Restaurant industry leaders talked about self-care, the value of flexibility, and the importance of celebrating the small things at the 2020 Best New Chefs virtual mentorship sessions.

By Nina Friend
May 14, 2020
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Credit: Best New Chef Mentors, clockwise from top left: Nick Kokonas (photo courtesy of Tock, Inc.); Leslie Ferrier; Andrew Zimmern; Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya (photo by Gary He)

In years past, the Food & Wine Best New Chefs mentorship program was held at New York City restaurants like Loring Place, Empellon, and Aldea. Sessions were built around questions like, “When do chefs need PR?” and “What’s the best way to balance work life and home life?” But this year, when the 2020 class of F&W Best New Chefs gathered in late April, it was via video conference, and every conversation was fueled by life in the age of COVID-19—a life in which restaurants are shut down and the future is uncertain.

Though no one can predict when restaurants will reopen, industry leaders like Jason Vincent, Angie Mar, and Nick Kokonas—some of whom have weathered storms like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis—joined the virtual gathering to provide advice to our Best New Chefs as they continue on as leaders in their communities. Here are the biggest takeaways, including reminders about the importance of self-care, establishing sustainable business practices, and the necessity of remaining flexible in these trying times.

Self-care is not selfish

For too long, life as a chef has meant putting emotional wellbeing on the back-burner—but it shouldn’t be that way. Jason Vincent, chef/owner of Chicago restaurants Giant, City Mouse, and Chef’s Special, took two years away from restaurants after he had been named a 2013 Food & Wine Best New Chef. “I felt I wasn't being a good dad to my oldest daughter,” Vincent said. “And my wife got pregnant with our second kid.” 

In that period away from restaurant life, Vincent learned some of the positive habits that he’s carried with him through restaurant openings and hiring new staff. “It’s controlling your temper. It's controlling your sleep habits,” he said. “Therapy, going to see a mental health professional, is a great thing. It's a great thing for people to be able to talk about openly at work. It takes the stigma away. And it really settles a lot of nerves when the boss talks about it.”

Food & Wine Senior Editor Kat Kinsman, who co-led the BNC Mentorship sessions, said, “If you are too tired and you're not eating and you're just stressing over everybody else, you're not in a place where your tank is full enough to drive a car anywhere safe. It's not selfish to take care of yourself.”

Self-care applies to the physical, too. Marcia Polas, an alignment and movement educator who works with hospitality pros, spoke about the merits of epsom salts and a hot bath or shower to help the body decompress. “As your body is going through something, you want to be able to take care of it, to care for it, to nurture it in ways that maybe you hadn't thought of before because you're needed and you're going to need that body when this is done.”

Remember why you cook

This moment of sheltering in place and social distancing offers an opportunity to reflect. For Angie Mar, a 2017 Food & Wine Best New Chef and owner of The Beatrice Inn in New York City, that meant giving herself the space to remember why she loves to cook. “I've never cooked for anybody except for myself,” Mar said. “When we reopened for takeout, I found myself in the kitchen, cooking the things that I really needed to provide myself some sense of normalcy and comfort. And it worked out really well, because it's what everybody needs to eat right now. I'm still getting to do what I love, which is be in the kitchen. Ironically, this has provided me the opportunity to be in the kitchen more than I have been in two years.”

Learn to accept that you are never going to stop questioning

Jason Vincent believes questioning yourself should be as important as questioning a dish on a menu. “Nobody's ever going to know if you're doing the right thing,” he said. “You just have to constantly ask yourself the same questions that you're asking about putting a fucking dish on the menu. And you're not just going to say, ‘Is it good?’ once, you're going to say, ‘Is it good?’ every single time that dish goes on the plate. And you have to do that about your life. You have to keep asking, ‘Is it good? What can I do to fix it? How can I change it? Do I need help? Do I need to outsource this to a partner?’”

And that’s another lesson built in here: It’s okay to ask for help. 

Make connecting—with family, friends, your team—a priority

Caroline Glover, a 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef who owns Annette in Aurora, CO, has been checking in with her staff every day. “Everybody's really scared right now,” Glover said. “I'm scared and my staff is scared and we have come together every single day to check in with each other. ‘You okay? Do you want to keep doing this?’ That's the first question that I ask my staff every single day because it could change and that's okay. If my staff is not on board, then I don't have a team to do this.”

Cookbook author and TV host Andrew Zimmern spoke about the value of simply talking with other people. He said, “We have a saying in recovery, ‘We're only as sick as our secrets.’ When I can keep things private, when I keep things to myself, when I keep things under my vest, they plague me, they become distorted, and they take on value inside my head that they don't represent in real life. When you withhold it, when you keep secrets, that's the stuff that kills you.”

Think about your restaurant, and your challenges, through the lens of a core philosophy

Roni Mazumdar, owner of Adda (a 2019 Best New Restaurant) and Rahi in New York City, breaks his thinking up into three area: team, community, and business. “What do we think of when we think of our team? What do we think about when we think of our community? What responsibility do we have to sustain the future of our business?” Mazumdar explained. “Our businesses are not really our businesses. It's the community's business. They're supporting you.”

Chef Matthew Jennings, founder of culinary consulting firm Full Heart Hospitality, looks at his businesses in a similar way, using different categories: people, product, and process. “The people are your own employees, and team, plus those that you serve. Product is your product set, what you're offering and how, and the process is what is what, and how, you're going to do it.” For Jennings, this concept is about accountability. Making sure that he’s filling checking off each category in every decision he and his colleagues make.

Get a lawyer

“While it's exceptionally self-serving for me to say, ‘Hey, you should really hire a lawyer for some of these things,’ the fact of the matter is that you really should hire a lawyer for some of these things,” said hospitality lawyer Jasmine Moy. “It's one thing if a friend of yours that’s having a little benefit fundraiser would love to get to be involved, but if a big company comes to you and wants to do a line of pans with you, and there's a significant amount of money involved, it's always worth it to hire someone to look at those documents. Because they could cost you so much more in the long run.”

Flexibility is key

Jennings coined the term “flextaurant” to explain the reality that right now, restaurants need to be more flexible than ever. “How are we supposed to make what could be deemed as responsible decisions for our business, our teams, and our guests in a moment where there's constantly incoming new information?” Jennings asked. “We need to be flexible and we need to consider all options all the time.”

Melanie Hansche, Food & Wine’s Deputy Editor, owns an Aussie cafe in Easton, PA. In March, Hansche and her husband, Jason Hoy, converted their business, Tucker Silk Mill, into a grocery store featuring locally grown and made products. In the truest sense of the flextaurant, when Hansche and Hoy reopen Tucker, they plan to keep the new retail and mercantile aspects going. “For us to be sustainable, we should be thinking about building in that grocery part as part of our normal ongoing business,” Hansche said.

Be creative

Every summer, Canlis in Seattle launches short-term pop-up restaurants in their parking lot. That experience trained Canlis’ staff to shift quickly and deal with curve balls, according to chef Brady Williams, a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2018. When COVID-19 hit Seattle, Canlis was one of the first fine dining restaurants to pivot to take-out

“Being able to offer comfort food at a lower price point is allowing us to reach a much broader guest base,” Williams said. “And I definitely think of that way of thinking, that creative agility will lend itself to the next season of restaurant. There’s going to be room for that way of thinking, like, how can I provide a new experience or a new channel for a different type of guest to experience this restaurant?”

In Chicago, The Alinea Group made their own shift in response to the restaurant shutdowns, offering beautifully packaged to-go meals for $25-$35. Yet the Beef Wellington at Alinea and paella at Next compose what co-founder Nick Kokonas calls “a new category of carry-out.” It’s not quite eat-out-of-the-box take-out, but it’s not a full meal kit. “It's somewhere in between the two,” Kokonas said, “that requires the end consumer to do a little bit of work when they get it home.” This “work” could mean anything from heating up mashed potatoes to baking a pot pie.

Be prepared, but stay positive

COVID-19 isn’t the first global crisis, and it won’t be the last. Leslie Ferrier, Vice President, Human Resources at Momofuku, reminded the group that things are going to happen, and though you have to be prepared, you also need to stay positive. 

“I've been through three hurricanes and COVID and SARS and September 11th and all of those things,” Ferrier said. “You have to prepare for that. But this is not the end of the world. Hospitality will go on. Life will go on.”

In fact, Kokonas believes that there’s been no better time to open a restaurant than six months from now. “I am looking all the time right now at helping and investing in existing restaurants to get them over the hump of recapitalization, because I believe deeply that the industry is not going anywhere, whether it's a 12 months or 18 months or 24 months cycle, which feels infinitely long right now, is something we can get through,” he said. “I don't want this to be happening, but it is what it is. So many ideas that we have, we can finally try, because there's nothing to lose. And who knows what'll work?”

Celebrate the small things

Jennings advised, “Whatever small successes you've had, whether it's curbside or delivery or new operational models, right now, more than ever, it's important that we celebrate small wins.”