Like millions of workers in the hospitality industry, I was laid off. Now I’m on perpetual hold with unemployment, waiting for an entire industry to reboot.

By Jane Brendlinger
Updated August 03, 2020
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It now seems like a century ago. One day, making meringues at work, I noticed they weren’t crisping as they should, even after many hours in the oven. For some reason, instead of smooth, white, and glossy domes, they were mottled and lumped, like little ugly space rocks. I was frustrated thinking about what could have possibly gone wrong in such a straightforward procedure, when my chef pointed at the window. Rain was pelting down, and steam fogged up the panes—the sugar in my egg whites was absorbing the moisture, and all hopes of my meringues ever drying properly were scratched. “We work in a physical world,” one of my fellow cooks said. What could I do in the face of this, except hope for a sunny day tomorrow?

We work in a physical world. Things drop, get smashed, spill, burn, don’t rise, rise too much, sour, ferment. Success is eaten, digested. Failure is thrown out, composted. Hands and arms are covered in scratches and burns, from knife wounds to steel wool scratches, the oil spots from the fryer distinct from the straight lines of hot sheet tray. A constellation of scars.

There were times in the past few years I thought I would be fired, truthfully, but I never imagined it would happen like this. The rate of escalation has been the most shocking part. In a matter of days, announcements like “Please be fastidious about hand-washing” became “We are closed until further notice."

The bubble I’d been living in for the past few years—65 hour work weeks of prep lists and nightly service—was burst overnight by viral threat. On our last day of work, the entire staff was gathered together and told to file for unemployment. We have no idea when our restaurant will be running again, and in what capacity. The only thing we know right now is that we don’t have jobs.

Restaurants have been my home, on and off, for ten years. I started as a hostess when I was 18, a job to make money between college breaks. After graduating with a nebulous English degree, restaurants were sanctuaries that supported my life; they became small shelters in a large and often terrifying NYC. Three years ago I transitioned from my day job as a server to line cook, and after another year I jumped into pastry, when I realized my love affair with ice cream was more than just a fling. It’s been anything but easy, a career that’s demanding physically and emotionally, and sometimes the challenge of it all seems insurmountable.

Now, so many people like me are flooding the server of the unemployment site and wringing their hands at the technical difficulties on the phone line. Government mandates to close restaurants, or restaurants making the hard decision to close themselves, is the right response to curtail potential catastrophe. But it’s undeniable that the restaurant industry has been a monumental casualty. It’s one thing to be unemployed, but being jobless in a gutted industry feels like clinging to driftwood in an empty ocean.

To stave off depression during quarantine, my boyfriend (also a cook) and I have gone into full production mode. “Think of a project and make it” is the mantra. Our fermentation lab is in full swing, now with added vinegar-making, kombucha-brewing, and a ginger bug (Google it). Tonight is pizza night; tomorrow, pork belly ramen; after that, more pizza. Ice cream testing, cookie dough in the freezer. Our only limitation is the flour shortage we’re now experiencing, and our capacity to eat all of this.

We’re in a strange frenzy because our hands are itching to do and make, and now our home is the only outlet. It’s a privilege and comfort to be surrounded by food, and to find so much joy in making it; still, I wonder at how bereft this all feels, like running on a treadmill or playing air guitar. We are waiting in our homes, but for what? Will this industry that has been completely pummeled by the coronavirus ever recover fully, and even if it does, will it ever be the same?

It’s difficult to imagine the future right now, so we’re taking it daily. Today, we're trying to break through an unemployment relief system not built to hold such an enormous capacity. The National Restaurant Association is asking for $145 billion in government relief, among other measures that would help both businesses and employees bridge the gap of closures. I don’t think there’s any other option; without government aid, we risk losing some of the most vital parts of our culture and economy, and millions of newly unemployed will remain unemployed. We can call our senators and urge them to consider restaurants in their subsidy plans. Those with the means to do so can support take-out operations, buy gift cards for a sunnier future, any small thing to help. If nothing else, we can keep on cooking.

I’m grateful that I have a little bit of money squirreled away. I don’t have children to support, nor do I have any large and looming financial responsibilities. But I know so many in this community who do, and that is gut-wrenching. There are people who are seriously ill right now, and nowhere to go for help. I’m grateful to be well, and to have the ability to isolate, which is so important at this moment.

And I will always be grateful, too, to be part of such a strong and resilient industry.

Doors are closed, kitchens aren’t running, but we are all still here. Restaurants are families. They're eclectic, strange groups of weirdos you didn’t choose but who'll be there for you through every good fight. And although one of the worst parts in all of this is that we cannot meet and gather around the same bar, we can pour a combo beer and shot at home and reassure each other, we’ll get through this. There will always be another service.