Unemployed restaurant workers are making some of the most interesting food in the country right now—popping-up in closed restaurants, posting on Instagram for purchase, or delivering meals from a home kitchen.

By Naomi Tomky
July 24, 2020
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Two weeks before Seattle’s stay-at-home orders shut down restaurants, Janet Becerra quit her role as chef de cuisine at Eden Hill Provisions. By the time she started to look for a new job, restaurants were closed and her boyfriend, Jonathan Ragsdale, had been furloughed from his sous chef role at Joule. Left with a lot of free time and few prospects, the two ended up putting together Pancita—at first a fundraiser supporting Black Lives Matter protests, then a pop-up serving creative dishes like Frito pie-inspired tamales and tostadas featuring the flavors of elotes.

The food was spectacular and unique, but at a time when cooks around the country find themselves in the unfamiliar situation of having nothing to do, the backstory is surprisingly common.

Andrew Valantine

Tossed from the fast-paced, exhausting atmosphere of restaurant kitchens, cooks have become bored—fast. The work hard, play hard culture disappeared, leaving a sea of passionate people with plenty of time on their hands. Further galvanized by social movements and economic forces, out-of-work cooks are making some of the most interesting food in the country right now—popping-up in closed restaurants, posting on Instagram for purchase, or delivering meals from a home kitchen. By supporting these side-hustles, diners get to enjoy one-of-a-kind dishes and support an industry that is on life support.

“Pancita is a way for me to speak up,” says Becerra, “to give a voice to myself.” She and Ragsdale used their time off from work to teach each other how to cook their favorite comfort foods, particularly the dishes of her family’s Mexican heritage. But their first plans for a pop-up ended up delayed as they pivoted to try to figure out how to best support the protests following George Floyd’s murder in late May.

Andrew Valantine

Instead, they took all the ingredients they had purchased and turned them into a simple, streamlined sale online that raised a few thousand dollars for the local Black Lives Matter bail fund, and a second fundraiser that did the same for the Seattle BIPOC Organic Food Bank. Eventually, they returned to the pop-up concept (though both are now back to work), cooking the food that they describe as Mexican “through a young American lens.” It would be impossible for her to make traditional food, says Becerra, “Because I am not traditional.” She calls the food “genuine to us.”

The freedom to cook more personal food propelled Kate Telfeyan down a similar path. The food at Mission Chinese in Bushwick, where she was the head chef, “has an identity,” she says, so she was limited in exploring her own “vaguely Asian” style, influenced by her French-Canadian mom, her Armenian dad, and her upbringing in coastal Rhode Island.

Furloughed at first, then laid off, she struggled to gauge the severity and length of closures. Telfeyan felt “pretty much brain dead,” she says. “I couldn’t figure out how to wake up in the morning.”

She missed the restaurant, but mostly the people. “'Family' can be a toxic term” in the workplace, she says, but her co-workers were who she spent time with, and her favorite part of the job was making family meal for them, in part because “the food isn’t tied to any responsibility other than to get staff fed.”

She started selling a few of her favorite family meals on Instagram and delivering them, first to former co-workers, then to the public, expanding her repertoire to the kind of food she wanted to make: blood orange shrimp, milk buns, and sweet and sour tofu gimbap. It was an opportunity to explore new formats in an industry that she saw as flawed.

“I’m not wishing ill on anyone,” she says, “but this feels like a necessary reset.” She sees her new business as a way to explore what the professional cooking could look like in the future. When the protests began, she saw an opportunity to use what she was already doing as a platform for good causes, donating a portion of her proceeds to organizations each week since. As she sees those around her scrappily finding their way, she wonders what sort of community-based improvements they could find for the industry.

Kate Telfeyan

“How can they all have a platform to sell products, to get their food out in an equitable way?” she asks, rifling off priorities for a co-op type model with kitchen access, maybe a way to give back through mutual aid or donations. “In pandemic mode, it’s become apparent that people need each other. It’s important to make sure we don’t forget why we, as chefs, do it: some aspect has to be about feeding community.”

That motivation drove Hanna Gregor as well. She’d been working the sauté station at Passerotto, but as the restaurant pared down its Korean-Italian menu for takeout service, it didn’t make sense for her to commute an hour and a half by public transit through Chicago, risking catching or spreading coronavirus on the way in or out.

Furloughed, she started making her own kimchi and conservas—oil-preserved foods—fusing her Korean and Polish heritage and her cooking background, and selling them to friends nearby via an email newsletter. But as the protests started, she looked for a way that she could support the effort. Gregor grew up in Japan, so she immediately thought of onigiri. She loaded a knapsack full of the temperature-safe, vegan, and high-protein rice balls and started handing them out at protests.

She expanded to jail support sites and free grocery delivery points—particularly in areas where grocery stores were boarded up because of the protests. She also sold more food, both by herself and as part of a collaborative bento box fundraiser with a pastry chef friend.

“It was a good way to scale up my financial contribution,” she says. She had a giant bag of rice, cheap and donated supplies, and a social network. “To flip that into $200 for jail support” and feel like she was contributing something.

“It’s easier for me to ask people to pay me money for my food when it’s going to a cause,” says Gregor, who is currently on unemployment. She struggles to imagine keeping the money that she charges for her food, though she acknowledges that someday she will have more practical considerations and may need to sell food to pay rent. But when that happens, she’ll have some idea what she’s doing, despite the traditional training ground for the restaurant industry, the brigade system, being out of commission. “A lot of the old gatekeeping [is]—you need to put X amount of years in X amount of kitchens,” she says. “For better or for worse, that’s going to be an inaccessible training avenue.”

For Gregor, Telfeyan, and the Pancita crew, unemployment pushed them to entrepreneurship, cooking their own styles of food and imagining what the future of the food industry might look like. As people look to support the struggling restaurant industry, often by patronizing their favorite neighborhood spots, it’s important to remember that without the cooks, without the folks experimenting on their own, the industry will lose one of its quintessential pieces: the creativity and talent of the people behind the scenes.

By exploring new pop-ups and delivery projects on Instagram, diners can keep the pipeline of young cooks in the industry employed, directly helping the future chefs that will shape their city’s food scene, while eating some of the most personal and innovative dishes currently on sale.