed meals were provided to underprivileged communities. Restaurants set up donations and sent food directly to hospital workers. We became our own network through which leads and resources were provided .

We will forever be grateful to those who were there for us when we needed them most. Liquor brands made hand sanitizer and distributed masks. They provided our bartenders with bottles and swag, allowing us the ability to have takeaway and home delivery options. Hell, they even donated heaters and umbrellas so we wouldn’t have to close our doors. (Shout out to my boys Collin Coleman and Manuel De Avila. We love you guys.) Restaurants would send family meals to each other as a sign of solidarity. During this time, industry leaders found ways to lift and support our community. My partner, Lien Ta, co-founded Regarding Her (aka RE:Her), a nonprofit run by female restaurateurs. Their mission is to support and empower female-led restaurants, and they recently started a grant program. Most of all, we are grateful to our customers. To those who lined up, promoted, and ordered, thank you for your support. We could not have done it without you.

This past year was designed to break us. As a whole, we have experienced a collective amount of grief and loss. Those of us who made it, know we are the few lucky ones. Although it might have felt like it, we are not broken. We will come back. We will survive. New opportunities will arise. I am hopeful, L.A., and am looking forward to seeing you at our next service. 

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