For The Long Run

The year 2020 was like no other for many of us. We faced a global pandemic that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and brought so many industries to their knees. It was a dark and grim moment in time, to say the least, and we’re still in the throes of it. But with vaccine development pressing ahead and a new push to get this public health crisis under control, there’s hope on the horizon.

Independent restaurants, caterers and other operators that rely on dine-in and event sales were hit particularly hard in the last year as social distancing and stay-at-home measures shut doors. Culinary educators had it rough, too — in most cases they had to switch to all- or mostly-remote learning and adopt the technologies and skills to do that as best they could. Even some fully employed healthcare and senior living chefs found themselves busier than ever when they volunteered to deliver food to high-risk people who couldn’t leave their homes. So many chefs in all types of jobs and segments have had to make changes and “pivot” (as the business cliché goes) by adopting new practices, philosophies and mindsets, and, in general, dig really deep to stay above waters.

Last year was hard, but after talking with so many ACF chefs (not just those interviewed for his article), things seem to be looking up. Their responses were measured and cautiously optimistic, for sure, but overwhelmingly positive. And there are some silver linings to the pandemic and the related economic challenges, as hard as that might be to fathom. Many chefs have greatly improved or streamlined their operations to work smarter, not harder, and to set themselves up to be more profitable in the future. Like boxers, they’ve put in the training in order to be ready for the next one-two, the next surprise punch. Bring it on, they told us.

It’s important to note the chefs highlighted in this group* do not speak for other chefs in their respective industries or even for chefs as a collective group; rather, they are here to share their individual stories by discussing how they have coped, what they have changed, and how they plan to move forward, so that others perhaps can glean some ideas and inspiration. For this article, we also took a closer look at non-commercial segments to bring more awareness to what’s happening behind those kitchen doors, as coverage about independent restaurants remains pretty steady in the news.

The stories don’t end here. Look for more across all ACF content platforms, including on WeAreChefs.com, in the coming year. And if you have a story you would like to share, please reach out. We’re all in this together as we enter what will hopefully be a bright new year.

ON BECOMING AN OBSERVANT CHEF-EDUCATOR

Chef Susanne Ebacher-Grier, culinary arts instructor, Center Grove High School (Indianapolis), and president of the ACF Greater Indianapolis Chapter

This year, I started in a new district at a high school where the superintendent wanted to grow the culinary program. This fall, we had an in-person blended schedule, with 90-minute classes reduced to 45-minute classes. Half of the students in one class will come one day, and the other half comes in person the next day. When the students are not in class, we have some e-learning assignments for them, but I’ve tried to keep it light, because some of the students are having a really hard time right now. I was notified that I was listed as a suicide watch contact for three of my students — that was mind-blowing to hear. I have never before dealt with so many mental illness issues at once in all of my years as a culinary educator.

My students have a lot of pressure put on them to be high achievers, so my approach is a little different than these kids are used to from traditional teachers. One week I had them watch a clip about Sean Sherman, The Sioux Chef, and Indigenous food. I’ve noticed the kids have gravitated to me. In the mornings before class starts, I’ll often have 15 students come to hang out, and many want to have study hall with me. They feel like they’re safe and can talk to me openly and candidly. Maybe it’s helpful that my hair is multiple colors. Maybe it’s because I’m very open, and possibly that’s to my own detriment. But I have had to focus more on making my students feel like they matter.

I have had to become more of an observant educator, and look into a students’ eyes and see what’s going on and ask if they are OK. It’s not enough for me anymore to just have good teaching skills and communicate about nutrition and wellness and mother sauces. I have to provide a platform where kids feel comfortable, and tell them that I believe in them, especially if they have never felt success in their lives, or if they have been told they are a “bad kid” or not good at this or that. When I talk to my other educator friends, what we’re learning is that we need to be fluid, more than ever before. Many of us are already compassionate — if you’re a culinary educator at the high school level, you definitely have to be. But we have also had to figure out how to teach content differently, learn more about digital learning, create our own resource communities to support each other, read our crowd. When I see the students are having an especially rough day, I just stop and say, “You know what? We’re not doing anything today. Let’s just talk things out.”

Another student I had was starting to fail every class during the pandemic. I found out he hunts deer, so I told him to develop three different venison dishes, take pictures and tell me how they turned out, and he improved his grade because of that. I also have a lot of athletes in my class, and when we’re learning about nutrition and cooking, I tell them, “Some of you might go on to play Division 1 sports, so you need to understand how to fuel your bodies.” They might remember nothing about trigonometry, but still remember how to make a healthy meal for themselves and others. Right now, probably one of the most rewarding takeaways from my job is being able to help develop life skills while providing a safe and secure space. Even though it’s challenging because we never know what’s going to happen day to day, I have learned how to be an even more go-with-the-flow type of educator, and focus on staying innovative and keeping engagement up. That will never go away.

ON TEACHING FOR TAKEOUT

Chef Michael McGreal, CEC, CCE, culinary arts department chair, Joliet Junior College, City Center Campus ( Joliet, Illinois)

In the past, when I taught plating and presentation in our restaurant teaching kitchens Thrive and Saveur, our goal was to make each dish absolutely stunning — we focused on the perfect dish, the perfect way
to spoon the sauce, getting the protein or vegetable centered perfectly. Now, with the restaurants closed for dine-in service, everything is being prepared for takeout. In the past, maybe we would just put all the food in a container or, at most, make it into some kind of TV-dinner-looking thing with the vegetable in a little triangle and the rest of the dish in the main part of the container. By the time you take that home, though, everything becomes a jumbled, congealed mess. For our wedding anniversary, my wife and I deliberated whether or not to order takeout from our favorite restaurant for this very reason. Sure enough, we ordered takeout, but when we got home, I don’t even remember all the components of the dish because it was so slopped-up in the container.

As a chef-educator, it’s my job to help students rethink to-go meals, because this could be the basis of a restaurant operator’s entire concept in the future. Sure, you can choose packaging that has vents so steam can escape and keep fries crispy, but it goes beyond that. Not only do we have to choose the right packaging; we also have to learn how to make dishes with carryover cooking in mind.

I’ve been teaching my students to make things like mac and cheese, risotto, casseroles and dishes with rich sauces a little looser, so that by the time the food travels to someone’s home, everything sets up just nice. Or maybe you make a beautiful red wine reduction with a slightly heavier, thicker body, so it doesn’t run right off the steak or pool in the container. In the past, we’ve taught carryover cooking for in-person dining, but never for takeout. And then there’s the hospitality aspect of it all. Sure, many restaurants have been able to set up tents and other ways to have outdoor dining, but not everyone is going to sit in a tent when it’s zero degrees out. And even when we can dine indoors again, plenty of people will still want takeout from their favorite restaurants, because maybe they don’t want to deal with going out, but want a chef-prepared meal.

So the question is, what are you going to do to make your takeout food still feel like it came from a restaurant when it gets to someone’s home? Maybe elements of the dish are packaged in mini containers with a note or even a photo they can use to help put it all together. Maybe with a nice, pan-seared seabass, you package the sauce and crisp-fried julienned leeks separately, so when you put it all together, it looks like it would if served in the restaurant. Meal-kit companies have been doing this successfully for years now.

We have been teaching our students this model using a hybrid of in-person and remote formats. When they are in school, they watch the chef plate the dish both on permanent ware and in a to-go container, and then we have them take pictures. Students can then recreate the dish at home, plating it in a to-go container as well and maybe trying out ways to do it differently.

We’re teaching our future chefs how to perfect their dishes and future brands not just inside four walls, but outside them as well. The silver lining to all of this is that we’re more innovative than ever before. Even if the way we taught culinary arts in the past wasn’t broken, we now know that we can transform the future of education into something bigger and better.

ON PIVOTING TO OUTDOOR DINING AND EVENTS

Chef Joseph Leonardi, CMC, director of culinary operations, The Country Club, Brookline, Massachusetts

The challenges we faced this past year were different; they depended on where in the country you work. Here in Massachusetts, we’re definitely taking a conservative approach to the virus, so we have not had any indoor events. One thing we have done is put up a temporary outside event space, so we could move any events outside for better air flow and less risk. We built a structure that we are planning to make more permanent for future outdoor events, because if the pandemic continues through April and May, we want to be able to still host some golf outings. If we can have people socially distanced and wearing masks, and have the right number of people per square footage, we would like to be able to have those events outdoors.

Last year, we had a very successful dining series out on the fairways that we plan to bring back this year. We plan to set up a temporary kitchen with a small outdoor grill, and maybe some cassette stoves and a smoker, and have tables spaced between six and 12 feet apart — whatever the latest guidelines will recommend. The details are still in the works, but it will be reservation-only to keep things small and safe. We have 240 acres here, but golf is still in play, so we will have to be out of the way, and will likely have members take golf carts out to the fairways. We will likely cook in the main clubhouse and transfer food to the temporary kitchen and finish plating there.

During the winter, we installed four igloos on our balconies overlooking the fairway for safe dining outside. We ran power to each one and installed space heaters and even Bluetooth speakers that you can connect to and play music. But we only use them for one turn a night for dinner, and then everything is broken down and cleaned and sanitized for the next day. We felt that was the best way to ensure people would be safe inside them. The igloos have been very popular — we were sold out every night through December.

We have also continued to offer takeout from our a la carte menu, as well as meal kits and prepared meals— all of which have led to very steady business. The hardest part of the pandemic has been the uncertainty; where we are, it seems like every week, the local government changes restrictions, so we have had to constantly update and adjust our procedures to ensure the safety of our team members and guests.

ON MOBILIZING FOODSERVICE AND DELIVERY FOR SENIORS

Chef Kelly Cook, CEC, AAC, director of dining services, Presbyterian Village North, Dallas

At the beginning of the pandemic, we switched to an all-delivery program. We’ve been preparing about 1,000 meals a day, including three meals a day for our assisted living residents and about 300 meals a day for those in independent living. We post the menu each week for the following week. We use our own vans, staffed with some of the servers from our closed dine-in spaces, who drive around with two choices already prepped and ready to go. We have been doing this for 200 days or so now, so we have a good idea which menu item will be the more popular one, and can prep more of that item.

We do the delivery in two runs. We will have one group go on an early delivery run, and they call the kitchen if we need more of one dish choice, so by the time they come back, we have adjusted the numbers for the second run. We have been able to get our delivery route times down to a20-minute turnaround, so we’re delivering 300 meals in an hour. Even if residents aren’t there, they can leave a note telling us to leave their meal preference at the door. We do have some
leftovers each day, but we use them to feed the nursing staff, mainly the COVID-19-unit nurses who can’t come and go as easily as others. I’m so proud of our team — everyone stepped up when we made this shift. We said to our employees early on that we didn’t know what this was going to look like, but we will keep them busy, and that has turned out to be true — we haven’t cut any staff, and we’re actually hiring.

In addition to the deliveries, we have added a food truck concept three days a week to get out more meals across our campus. The food truck has been great; it has allowed our chefs to come up with creative menus and concepts that help us use leftover product and also do some fun things. We have been parking the truck near a gazebo, so residents can take their food and eat outside, which is safer than indoors right now, while also getting some protection from the elements. The truck is equipped with a smoker, a griddle, and sandwich prep table that can hold both hot and cold items. We have served pulled pork sandwiches, barbecue plates, homemade pastrami sandwiches, and items like burgers and fries that might not travel as well in our delivery program.

Even if and when pandemic goes away, I definitely see the truck sticking around, because it’s just another way we can feed our residents, and we can use it while we go through some planned construction in our dining room. It’s also great for marketing purposes, and we’ve used it during times when our kitchen shut down, such as when we had two tornadoes in the area and lost power. With the truck, we’re always able to get out and feed those in need, regardless of what’s happening in our main kitchen.

ON CONSULTING AND RETAIL FOR THE FUTURE

Chef Jimmy MacMillan, owner, Pastry Virtuosity, a chef consultancy
in Chicago

I have a background in luxury hotels and saw that segment quickly start to struggle during the last year. Grocery, on the other hand, has flourished now that more people are cooking at home and shopping every week. The retail side of a foodservice operation is the most viable right now and I don’t think that will change. It’s hard to predict what this year will look like, but we do know there have been positive gains from some of the new, retail-oriented business models that have come up during the pandemic as a way for companies to stay afloat. Those who were already in the process of launching chef-curated products, market corner stores, or other forms of grab-and-go offerings — their timing was right. I can also see continued growth of the pick-up windows we saw more of last year. If some of these restaurants hadn’t had a walk-up window and the ability to open up partially to continue serving food, they might have closed by now.

In working with Mariano’s a major grocery chain in the Chicago area, I’ve seen sales of freshly prepared meals increasing. This trend goes beyond shutdowns and COVID-19; this is a lifestyle trend that has resulted from people’s ability to work remotely, or, in the last year, the need to work remotely. Having a traditional restaurant will be difficult when we “go back to normal” because people are getting used to the ability to get everything delivered. They like having that limited contact, or just going in and grabbing lunch and taking it home. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see more growth of ghost or virtual kitchens, which maximizes the space of one facility to showcase multiple chefs or operators and can cater to a wider customer base. Some chefs and operators are having difficulty with these changing models, but I think it’s important to look at it as less about serving different groups and more about serving the same group of customers in different ways. These will be some of the ways we bring back hospitality.

ON RE-ENGINEERING MENUS AND SPACES

Chef Jeffrey Quasha, CEC, CCA, ACE, corporate executive R&D chef, Morrison Healthcare

When COVID-19 hit in March, we at first sat back and went with the flow, but after a couple of weeks, we realized as a $1 billion company, we needed to go on the offensive. Some of the ideas we’ve had in the last three to five years, before COVID-19, rapidly accelerated because of the pandemic, as sad as that is to say. We knew this was the time when industry was going to take a good look in the mirror and decide what we’re going to stand for. Companies who were thinking about mobile ordering, ghost kitchens, delivery and smaller dining rooms are acting on these new models now, because it’s become a necessity.

We have more than 950 hospitals where we run not only patient services, but also cafeterias, coffee shops and other retail. Many of those closed down for in-person dining. so we had to rewrite our game plan. If you told me last March that I would be building pop-up markets and grocery stores and selling toilet paper to hospital staff so they had all the necessities, I would never have imagined that would be the case. Now, we have 38 — and counting — pop-up restaurant concepts that we rotate regularly in our kitchen spaces. Instead of doing a huge menu with full pizza, deli and grill stations, we have had to downsize and focus on a more streamlined menu that’s enticing and constantly changing. In the early stages of the pandemic, everyone wanted comfort food, but as we moved further along, our customers, especially younger ones, wanted more diversity in their food, and they didn’t just want a pre-made salad, either.

We found immediate success with our Flat Top pop-up concept, which serves signature quesadillas and a play on elote Mexican street corn with Flaming Hot Cheeto dust. Also popular: our K Steak concept, which serves items like bulgogi cheesesteaks, and Lobster Shack, which is a lobster roll concept. Most recently we launched Egg Roll in a Bowl for keto and Paleo eaters. I was surprised by how popular our Beet Root concept was. It offers a signature roasted beet sandwich on brioche with goat cheese, caramelized balsamic onions and arugula, as well as other items like beet hummus and side salads, and uses a zero-waste, stem-to-root philosophy. We sold 200 beet sandwiches in a day at a Jersey Shore hospital. This month, we are launching Cauli Club, which is a 100-percent cauliflower-based menu, with catchy menu items like the “Going Back to Cauli” bowl with roasted cauliflowers, peppers and onions atop cauliflower hummus, avocado, black beans, cilantro and cauliflower rice. In tests, the breaded buffalo cauliflower sandwich with blue cheese sauce on a brioche bun has also been popular, because it’s a hearty sandwich that even meat eaters can enjoy if they want to skip the meat that day. In addition to revamping our menus, we’re also looking into reimaging our retail and dining spaces; we’re building a ghost kitchen in a Jacksonville, Florida, facility to be able to rotate menus with easy pickup using cubbies and lockers, and we are even designing outdoor kitchens.

From a culinary standpoint, constantly staying on top of trends and change in the industry has kept us on our toes, but we also want to make our guests happy. We are serving literal superheroes — the first responders who are taking care of our country. We need chefs now, and will continue to in the future. I always tell our staff before every service that this could be the most important meal they ever make, because it could be someone’s first, or someone’s last. It has to be the best meal it can be — ever single time.

ON BRINGING BACK HOSPITALITY IN CATERING

Chef Brandon LaVielle, CEC, WCEC, director of culinary and partner, Lavish Roots Catering and Hospitality, Seattle

While we have lost big parties and some clients are on hold since switching to online ordering, we are actually getting a bunch of new clients and guests, because our business has never before been open
to the public. Up until last March, we always had a high minimum order, but now that we’re not catering events, we’re selling package meals for families and others on a smaller scale. We have had former wedding and party clients, and even people who live down the street, excited to try our food, and we have customers who order from us regularly. Many have said that when they can have parties again, they plan to call us. Some of the best comments we have been getting is that our food is great, but also our attention to detail is off the charts. We always throw in some extra touches. For example, through the month of November, when people picked up their curbside meals, we gave everyone in the car a warm cup of apple cider
— with our logo on the side of the cup, so they remember us. We include notes and instructions for reheating in all our meals. It’s nice because, as caterers, we don’t always get that face-to-face interaction. Being able to interject a little hospitality in our to-go meals has been really special, and by cooking in smaller batches, we have really been able to ramp up our quality control and consistency even more. This has led us to plan to build a public-facing bar and mini-restaurant, when it’s safe to do so in the future.

*these interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity

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