My Restaurant, My Rules, and Yes, That Includes Proof of Vaccination
My restaurant Musi opened in February 2019 on a residential corner in South Philadelphia, and had been shut down since March 2020. I don't have to tell you why. When we tentatively reopened our doors, we put our fine-dining menu on hold. I converted my restaurant into a takeout operation that centered on a locally and sustainably sourced cheesesteak, the Frizwit. It was originally a sandwich I served for pop-up experiences going back to 2015, and I have now been selling the Frizwit out of Musi's space for a year, as a way for our 30-seat, poorly-ventilated space to function without indoor dining.
Not too long ago, the time came to consider what a reopening might mean. Philadelphia was starting to open up and restaurant patrons were starting to feel comfortable with the notion of dining indoors and with each other again. We made the decision to host a couple dozen guests at Musi—friends and family, invited privately—to see what a fine-dining service would look like in these new times. I would require proof of vaccination to sit indoors. Again, friends and family, unmasked, and a small dining room. No one had to be there, and no one would be eating that night for caloric survival. They were coming for a taste of the old times, to enjoy the dishes that wedged Musi into their hearts—such as silk chili bowties, beef heart tartare, mushrooms decorated with heritage-grain rice crisps, and cardamom-scented malabi.
Word got out that I had required proof of vaccination, a decision I made on the heels of NYC's Estela announcing that this would be their policy moving forward. I was met with overwhelming support. Previous guests and devout fans of my cooking reached out publicly and privately, virtually waving their vaccination cards at me asking for a seat.
Of course, there were the freedom-thumping trolls and bots who wielded the term "medical segregation." But of the five voices screaming this at me only one was a real person, a high school classmate who had become a fellow cheesesteak slinger. We reconnected over Facebook when he reached out asking to pick my brain about cheesesteak egg rolls, a menu special he was working on.
I had never been to his shop, and he had never been to Musi. He expressed great desire to make it in but was never able to do so as a result of the demands of marriage, fatherhood, and small business ownership. We talked about craft and sourcing, though from markedly different approaches. My notion of scratch cooking comes from impeccable sourcing of non-industrial raw materials. His was unfrozen ingredients when possible. We were both working to pay our rents, our healthcare, our employee salaries, and hope to save some money for a vacation and/or a medical disaster. There was a philosophical divide, but we are both Americans.
Given our differing notions on sourcing, it came as little surprise that his views on vaccination, masking, and that package were the opposite of mine. I could glean his politics from his Facebook posts. What was shocking was the way he exposed himself all over my wall, comparing masking children to muzzling them and suggesting that my vaccination policy was step one of two in herding his family onto an East-bound cattle car.
But what is rational are his anxieties, the ones that have him fending for himself, his family, and his business in an environment of rampant individualism. I have those same anxieties. Once again, our approaches diverged.
He embraced individualism and railed against my perceived affront to his freedom. Of course, he could simply continue to not be a patron of my restaurant. I, on the other hand, have embraced collectivism—the idea that we're all in this together. It's not just why I'm a fan everyone getting the vaccine, but also everyone getting healthcare, of reforming the for-profit prison system to end mass incarceration, of equal rights for my trans and queer siblings, and welcoming immigrants and refugees as if they were my own great-grandparents, escaping the pogroms of Europe, not to mention the cattle cars. Yes, it is all connected.
Had my Facebook friend been vaccinated, and gotten a babysitter, and received an invitation to come to that friends and family at Musi he would have been sat down to a menu on which I wrote, "The world was scary before–sick, demented, horrific, twisted, and demonic. It's not different now, just maybe a tiny bit more obvious to a few more people."
Had he continued in the vein of respectful discourse, free from jingoistic vitriol, we might have talked about why our approaches differed. I understand his desire is to convert food to cash with minimal emphasis on the food and maximum emphasis on the cash. That is the individualist's way, without regard for the sustainability of the economy or the environment. To me, the use of industrial ingredients poisons one's family and guests and his approach offers no attempt to remedy, let alone fix this predicament.
I would have enjoyed the chance to further explain my approach to food to him. It is one that places the health and welfare of the farmers, butchers, and delivery drivers first and expects—by design—the cash to follow. I would have liked to share the idea that my business is an ingredient in this non-industrial economy, a web of relationships amongst people whose success I depend upon and who depend upon me for theirs.
I call this approach "Relationship Cuisine" and I'd like the opportunity to help him join. But the conversation about relationship cuisine cannot be had in the absence of decency, the ability to listen and the belief that in these times, we must use the best of our arsenal to defeat an unseen enemy together. Currently, our arsenal includes the vaccine and as chefs and restaurateurs, we can also exercise our freedom to adhere to using this arsenal in order to keep our guests, our networks and ourselves as safe as possible.