Let Me Be Honest: Advice from a Chef for Restaurant Owners Who Are Scared

Chef Jason Vincent offers counsel and solidarity to a restaurant owner facing an uncertain future in her tourist-heavy town.

Jason Vincent On Staying Calm During Coronavirus
Photo: Jacob Lund / Alamy Stock Photo

Jason Vincent is a 2013 Food & Wine Best New Chef, chef and co-owner of Giant and Chef's Special Cocktail Bar in Chicago. He doesn't claim to have all of the answers, but he's one of the best human beings we know and he'll be sharing his wisdom in this new column Let Me Be Honest. Please send him your questions via kat.kinsman@foodandwine.com.

Q: I own a restaurant, and it’s my life’s work. My husband (the chef, I do the wine and the books) and I put every single cent we made into it, along with money from family and friends who believed in our dream. Our staff is family to us, and we want to take care of them in sickness and in health. But we’re all so scared right now. With coronavirus warnings, people just aren’t coming in as much now, and we are in a town that relies on festivals and tourists. If they don’t come because things are canceled or they are scared, we’re done for. How do we take care of the wellbeing (financial, physical, mental, everything) of our team while we are so scared ourselves? — Terrified in a Tourist Town

Editor's note: Since Jason wrote this on Friday, the state of Illinois has ordered all bars and restaurants to close for dine-in service from the end of business today until March 30. Please follow our constantly updated coverage at The F&W Pro Guide to Coronavirus: What Restaurants Should Know.

A: I’m writing this between two meetings. The first meeting was standard. Friday at noon we meet at my restaurant Giant to taste through ideas that the kitchen has put together over the course of the week. Four of the people in the kitchen have a few minutes to present something to the group of us and we all talk about it. It’s fun. It’s the one meeting that I really look forward to. Not everything is perfect but it’s a chance to get really deep into the weeds about process. Ideally, this will spark different ideas, tangential and parallel, that will eventually become something that we are proud of and confident enough to serve to guests. It’s both invigorating and frustrating in the best possible way.

My next meeting is a few hours away. Long, amorphous hours. We have one bullet point for this meeting with tens of X’s to calculate: What is a restaurant? Pretty recently some of the best chefs in the world started asking that question because they wanted to “deconstruct” the entire dining experience including where it would take place. Now we (totally not the best chefs in the world) are asking the same question of ourselves because we need to find a way forward for our very-much-in-place, brick-and-mortar restaurants.

We are asking ourselves what our responsibility is to the communities that are our guests. These are people who—through thick and thin—have trusted us to make their night better. They trust us to prepare their food. Think about how intimate that is. Most of the time they’ve never even met all of the people who have had their gloved, washed, and sanitized hands in what they are eating. That’s incredible. We owe them. But, in this rapidly-changing situation, and when our political leaders are borrowing on credibility that they never had, is our responsibility better realized by staying open or are we endangering everyone and thus we should close?

It’s a big thought, and one that I am too naïve to contemplate accurately here but I will say that my gut tells me the best thing to do is close until the spread of the virus is contained. My gut also has shit for brains, so, welcome to my neurosis.

At this point (and everything could change at a moment's notice) we are seeing restaurants around the country prepare to do their entire menu to go. We are seeing some advertise how clean they are. Some, in Seattle and New Rochelle, are closed indefinitely.

If I was a better capitalist I would be terrified. Instead, I’m trying to be a good human and it’s paralyzing.

Over the past month we have seen the spread of COVID-19 from the epicenter in Wuhan Province to nearly every populated region in the world. To be honest we didn’t think much about it even when cases in Europe were popping up and stories of people being quarantined in Alaska on their way back from Asia were circulating. Personally, I’m disappointed in myself for not being empathetic to the point of being cautious, which as "nervous Jew," is my brand.

As a community it’s a little different. I’m not disappointed in us—I’m grossed out. Everyone who I have talked to is legitimately concerned (terrified) for their staff and for their businesses. I’m not holding my breath that everyone will close. I’m not even sure what is next for us. I am neither expecting the government to make it easy for industry workers to take time off or to curb taxes in the interim. But, shouldn’t they? Shouldn’t we be seeing a well thought out plan to take care of the elderly and infirm? Shouldn’t we care more about people than the bottom line? Or is the bottom line more important because it will help the staff, and in turn, the people that they need to take care of?

I feel grossed out that through all of this I’m still stuck on emails from two reporters who complained that their publishers no longer pays for their meals and (I guess) I’m supposed to? No part of my brain is not grossing me out right now.

I’m sorry to not have better advice for anyone, but if it helps, I can offer solidarity. Thinking through things is important and my shrink scolds me when I beat myself up for not having every answer immediately, so it’s prescribed.

Please get your information from credible sources. Support your local Asian groceries and Chinatown. Stay calm and come up with an actionable plan in case you have to close. Figure out the logistics of collecting unemployment now so that you can have that information for your staff if need be. These are big and scary thoughts, but it’s much better to know what you’ll do in a worst case scenario while still hoping for the best. Always look at the dining room as half-full, not half-empty. Be safe and take care of each other.

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