busyfood.net – What I Learned Covering Restaurants During the Pandemic

It began with a text. “In light of coronavirus, what have you been experiencing at Mister Jiu’s in the last day/today?” I sent this to Brandon Jew, the chef and owner of Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, on March 10 at 1:05 p.m. He replied, “Reservations and walk-ins have been down. Downtown Chinatown generally has had a lot less foot traffic in the past week.” I asked a few follow-up questions, incorporated them into our interview over text, and turned in my copy to publish the next day. It became the first entry in Restaurant Diaries, a series we launched to chronicle what was happening in the restaurant world as the virus took hold of the U.S. It went live the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and a week before restaurants across the country were forced to close to quell its spread.

Soon after, Restaurant Diaries became my life. Texts with Brandon turned into weekly hour-long phone calls, and I began interviewing more people, from farmers market managers to bakers-turned-nonprofit-directors to private chefs. By mid-April, I was editing the series, assigning entries to staff and freelancers around the world, and becoming intimately familiar with different corners of the restaurant industry and their particular struggles. As Bon Appétit’s digital restaurant editor, I was already aware of how the restaurant industry operated—the good, the bad—but this period really highlighted the “bad.” I saw longstanding wounds torn open, not only by the pandemic, but also by the racial justice movement that quickly followed. And as I read through each person’s story of triumph, anxiety, hope, despair, and determination, I learned, in raw and glaring ways, just how broken the restaurant industry is.

Pre-COVID, I viewed restaurants as the crux of an ecosystem of farms, fishmongers, laundry shops, wine distributors, and more; after all, they employed 15.6 million people. Still I understood that even the most successful restaurants operated on thin, thin margins, a fact obscured by packed rooms and four-star reviews. Now, seven months into the pandemic, those margins have never been clearer, and the restaurant workers I talk to are fighting to help this interconnected and fragile industry survive.

In all my years of covering restaurants, there was always a divide between the front-of-house customer-facing staff and back-of-house cooks, porters, and dishwashers who oftentimes were undocumented. But now I’ve seen this gap grow, not just over who gets tips but who has a job when businesses need to furlough, and who customers respect by wearing a mask while their tables are being cleared or served.

On top of all this, saying their names—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, David McAtee, too many others—galvanized many restaurants to talk about race in ways they never have before. Earlier this summer I scrolled through a lot of black squares posted by chefs and restaurant accounts on social media. I watched how this one seemingly innocuous act pulled down the curtain for so many restaurants—like Fat Rice in Chicago. It revealed the pernicious whiteness of this industry and its ripple effects: racism, microaggressions, fear, and trauma. And it’s led me, and other editors/writers, chefs, and restaurateurs, to soberly examine our privilege, bias, and power, and attempt to talk about it.

In recent years, I’ve been obsessed with the new and trendy when it comes to restaurants, and I know I’m not alone. (Look no further than BA’s annual Best New Restaurants list.) Food media fuels this hype and restaurants survive on it, but too often it flattens them, lauding only the genius, the auteur, the chef and ignoring the rest of the furiously moving parts in the machine. In Los Angeles, the controversy around Sqirl is like a parable for contemporary restaurants, hitting on gentrification, unacknowledged labor of people of color, and the fall of the restaurant machine symbolized by a tub of jam covered in gray fuzz.

Before COVID, I heard time and time again how restaurants were experiencing a golden age while also examining a toxic culture of sexual harassment and abuse. I’ve since realized we’ve finally reached a breaking point. Restaurants were going into overdrive, pushing the limits of what they could be: an empire, a social media lure, an award winner, PR-polished profile bait, a movement starter. It’s taken a virus and an industry-wide rumble of reckonings to begin to dismantle all that.

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