Marcus Samuelsson on Restaurants in 2020: Fear, Change—and Hope – WSJ

The owner and chef of Red Rooster says Covid-19 has forced a rethinking of the business. (Photo: Marcus Samuelsson helping to distribute food at his Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, part of an effort with World Central Kitchen during Covid/PACIFIC PRESS/ZUMA PRESS)

The Wall Street Journal

By Marcus Samuelsson

The owner and chef of Red Rooster says Covid-19 has forced a rethinking of the business

This year, the restaurant industry was flipped on its head. Covid-19 disrupted our way of life, throwing everyone in the supply chain—from the farmers who grow our food to the chefs who turn it into the masterful dishes that end up on our plates—into a season of disarray and fear.

Nearly 100,00 restaurants were shut down across the country, and here in my city of New York, more than 1,000 restaurants—some of which had served New Yorkers for decades—closed permanently.

The painful losses of Covid-19 also affected us restaurateurs on a personal level. My friend and colleague Floyd Cardoz was one of the first prominent chefs to pass from the virus. Countless other chefs, cooks and servers also suffered from the virus, forcing us all to come to terms with the fragility that is life, and the importance of using every day as my friend Floyd did: to make this industry, and our world, a better place.

This revelation is one of the most important and motivating outcomes of Covid-19. In New York, while restaurant owners navigated managing a restaurant during unfathomable circumstances, many also worked to serve the community. At Red Rooster, we joined with World Central Kitchen to feed everyone in need: schoolteachers, construction workers, cooks, servers, health-care workers, Harlem youth facing food insecurity, and other vulnerable communities, throughout the shutdown. What it means to be a part of and in service to your community has radically changed during this pandemic.

It has also changed how guests and restaurant workers interact with one another. The essential labor that so many diners never noticed before became visible, as did the inequalities that pervade the American food system. Patrons were forced to confront the importance and significance of restaurants in their lives, and across the nation, while leading chefs are rethinking the role of the restaurant—from what we represent in our communities to how our institutions can provide comfort and community, whether in person at a smaller capacity, or through delivery services.

For us, the future of our industry is centered on the environment and sustainability, race and identity, and human rights and dignity for all. The restaurant has long served as a place where humans from every corner of the Earth could come together to discuss such topics. This year, however, the pandemic has imposed a new framework: How do we remain a place where folks can celebrate life’s pleasures, discuss difficult issues and enjoy incredible meals, when we ourselves are struggling?

The pandemic has forced the food industry to confront key issues of racism and power, such as how immigrants and people of color are often the backbone of America’s most prominent restaurants, yet are often paid and treated inequitably. In my new book, “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food,” we share recipes that reflect a transition from pain to glory. Though African-American chefs have been underrepresented and underappreciated in food media, their recipes and skill set are deeply embedded in the fabric of American cooking. Just as there’s no American history without Black Americans, there’s no food or future without us, either.

Our ability to create flavorful, comforting food in the face of continuing injustice and global challenges demonstrates that beauty can emerge alongside pain. However, there is no need for that sort of pain and injustice to continue. As the U.S. prepares for a new administration, the onus falls upon the incoming government to lead and support an industry that has thrived through struggle, yes, but deserves financial support that allows our industry to survive, grow and innovate. A better, tastier world can exist for all of us, along with a more equitable, kinder society.

As we look to a new year, I find myself in remembrance of those we’ve lost, thankful for community and hopeful for the change that will come as a result of the hard but essential lessons that have come from such a significant year. I’m encouraged by how our society and food industry have come together to build better, more equitable food systems and practices. Many of us have demanded more respect for farmers, particularly farmers of color, and we’ve spoken in support of restaurants that are safer, more just environments for women, queer people and people of color.

I’ve watched as major food corporations work to diversify their staff and create opportunities for new voices to lead in the industry. I’ve seen longtime chefs create culinary masterpieces amid unpredictable circumstances, bringing joy and full stomachs to their patrons. I’ve watched restaurants, including family-owned businesses and Michelin-starred restaurants, do everything in their power to serve thoughtful, hearty food to people who need meals. I’ve also seen our own industry organize through the Independent Restaurant Coalition to fight for the things our businesses need to survive from our government.

We, like so many others in this country, are demanding change and support. While it’s clear that some lawmakers are indeed listening, there is still much ground-level work to be done, and I’m hopeful that industry leaders, young activists and the patrons we love serving in our restaurants will continue pursuing this mission of change.

These national efforts lead me to believe that not only will our industry survive the impact of this monumental year, but we will be a better, more connected and more supportive group of culinary leaders. In the new year and years to follow, I foresee an industry that is led by women and people of color, and that amplifies the culinary expertise of the many cultures that have influenced American cuisine as we know it.

I hope to see more respect for everyone involved in the restaurant industry, from those working the dishwashers, to the farmers who lovingly grow and harvest our food, to the chefs and line cooks—many of whom increasingly struggle with mental-health challenges from the stressors of restaurant work—who are responsible for feeding millions of Americans each and every day. I look forward to a vibrant and thriving industry that takes nothing, especially the people we serve, for granted.

This year has challenged and changed us deeply, but it’s also exposed our most human capacity: to rise, with gumption, change and hope.

Related:

Marcus Samuelsson Named Guest Editor of Bon Appétit Magazine

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