In late April, we held our third annual Best New Chefs mentorship program, tapping restaurant industry leaders to offer advice and support to the 2020 class of BNCs. The sessions, this year conducted via video conference, are meant to help shepherd our rising star chefs through the tumult of press, business decisions, and mental health challenges that awaits them now and years down the line.
But this is an unusual year. With restaurants closed around the country, the role of "chef" has transformed into something new that is still being negotiated. The 2020 class of Best New Chefs will face an industry in crisis, as will their restaurants, which have had to pivot into new operations or shutter indefinitely.
We tapped restaurant industry leaders like Jason Vincent, Angie Mar, Andrew Zimmern, and Caroline Glover to speak with the new class of BNCs about staying afloat during crisis. While we can't control all the unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic—like when, how, and where restaurants will reopen—these chefs reminded us of all the things that are in our control, most importantly the way we treat ourselves and others.
Check in, check in, check in
While emotional well-being is a common topic every year, the conversations on mental health felt higher stakes than usual. Andrew Zimmern pointed out that one of the simplest ways to soothe ourselves is to soothe others, so he advised the chefs to make checking in with other people a routine—for him, it's "a daily spiritual practice."
"I engage for five to ten minutes on what's really happening in their lives and what's really happening in mine," he said. "I spread it out over the course of my day. Two of them I do first thing in the morning, and then one at night ... Over the years it’s the biggest lifesaver I have." He calls it his "lords and ladies council," and he thinks everyone should have one.
Zimmern continued, "I believe our job here on planet earth is to love other people. In doing so we nurture ourselves and our societies and our communities."
Lean on your community
Jason Vincent said that after the pandemic forced restaurants around the country to close, the first group chat "to ramp back up" was the one he has with his fellow 2013 Best New Chefs, which includes Chris Shepherd, José Enrique, and Danny Bowien. Vincent said they joked, "This is our chance to get out!" But, more importantly, they leaned on each other for support, comforting each other and sharing information on how they were sustaining their businesses and staffs.
In the second mentorship session, Matt Jennings told the new class of BNCs that relying on other people—something that doesn't always come easily to chefs—is the most important thing we can do right now. "Relationships become more important than ever in moments like this," he said. "I think personally and professionally, not only do you need to rely on your community, but you guys now can rely on each other. This is an incredible gift and an opportunity to have each other as a network in a more intimate way than you probably would have before. I am a huge, huge believer in collaboration."
Keep work and life separate (or at least try)
Caroline Glover, a 2019 BNC and chef at Annette in Aurora, Colorado, has been cooking through the crisis, managing to keep a handful of staff onboard to pivot to curbside pickup.
"It's really important to be able to separate business and our real life. For this past six weeks we have not been able to do that," she said frankly. "It's been all Annette, all the time." And it's been really, really difficult.
Communicate with your team
Since nobody knows what's going on anymore, communication is vital. Rather than shifting into autopilot, Glover says that every time she comes into work, she checks in with her staff to see if they want to continue.
“'Do you want to keep doing this?' That’s the first question that I’ve been asking my staff every single day," she said. "It’s just being completely honest and open with each other about what the day is going to look like, and every single day has been completely different."
Angie Mar, a 2017 BNC and chef at Beatrice Inn, said that keeping her team employed has kept her motivated; everything else is secondary. "I don’t really know how I’m doing because I’ve been so focused on making sure my employees have a paycheck and doing all the things we have to do to keep the business going and keep as many employed as possible," she said. "As we come out of this and find our next chapter, I’m probably be emotional and I’ll probably start to feel all the feelings, but right now I’m just muscling through."
As chefs around the country have had to pivot their entire business models in a matter of hours, flexibility has gained new importance, and that's important to keep in mind for whatever comes next.
"I think the most important thing is how agile and flexible we were. You built that house one brick at a time," said Roni Mazumdar, owner of Adda in New York City. "In hindsight, if I were to go back, sometimes it’s important to have a strong foundation but it’s also important to have that kind of mobility and flexibility in your mind … I think I would give us the gift of flexibility."
And part of being flexible means staying ready for the next crisis. "I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, and that’s scary to say, but I’ve been through three hurricanes and COVID and SARS and 9/11 and all of those things," said Leslie Ferrier, VP of HR at Momofuku. "Things are going to happen and you have to prepare for them. You just have to.”
Food & Wine is partnering with Southern Smoke Foundation to help raise money for restaurant workers around the country who are in crisis. Please consider making a donation today.