Cooking for Others

“The work itself — cooking delicious, interesting food and cleaning up after cooking it — still feels as fresh and honest and immensely satisfying as ever.”

Gabrielle Hamilton

Written by Lee Schneider

Despite everything, DineLA is going as planned next week with 300 restaurants taking part. This is a semi-annual restaurant festival designed to get people to eat out. And by out, I mean literally out. Restaurateurs are offering outdoor seating which they are calling “on-site dining.”

Hope springs eternal, but restaurants are in trouble. Many small restaurants, restaurant owners believe, are done for.

There is no way to keep them afloat without massive financial aid. Noted chef Tom Colicchio and restaurateur Danny Meyer wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about this months ago when the pandemic hit. They saw the handwriting on the wall and the empty tables.

If you live in an urban place, restaurants are part of the texture of your street. They, and the people who work in them, breathe life into the place. Imagining your neighborhood without them would be impossible. But we might have to do so. Some places in our neighborhood have remained boarded up for months. They don’t look like they’re coming back.

Restaurants work on a harsh equation containing your square footage that holds only so many tables, your rent, cost of provisions, cost of labor, and customers per hour. You can only fit so many tables in a room and can only serve so many meals on those tables to so many people. The food you buy costs you a minimum amount every week. You have rent and staff to cover. All that overhead factors into your decision to open the doors each day. If you can’t serve inside (we only have outdoor dining in Los Angeles) you have to put tables outside. If you can’t serve outside, you have to deliver or set up take out. Not all of your meals will make the trip in a bag to someone’s home, so only some of your menu remains viable.

It’s always been a tough game with a thin profit margin. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain on how truly challenging the restaurant business can be. This resonates with me because I used to cook in restaurants in New York and I am the home cook around here. Since the first lock down in March, I have made more than 300 meals for our family, with one day off a week, Tuesday, when I order takeout and go pick it up. I replicate my restaurant worker experience every time I pull a pan into a burner or chop vegetables the way a prep chef in New York taught me. Love delivered on a plate is nightly magic. Restaurants do it at scale.

The quote from the New York Times article above is from an essay by Gabrielle Hamilton that connected with many eaters and cooks. It showed us the back of the house. Read it and you’ll get a sense of what it really takes to get that meal on the table in front of you. You’ll see that the people involved go far beyond your server, far beyond the kitchen, connecting to a supply chain cities and nations away.

For some restaurants, a casual to-go mode may have to become permanent, the way they will survive. Fast food drive throughs are taking in more money than ever, $8.3 billion across the fast-food industry this season, up from $8 billion in sales during the same period last year. People are treating the drive through as a place to provision their family. The new grocery store: Popeyes has introduced “family bundles” to deliver bigger meals.

Although the fast food you get at a drive through is bad, the drive through idea may be good. They are outdoors, therefore safer, and can be contactless. We already have drive-through COVID-19 testing facilities. Expect drive-through grocery stores, drive-through markets, and a comeback for drive-in movie theaters

There is a downside to all this drive through activity — drive through workers are exposed without adequate protective gear. Drive through workers labor in cramped conditions. Workers at McDonald’s and other chains in a number of states have staged walkouts. Workers at the delivery services, like Instacart and Amazon, have also staged walkouts. The supply chain is fraying, even the part of it that comes right to your door.

“We are not just walking off to protect ourselves, we are walking off to protect our customers,” said Vanessa Bain, an Instacart worker quoted by the New York Times. To provision the 300 meals I’ve made, I’ve relied on countless deliveries from Instacart. Since March, I have seen the inside of a supermarket twice. Once, to stock up before all this started, and later because we had run out of eggs and I had to make breakfast.

Many of us are cooking for our families now, a lot more than we used to. We have to think like restaurants in the way we order. It’s not: What will I eat today? It’s: What will we cook on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday?

It was always important to be the person who feeds the other people in your pod. It’s a big responsibility. Since love is involved in serving other people, we find ourselves up to the task. Sometimes we surprise ourselves with how good are we are at it. (Dover sole with breading and herbs.) We also fail miserably. (Breading falls off the Dover sole, fish falls apart. Cereal for dinner.)

I never thought eating in would give me a sharper understanding of eating out, that preparing food for a small pod would communicate the idea of preparing food at scale. It’s all the same, though. It’s planning, provisioning, and love on a plate.

Photo by Katie Smith on Unsplash