Open Notes

Cooking for Others

“The work itself — cooking delicious, interesting food and cleaning up after cooking it — still feels as fresh and honest and immensely satisfying as ever.”

Gabrielle Hamilton

What will happen to restaurants?

Here in California restaurants closed, opened for outdoor dining, now may close again. It’s a slow-moving crisis. It resonates with me because I used to cook in restaurants in New York. I am the home cook around here. In a small way, I replicate my restaurant experience every time I pull a pan into a burner or chop vegetables the way I was taught by a prep chef in New York. Love delivered on a plate is nightly magic. Restaurants do it at scale.

The quote from the New York Times article above is from an essay by Gabrielle Hamilton that connected with many eaters and cooks because it pulled the curtain back, exposing the back of the house (as the kitchen and working parts of a restaurant are known). For the first time, we who ate in restaurants had a sense of what it really took to get that meal on the table in front of us. We saw that the people involved went far beyond our server, back into the kitchen, far beyond into a supply chain that extended to distant cities. They begin to appreciate the razor-thin margins of running a restaurant, just how much time, personnel, and energy it costs to make the meals that seemed to effortlessly appear before us.

Once food to go was coffee in a cardboard cup from a New York diner, tacos from a vendor in downtown LA, Thai from a food truck parked in San Francisco’s Mission — portable and impromptu. Now this casual mode is becoming permanent. In many cities, we’re ordering out and picking up like we mean it, trying to support the neighborhood restaurants that we realize now are a center of the community, a place to connect. So much more than a place simply to get a bite to eat.

Many of us are cooking for our families now, a lot more than we used to. We have our own supply chain issues. Trying to find napkins. Trying to find fresh eggs. Trying to buy flour. We see how important it is to be the person who feeds the other people in our circle. There’s not as much frozen food to get by on now. We have to cook fresh. We have to buy in small batches. We have to plan out the week as best we can to get that food on the table. It can be challenging. Because of the love involved in serving other people, we find ourselves up to the task. Sometimes we surprise ourselves with how good are we are at it. (Dover sole with breading and herbs.) Sometimes we fail miserably. (Breading falls off Dover sole, fish falls apart.)

The whole point for many of us in eating is eating out. What happens when we can’t? Chefs who presented a high-end sit-down dining experience consider how to box up their food so it can travel home on the subway. Restaurant owners provide YouTube videos to explain how to heat the meals to go. I’ve waited on line, wearing a mask, to pick up a pizza and pasta from the place across the street. Supporting this local place is important to us. A tall, white facade, it covers the corner, the focus of the neighborhood. How long will it stand?