People are still soliciting chefs to cater private parties, putting them in harm's way and endangering the community.

By Naomi Tomky
March 26, 2020
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It’s illegal to allow dogs inside restaurants in Seattle, but there are a few spots that blatantly flaunt the rules, making it known they are dog-friendly and simply eating the cost of any fines they get. It’s adorable, and a heart-warming example of when it’s okay to break the rules.

Asking your favorite chef to come cook for a private party while everyone is supposed to be socially distancing, however, isn’t cute at all. It’s stupid, dangerous, and a flagrant example of how people believe money exempts them from rules. And, as is so often the case in such thingsit puts the chef in harm’s way.

Александра Вишнева / Adobe Stock

“Jess* wants to have a couple of girls over Thursday night to celebrate one of their birthdays,” said the text that chef Eric Rivera of Seattle’s Addo received over the weekend, asking if he would come and cook for it. At the time, Washington had about 2,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and about 100 deaths; it was about to be declared a major disaster area by the President. Everyone had been recommended to avoid groups and stay at home (though the order to do so by law was not yet declared). Rivera said he received another call from someone else about it, too. Another food writer said she had seen posts about underground and speakeasy dinners, though they were all (smartly) removed fairly quickly.

But a pandemic is not the time for private cheffing. It’s a time to make a sourdough starter, enjoy the creative ways chefs are doing take-out and delivery, and hunker down with as many beans as you can find before the other hoarders get them. It is not the time to buy your way around shelter-in-place orders or even just the humanitarian guidance to stay away from other people. Every case of COVID-19 pushes hospitals further to the edge of collapse and endangers more of our health care workers. You’re not being asked to go hungry in a foxhole; all you need to do is to prepare and eat your meals with only your immediate family unit.

Under normal circumstances, Rivera, who specializes in creative experiences like his interactive “Oregon Trail” dinners, and a 20-course journey through Washington’s history called Silva, happily does house calls. But right now, he’s running a take-out and delivery service selling bowls, meal kits, and pantry items. His restaurant is one of the few that not only hasn’t struggled, but has added staff. Still, his response to the request to cook for a party had to do less with business and more with life.

“No. This is totally irresponsible,” he replied. The customer admitted he was right, but that wasn’t the point, he says. “I hate that people consistently treat us like the help.”

Beyond the question of if they should be having the party (they shouldn’t), by dangling a job in front of a chef at a time when such things are increasingly scarce, it puts chefs in a position to choose between their livelihoods and possibly their lives—and the lives of others. “I'm a small business,” said Rivera. “If I get sick, my entire business is fucked over your special night.”

Rivera’s clients aren’t the only people in the food world trying to find a way around the rules. Also over the weekend, Beer Business Daily reported that “Neo-speakeasies” were already popping up, including a sports bar inviting guests in three days a week, saying they were not public gatherings but “private fundraisers.” The Guardian reported on places around the world where clubs and bars flouted the laws to hold gatherings until shut down by police. And the latest case of COVID-19 out of Kentucky was from someone attending a “coronavirus party.” But the difference is that, in most of these cases, the attendees are choosing to go to the party.

But with the restaurant industry collapsing and few employees having health care coverage even before that, chefs and cooks are uniquely at risk, both more likely to need the money and to fare poorly, should they get sick.

The hosts, the people with the money, will likely have access to the best care. Asymptomatic celebrities, for example, are getting tested while health care workers struggling to breathe can’t. “People who are in a position to hire a private chef need to take the blinders off and should look at other ways they can support people,” said Rivera. Rather than “trying to replicate one-percenter life experiences.”

“I appreciate people wanting to support,” said Rivera, charitably. “But they need to think of ways that goes beyond just benefitting themselves.”

Should anyone have the spare money and willingness to gather in groups and potentially be exposed to the virus, there are plenty of places that could use the volunteers and donations. In the meantime, the least people can do is spend their food budget in ways that support chefs and restaurants—by ordering take-out or delivery and tipping big.

*Name has been changed.