For a handful of chefs from Boston to San Francisco, the news this week that they were nominees for the prestigious James Beard “rising star” chef award came at a strange time. It’s a strange time for many people, of course, but particularly for those in the restaurant industry, which has been battered by closures amid the coronavirus crisis.
And it’s an especially precarious moment for these candidates to receive an award for an under-30 chef expected to make “significant impact in years to come.” For now and the foreseeable future, most are furloughed, hoping to go back to the kitchens where they began making their names and uncertain of what the industry in which they are “rising” will even look like.
“We want an industry to come back to,” says Irene Li, who owns Mei Mei in Boston with her siblings.
Since her restaurant closed for regular service, Li’s days have been a blur of activity, though little of it is the kind of creative Chinese-American cooking that has made her a six-time semifinalist for the award. She and her staff meet regularly on Zoom and Trello, converting the dumpling-making classes they used to offer customers to virtual ones, overseeing delivery of food to hospital workers, and drawing up plans for a pilot program to deliver groceries to them as well. “I feel like I’ve been running a tech company,” she says.
One might think that for ambitious young chefs, the coronavirus pandemic would feel like an interruption of their steady ladder-climbing. But what these chefs aspire to, it turns out, isn’t the kind of fame and success you might think: their faces on cookbooks, maybe, or restaurants bearing their names, hosting TV shows.
“I never had this idea that by 30, I’m going to have a book, by 35, I’m going to do this or that,” says Paola Velez, who was executive pastry chef at the Washington hotspot Kith and Kin, led by last year’s James Beard rising star winner Kwame Onwuachi. She has been furloughed, and she isn’t sure for how long. Meanwhile, she has been coaching people on social media about how to nurse a sourdough starter and opening up about her own anxiety.
Velez, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate who is known for supporting her staff, says her long-term goals have little to do with checking boxes — or even her own accomplishments. Getting back to normal, whatever that is and whenever it happens, will come with new mandates for chefs, she says.
“My career has always been about helping people, and making them feel safe at work,” she says. “In order to get people back to work, they have to feel like they’re going to be invested in rather than used. That’s going to guide me even more.”
Fellow finalist Gaby Maeda, who earned accolades as the chef de cuisine at the chic State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, similarly talks about her aspirations in terms of what she can do for those around her. She recalls her own early experiences as a teenage line cook, being yelled at by chefs. “I remember cooking with fear … and I knew when it was my turn, I would find a better way,” she says. “What can I say not to scare this person, but to encourage them?”
Furloughed from the popular restaurant, she has been biding her time, grateful to work when she can. State Bird had called her in earlier in the day to help pickle about 60 pounds of anchovies, which she found surprisingly therapeutic. She has been cooking in her own kitchen from cookbooks that had languished on her shelves.
In Asheville, N.C., Ashleigh Shanti, who was named to the James Beard shortlist for her work as chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, says she doesn’t see her career path changing much because of the coronavirus. “But when it comes to my intentions, I think about marginalized communities a lot more,” she says. “That’s my focus right now — how we can uplift the underdogs?”
Her restaurant has been feeding hospital workers, and the menus are only a little humbler than those she once prepared for her well-heeled clientele: A recent meal included buttered rice, brisket and roasted radishes. Closing Benne has made her realize how much more a restaurant can mean to customers than merely a place to eat, or, to its workers, a paycheck. “It’s left a huge hole,” she says. Onetime regulars have left notes on the shuttered doors, and she and her former staff have started organizing group bike rides around the city, just to get back a little bit of the camaraderie they all miss.
“Restaurants produce more than food,” she said. “They offer a sense of community. They make sure that farmers, or the people who do our floral arrangements, can feed their families. It’s put a dent in everyone’s lives.”
Velez says friends have been upset about the turnabout the virus has wrought for her. Just weeks before being laid off, she was photographed, smiling and posing with an impressive confection, on the February cover of Washingtonian magazine, in which Kith and Kin was named among the 100 Best Restaurants. “They’re like, ‘It’s so unfair!’ ” she says. “But who am I? I am the same as anyone else.” To think otherwise, she says, “would be the exact opposite of everything I stand for.”
The young chefs share many fears. They worry about the small operations — the kind that don’t get James Beard awards or much media attention — that won’t make it. “Immigrant and mom-and-pops are so important to those of us who work in food service,” says Li, who started a GoFundMe drive to help those in the Boston area. “It may be that they introduced us to a particular cuisine, or that they’re open late when our shifts are over. I’m worried they’re not going to be there.”
Others are concerned that fellow laid-off cooks and chefs might never return to kitchens, either because there won’t be opportunities or because they’re seeking a less risky path.
But they all say that their industry can emerge stronger, even if it looks far different. Better pay, better working conditions and more empathy, particularly for low-level and immigrant workers, are on all their lists.
And even if they don’t aspire to become celebrity chefs, like some of the previous winners of the award, they plan to help rebuild their industry, a kitchen at a time, with those lofty goals in mind.
“If it’s not for that, you’re just cooking,” Shanti says. “As much as I love cooking, as fulfilling as that is — it’s not enough. And anyone can do it. Just being in a restaurant means you have a platform.”
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