Home LifestyleFood & Drink How the Pandemic Inspired a Kitchen-Share Scene Among Out-of-Work Chefs

How the Pandemic Inspired a Kitchen-Share Scene Among Out-of-Work Chefs

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Six years ago, Katy McNulty, the chef and owner of The Pixie and the Scout, a catering company, raised $40,000 through Kickstarter to create her dream kitchen in a warehouse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

This summer and fall, she could finally pay it forward.

As restaurants closed because of the pandemic, many of her chef friends lost their jobs. So, down in business herself, she opened the doors of her sustainably designed kitchen to them. One day a laid-off bartender came in to make mixers she was trying to sell as a new venture. Things grew from there.

Now, four or five colleagues are sharing her space every month. As fall turns to winter, the requests are increasing. “More restaurants are closing all the time,” Ms. McNulty said. “This seems to be a growing thing, not a shrinking thing.”

Ms. McNulty is part of an expanding consortium of chefs, restaurateurs and caterers who are sharing their industrial kitchens with those who have lost their own. Some are doing it informally. Others have begun official guest programs, featuring different chefs in rotation.

“People in our industry can’t work from home,” said Camilla Marcus, whose restaurant, West~bourne, closed in early September. New York City law dictates that anyone selling food items (beyond baked goods and snack mixes) must have a licensed kitchen, separate from a home kitchen. There are all sorts of rules about equipment, shelf space and piping.

When West~bourne closed, Ms. Marcus still had catering orders she needed to prepare, including 150 breakfast boxes for a corporate client that wanted them delivered to employees’ homes.

Because a commercial kitchen was required, she turned to friends in the industry and asked to work in theirs when they were closed. Nate Adler from Gertie, a Jewish-American restaurant, was one of them. “I don’t want to say who else has let us into their kitchens, because I don’t know if they are supposed to do that, and I don’t want to get them in trouble,” she said. “I will say a lot of people are being very open and kind.”

Connie Chung, a chef who established her reputation working for Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad, experienced similar generosity.

Her new fast casual Chinese restaurant, Milu, was slated to open in Manhattan in June. But it was only a couple of weeks into construction when the pandemic hit, and operations kept getting pushed back. It finally opened last month.

This summer, Ms. Chung said she was going stir crazy over the challenge of developing a menu in her apartment. “A home stove and a home oven are nothing compared to a commercial kitchen,” she said. “When you are recipe testing, using the proper equipment saves you so much time.”

Fortunately, Daniel Eddy, the owner of Winner, a bakery and restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn, invited her to participate in his Friends & Family Meals, a weekly guest series. There, over two weeklong stints, she was able to perfect several dishes: her mandarin duck and pork and fennel won tons.

It also helped her cultivate new customers. “There are definitely people who have come to Milu and said, ‘I tried this at the Winner pop-up and wanted to try other things,’” Ms. Chung said. On the flip side, Mr. Eddy appreciates the new customers walking into his bakery because of cooks like Ms. Chung and Shirwin Burrowes, a former chef at Uncle Boons and known for his jerk pork over coconut rice, which he made recently at Winner.

Eli Sussman, a chef who owned the Middle Eastern restaurant Samesa in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his brother Max Sussman, had to close it down in September. Since then, he has been doing guest appearances too. His most recent was early this month at Niche Niche, a wine-focused restaurant in the West Village. The gigs have helped him maintain his skills and stay relevant in the food scene, he said.

But like most chefs, Mr. Sussman is very particular about his kitchen setup and still yearns for what he had before. “We built everything from scratch,” he said. “We created a space exactly how we wanted it, where everything was ours.”

Now, Ariel Arce, the owner of Niche Niche, is considering keeping her guest chef program indefinitely. “I am thinking about turning this restaurant into a full-time space for chefs not just who lost their restaurants but also for those who have been working for five to 10 years and have a really good idea and a platform to show it, she said. “Like an incubator.”

Mr. Adler from Gertie is hopeful that enabling other chefs to use his kitchen will help offset his costs. “We are paying rent on the space all the time, so if there is someone who wants to work Mondays and Tuesday, when we aren’t open, or Wednesday or Thursday nights when we aren’t busy, something is better than nothing.”

While Ms. McNulty hasn’t yet charged people for the use of her catering kitchen — besides a few colleagues who have made contributions — she is considering doing so in the future. “It is definitely something we are seriously thinking about for 2021, how our lease can be shared across a few different businesses and what that would look like,” she said. “It’s the sharing economy.”

Claire Sprouse, the owner of Hunky Dory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, lets visiting chefs, who are there every Wednesday, keep all the proceeds from their food sales (many donate a portion to charity). But she collects money from cocktails, her real moneymaker.

She started doing this during the pandemic when she had to lay off most of her staff but was required to serve food in order to sell drinks. The decision has helped increase foot traffic, she said. “Our neighborhood doesn’t have tourists, it’s a lot of regulars,” she explained. “As people are staying closer to home and not exploring other parts of the city, they are excited to have new opportunities to try different food.”

The special menu sells out every Wednesday, said Ms. Sprouse, who has suspended the visiting chef program for a few weeks this month to construct tents for the winter weather. But then, the guest chefs will return. “It’s this very cool win, win, win.”

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