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Rebuilding From Within

Hue-Chan Karels of Open Kitchen;

New Mexico restaurants and food organizations pivot creatively and hope for a better post-pandemic industry

Passion of the Palate BY MARK OPPENHEIMER

“Every time we have a problem, we also have big opportunities,” the COVID-19 crisis. “Everything is going to change …unfortunately many restaurants are affected and only some will survive.”

According to the New Mexico Restaurant Association, at least 3 percent of the state’s 3,500 restaurants have permanently closed. Two-thirds of all restaurant employees, 47,000 people, have been laid off or furloughed. Restaurants also reported a 61 percent decline in sales for those that remained open.

Matt Yohalem, chef and owner of Il Piatto Italian Farmhouse Kitchen in Santa Fe, raises concerns about reopening, which restaurants were permitted to do at 50 percent capacity in early June. “To recreate the theatrical experience of hospitality in masks, how’s that going to work? We’re not just selling food, we’re selling an experience . . . . I’m here looking for light at the end of the tunnel, and I see a distant flicker.”

Many owners, though, have experienced an unexpected boon from forced time off, which, even as it has crippled profits, has led to profound personal reflection that might benefit restaurant and food organizations going forward.

“We’re calling it a pivot,” says Louis Moskow, chef and owner of 315 Restaurant & Wine Bar. “I’ve had a fantasy project for some time to do a global line of frozen dumplings: kreplach, pot stickers, empanadas, ravioli, turnovers, pierogi, and gnocchi.” These are now available to go. “Moving forward, I’ll probably open earlier in the day and in the afternoon for an early dinner or cocktail hour. This would provide service to people who want to go out with less people to deal with.”

He also says that the ramifications of the pandemic have inspired a reconnection to the values that give meaning to his life. “I love the solitude. It’s been a welcome change. Competing in the rat race for 30 years solid, this break has given me the opportunity to live my life again and put things into perspective for the life that I want to live. I’m no longer going to be occupied mentally or physically with my career, and know that I can actually go away and let things be, whatever is going to happen is going to happen.”

Annamaria O’Brien, chef and owner at Dolina, has similarly been drawn to the disruption brought on by the virus. “It forced me to slow down, to eliminate unimportant things that you get in an nonstop loop of ‘doing.’ This time has reminded me to see what is important in my life and what balances me to be a better person, inside and out.”

Jennifer Rios, general manager and co-owner of Restaurant Martín with her husband, Chef Martin Rios, concurs. “In a lot of ways I enjoyed the closed times,” she says, noting that they’ve had a chance to regroup in the quiet setting of their Tesuque home. Now, they’re open for dinner, luring customers back with the charm of their outdoor dining area in the patio.

Like Chef Moskow, others have also changed their menus to accommodate those who might not be comfortable dining in at this point. At Sazón, Chef Olea came up with something he calls Street Food of Mexico, “casual” items like tacos, tostadas, and flautas. “Something easy to take home,” he says. “Basically, comfort food.”

John Haas, executive chef at the M’tucci’s restaurant group in Albuquerque, had been working on a home meal replacement program even before the new coronavirus struck. “It’s a way we can supply food to people who don’t want to go out to eat, but still want to put a great meal on their table,” he explains. “So, I think we probably adapted a bit easier to this situation than most.” Even so, he says, “I hope customers will be understanding. It’s going to require open-mindedness from operators and from consumers . . . it’s going to be a roller-coaster and it will be filled with some surprising, good things, and a lot of frustrations as well.”

Others aren’t so quick to revamp. Jennifer Hart of The Love Apple restaurant and Manzanita Market in Taos says, “I’m not going to completely rebrand my restaurant. The Love Apple is about ambience and the experience of being there. I’m not going to become a to-go restaurant.” Instead, Hart has rallied Taos restaurant owners to form a group that can pool resources and information. “We have no idea what is going to happen,” she says. “Thinking too far in the future doesn’t seem beneficial, because it just seems dark.”

Andy Lynch, owner of Common Fire in Taos, says that this is a chance to “take a closer, slower look at what we’re doing with our lives,” and to generally improve the food industry. “Why should there be an elaborate matrix of bad jobs in the food business? Farm workers, truck drivers, and grocery store employees are all being punished. So, it’s like, okay, let’s hurry up and put this thing back together. Or, no—let’s not.”

As with many profound inequities that have been laid bare by the pandemic, the restaurant industry’s razor-thin margins, systematically low wages, and lack of health insurance for staff are finally getting attention. Lynch, for one, hopes we can rebuild for the better. He says he feels “radicalized by COVID,” and questions, “can I create a food production service phenomenon? An entity run by a small group of people with real jobs? If we’re going to reopen, I want to reopen with positions at $52,000 a year.” He says he hopes that consumers gain a new appreciation for the food industry and will be willing to pay more to allow for sustainable jobs.

Other alliances in the food industry are looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis not just on restaurants, but on food access as a whole. The nonprofit Reunity Resources, founded in 2011, has been collecting food waste from schools and restaurants to create high nutrient compost used on a community farm that donates healthy food to local hunger efforts. Program director Juliana Ciano explains that the closing of restaurants has impacted many players in an interconnected food system. “There is a newly heightened awareness about local food and the realization that the most secure food is the food we’re growing in our own backyards, or that local farmers are growing. We’re seen how supply chain interruptions and heightened demand have thrown off distribution systems. So I think that’s where the value of local food has come into play for a lot of people.”

For Reunity Resources, this means building new collaborations. “It’s all about connecting. We’re working more closely than ever with other nonprofits, farmers, and businesses in town. I think historically a great many of us operate in a little silo. Moving into the future means how do we connect the dots as efficiently and meaningfully as we can?”

Meanwhile, Nina Yozell-Epstein of Squash Blossom in Santa Fe has rebranded her restaurant wholesale produce business into a retail subscription service for people in the community. A lead distributor of local produce, Squash Blossom works with over 25 small family farms that practice traditional, low-impact farming methods. The organization’s pivot has helped maintain an income stream for farmers.

“We never could have seen this coming,” says Yozell-Epstein, a former farmer herself. “We started to do home delivery. I’m just thankful that here at Squash Blossom we were small enough to be able to adapt quickly. Our tight network of farmers allows us to be really flexible. We were one of the first businesses to say, ‘Okay, we’re here for you. If you need a source for healthy fresh food, we’ll make it happen.’” And she sees hope for New Mexico, given the strength of its local farms and markets. “Our local food system is more intact than in a lot of other places.”

“As a community it’s important that we stick together by increasing our awareness of how we are all interconnected,” says Hue-Chan Karels, chef and owner of Open Kitchen, which throws culinary events that foster community connections while sharing Asian and internationally inspired local cuisine. “Making the effort to know and appreciate where our food comes from, who grows and harvests the food, who tends the livestock, and how it’s reaching the customer is more critical now than ever before.”

As chefs and owners struggle to revive, it can be hard to keep essential spirits alive, never mind adaptable. Historically, pandemics have caused us to reimagine urban spaces and recalibrate social norms. Yet even as six feet becomes the new standard for personal space, restaurants, farms, and food markets anchor our communities.

The question the food industry is asking now is one we must also ask ourselves: Who do we want to be when this is over?

Hart does envision new possibilities. “Hopefully now we can begin to work together as a community and create new solutions—vibrant solutions—for our community and not just for us as individuals. The time to create new solutions is when things fall apart. The solutions can be good or bad, but basically what we should be creating is more interesting solutions. That’s my hope.”

Ciano echoes the sentiment. “You know, with something like the pandemic that is completely out of your control, it’s so heartwrenching. First there is this disorienting feeling. I look around and ask myself, ‘What are we going to do next?’ I find a moment of quiet and I think that the image of becoming a seed and just dropping down and waiting for the rain to fall is so beautiful. It’s all about that flexibility, shape-shifting. This is the new moment. How do we meet it?”