If I lose hope, then I won’t be able to make food and make it interesting enough for people to come back
For eight long months now, the pandemic has not only dealt a huge blow to the finances of many local restaurants, but to the patience and capacity of chefs, too. They continue to struggle to keep their businesses—and sanity—in check. I recently caught up with a small group of chef friends to find out where their heads, and the local food and beverage industry, are at.
So, how are you guys feeling?
Miko Calo (MC, Metronome): Hopeful, but also apprehensive because there’s still no definite path that we see. You can’t really plan ahead too much. I don’t even know if I’m going to do a Christmas menu.
Jack Flores (JF, Made Nice): I find myself waking up some days extremely unmotivated. And then there are days when I’m fired up and ready to go. There’s no routine. We can’t forecast properly.
Josh Boutwood (JB, The Test Kitchen, Savage): Completely different emotions every other day. Sometimes I’m disheartened, other times I come up really positive and start thinking of ways to innovate . . . We see different things every day, and we have to adjust, adapt and evolve.
(To Boutwood) How’s it like for you as a corporate chef, handling a lot of brands?
JB: Very tired. It’s like creating a new company from scratch because we have to adjust every minute detail. We have to look at our cost controls so much more than we had to in the past. It’s a headache, but it’s something we have to do. Exhaustion is a definite issue—mental, not physical.
Raul Fores (RF, Made Nice): It is not easy work, and on top of that, we now have many other things running through the back of our minds. You come in because you have to, but you have to find some middle ground that’s safe for the people around you, too.
MC: I’m hopeful because I feel like there are more people who have adjusted to the new protocols, and the safety practices have already become innate to them. People are more aware and careful. So maybe this time they’re more confident about going out and having a meal. I have to be hopeful, not just for me but for the staff and the people who need to work. If I lose hope, then I won’t be able to think and make food and make it interesting enough for people to come back. I have to make that dining experience worth it because going out is not as easy as it used to be.
JB: It has to be a remarkable meal in order for them to remember it. For us to survive the pandemic, we have to be top of mind when people dine out. We have to perform at our highest level. Even if our energy levels are low and our enthusiasm might be dwindling, we have to remind ourselves that we are at a crucial moment now and cannot fail.
What are you doing to ensure that you’re worth the trip?
JB: Being present and hands on is the most important thing. I can’t skip service anymore, whether it be in two restaurants a night. I have to participate in both. I need to have that comfort in knowing that the guests are enjoying. I have to see it with my own eyes.
RF: To come in 100 percent and try as hard as you can to have some sort of a fresh mind to make things work. That’s the reason we took out a lot of the Made Nice stuff because most of it doesn’t travel well.
The Made Nice and Mamou collaboration was born out of the pandemic. Mamou was under renovation, so to give their staff the opportunity to work, we combined our teams and concepts. We offer all the Mamou favorites with what we feel are appropriate for the times from the Made Nice menu.
MC: I knew that Metronome food would never travel well, so I started a whole new brand called Lazy Oeuf. It’s what Metronome would be if it did fast food. Plus, now I get a chance to do specials and try new things because there’s a little bit more time. We’re not as slammed as we used to be.
JB: In the beginning, I decided not to do takeout because I was on my own. None of my staff was comfortable coming in. So I did bread on the weekends. When things started to get more normal, that’s when we launched the takeout and delivery menu in Test Kitchen. Then we opened the dining. We change the menu every month now, working with whatever we can get a hold of. We also opened Chow Ciao. We knew Savage wouldn’t be able to sustain itself because wood costs so much and we need people to dine, or else we would be burning money. So we developed fried chicken and pizza, simple food that’s designed for deliveries.
What’s the best thing to come out of the pandemic?
JB: For me, that I see zero competition between restaurants. We all understand that we’re in this together. Anything that we can do to help each other is going to go so much further than it would have in the past.
RF: Seeing a lot of people cooking. There was a story I read about a Filipino in Toronto who used to work for a marketing agency and has started doing Filipino food to go. Things like that are happening here, too.
MC: There’s more access to a wider variety of food. The downside is it’s making me gain weight.
Any advice for restaurateurs and chefs who are struggling?
MC: Do whatever you can. Don’t lose hope.
RF: Try and find that pivot.
JB: What I said in previous interviews is for us to keep our heads above water. But that was months ago, and for the mom-and-pop restaurants that don’t have the knowledge in controlling, managing and balancing their books, I suggest that they assess their situation because if they continue to lose more money, they might have to call it quits already. Or else they’re going to be in a more precarious situation down the line. Cut your losses and be wise about it.
JF: It will pass eventually, and those that come out alive will come out stronger. I mean, we’re more equipped with basic hygiene now.
RF: That’s another good thing to come out of this—sanitation. It is nice to hear that there are people who weren’t looking into that before, but are now making sure that everybody is safe. INQ
Special thanks to Made Nice for hosting lunch and the discussion.