This year’s class of Best New Chefs tells us how they want the restaurant industry to change after COVID-19.

By Khushbu Shah
May 12, 2020
Advertisement
Credit: First Row: Gary He / Michael Piazza / Cedric Angeles Second Row: Cedric Angeles / Cedric Angeles / Aubrie Pick / Jason Varney Third Row: Catherine Sareini / Cedric Angeles / Gary He

The restaurant industry is one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. It seemed almost overnight that bustling dining rooms were shut down and sommeliers swapped bottles of wine for bottles of hand sanitizer. If a restaurant remained open, they were forced to switch to take-out and delivery only models, attempting to survive, while the government failed to pass specific measures to help save them. The industry will soon attempt to begin the monumental task of rebuilding itself. We asked this year’s class of Best New Chefs, the culinary leaders of tomorrow, to share their hopes for the future of the restaurant industry.

Trigg Brown, Win Son and Win Son Bakery, Brooklyn, NY

I hope in the future we understand each other better and realize the importance of immigrant workers and the role they play in the fabric of American industry. They should get a fairer shake, and pathways to citizenship should be viewed as an incentive and reward system for working hard and plugging into the system—these are real solutions for immigration policy. As a capitalist society with economically conservative values, at the very least, we should respect immigrants and celebrate their contribution of hard work ethic and rich diversity over shoving them into the cracks and rendering them invisible. I hope that changes.

Donny Sirisavath, Khao Noodle Shop, Dallas, TX

I hope we can all have our dining rooms filled up again. Mom and pop restaurants are really, truly struggling, and they don’t have accolades or nominations. They are in neighborhoods for a reason—they provide food for a community. The government needs to create policies to help out small business owners by providing health insurance for the self employed and employees of these restaurants. I am struggling right now to pay for even my own health insurance as the owner of a restaurant. It’s hard to find access for a reasonable price—insurance companies price gouge.

And I hope that customers will be more reasonable about prices and what it really costs to run a restaurant. Now that everyone has spent time at home cooking, I am hoping customers appreciate the labor that goes into creating a meal, like washing dishes. I hope they remember we have to pay people to do that.

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.

Nick Bognar, Indo, St. Louis, MO

There has been no better time to change and structure for the well being of our industry as a whole. The standard of living needs to be better for kitchen staff. I’d like to see us create a new structure of pay that spreads gratuity to the back of house staff in a more balanced way. Specifics aside, I feel that guests may finally be ready for us to charge for that. I would like to see smaller independent restaurants with health insurance. This has been a goal for my company for several years already. Most of this cost must pass on to the guest. The perception of price increase may be risky but at this point it is necessary.

I have hope for a resurgence in small independent restaurants. Soulful expression through the restaurant experience done by good people. Restaurants that create a safe place for their staff and a happy vibrant workplace. Restaurants that don’t exist solely for monetary gain, but instead building community. Restaurants where the staff is as happy as the guest. I hope that guests can now understand better the value of what we do. And I hope that they can show empathy when asked to help provide for this very important part of our communities.

Niven Patel, Ghee, Miami, FL

This industry is my life. I live it, I breathe it. But I hope there is more balance one day. For the past 13 years I have been laser focused on becoming “successful.” In the beginning it was about becoming a chef than owning a restaurant, but now it’s more about how to get a good quality of life. I dream of a day where the demands of being a chef don’t overshadow the responsibilities of being a good husband, father, and friend.

I also hope consumers will better understand how a dish comes together. Our planning starts five months before it even hits a diner table, when we plan on planting the vegetable seed in our farm. Two months later it’s in the ground, three months later if everything went right our farmers will be harvesting it. Then a prep cook will process it, a cook will cook it, a server will talk about it, I’ll have to put it on Instagram, and then the guest will eat it, a busser will clear it, and finally a dishwasher will clean the dishes. Most people have no idea how a simple bowl supports so many people and now multiply that by 40 dishes on the menu.

Tavel Bristol-Joseph, Hestia, Emmer & Rye, Henbit, TLV, and Kalimotxo, Austin, TX

I would love to see chefs become more financially savvy. You have to know how to spend and make money and stay true to your craft. I hope chefs are a little more hesitant in opening a restaurant just because you have an investor, especially if you don’t get to control your vision.

Sustainability does not just mean buying from local farms, there is a bigger side—and that is being financially sustainable. I hope to see a change in the financial structure of the industry, where chefs aren’t dependent upon or controlled by investors who just want to make a profit. Investors should have less control, it makes them compromise on not just your food or how you want to treat your staff because you have to cut costs.

Eunjo Park, Kāwi, New York, NY

I know it’s going to take a long time for the restaurant industry to go back to “normal,” but I hope that in the process we don’t lose the sense of diversity and community that makes this industry so great. I hope that people will still continue to try different types of restaurants and I hope more cuisines, that weren’t popular before, get their chance to be embraced and celebrated. It’s hard for me to imagine what the future looks like if we’re mandated to have only 50 percent capacity or six feet of distance between staff and guests, but I believe that the restaurant industry will come together to figure out how to bring excitement, a sense of community, and diversity to these challenges.

Camille Cogswell, K'Far, Philadelphia, PA

I hope that diners can understand and appreciate the full cost of what it takes to provide them with the quality food and service that they expect while also providing fair wages and benefits for the employees. The long rise of the celebrity chef and restaurant empires has led to a totally unrealistic public viewpoint of how much money in wages and profit that chefs and business owners in our industry make.

I hope there is more push from those who love restaurants to support legislation and systems that make these beloved places sustainable; to not point the finger and ask us to figure out how to change without lending an understanding and helping hand, as it is a three-way street involving both consumers, business owners, and legislators. Maybe prices will need to be raised. Maybe we should abolish tipping and restructure the pay system to create a more equal wage among restaurant workers in the dining room and in the kitchen. But it is also very important to me to make sure within a future system that low income folks still have access to affordable and healthy dining experiences and that dining out doesn't become out of reach financially for the people who work in restaurants providing that food.

Lena Sareini, Selden Standard, Detroit, MI

I hope this will also create opportunities for other people to thrive. Over the next several years, as this all shakes out, perhaps there will be more opportunity for a wider variety of people and cuisines to be represented in kitchens. And that would be exciting. I love eating at places that make me feel like I bought a ticket for a show, where it’s a really new experience for me. As a pastry chef, I know there’s often a story behind dishes, and to just see more variety of stories being told through food would be great.

If you had asked me about my hopes before the pandemic, I guess I would have said something about hoping that the industry would become more fulfilling for more people. With such a shortage of restaurant workers and so much controversy over how restaurant workers get paid, it seems like some real industry-wide changes were needed, and are needed. We have a great culture at Selden, and I’ve always felt like it’s an easy kitchen in which to be a woman because the environment is supportive—and it’s a teaching kitchen. But I know not everywhere has been that way. Before half the industry was unemployed from the pandemic, it seemed like there needed to be focus on teaching, employee health, and giving people an opportunity to progress in their careers more easily and to make it an industry more people were excited to join.

Douglass Williams, Mida, Boston, MA

I hope that diners are patient. Patient with understanding limitations, patient that we have to do things differently for a while. There may be time limitations on a dining experience to allow for more turnover of tables, or we won't be able to serve certain dishes. Hopefully that period of weirdness will be short lived.

I also see a future where technology is more integrated into a restaurant. I think there are lots of opportunities for tech to enhance a diner’s experience as well as a restaurant's reach. I think tech companies will invest more in restaurant services. And I hope to see restaurants use tech to embrace more revenue streams like selling at airports, retail products, delivery, grocery, and partnerships. I think this will give us more stability.

Most of all, I hope for a wave of acceptance and appreciation like never before for unfamiliar cultures, cuisines and ingredients that make us realize we all just want to experience each other's food done with love closer to home.

Daisy Ryan, Bell’s, Los Alamos, CA

What we have come to realize at Bell’s is, yes, we should continue to feed the people who can afford our restaurant because they keep us afloat, they keep our 11 employees afloat, but in response it is important for us to find a way to turn around and feed the people that may not be able to buy our food, by forging relationships with non-profits and individual who have the means to donate capital to restaurants who have the skills and capabilities to produce.

This pandemic has forced us to see that we have a unique capability to provide humans with an essential need not just a want. I know that restaurants around the country are evolving to feed people, even when restaurants are among the suffering. My hope is that as an industry we continue to feed and support our own communities in ways that aren’t just self serving.  That we use local resources and help lift up other businesses and other people. Restaurants and the people who create and operate them are essential and I hope we can continue into the future proving that.