Chicago Fine Dining on the struggles and achievements of the COVID-19 pandemic – Low Calorie Diets Tips

On February 28, 2022, the Chicago Department of Public Health lifted all restrictions on in-person dining and ended both the mask requirement and proof of COVID-19 vaccination requirements. To mark the two-year anniversary of the pandemic, I interviewed six accomplished chefs and restaurateurs from five renowned Chicago restaurants to learn about their struggles and triumphs, and how the impact of the closure has transformed the hospitality industry.

During the first wave of social distancing restrictions in March and April 2020, Chicago restaurants were forced to close their doors. Many are cutting their staff significantly to keep the lights going. Avec West Loop executive chef Perry Hendrix said the restaurant has introduced a to-go concept called Avec Rotisserie.

“Our workforce grew from over thirty to four,” said Hendrix. “First night we closed with $6,000 in sales, all takeout. It was a very steep learning curve.”

After the first few months of the pandemic, Hendrix transitioned from executive chef at Avec to culinary director of One Off Hospitality Group – of which Avec is a part – with double James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Kahan. During the pandemic, Hendrix, Kahan and the team at One Off experimented with different revenue streams, including starting new to-go programs, hosting virtual pizza parties, teaching cooking classes, shipping food packages nationwide, hosting private supper clubs in the suburbs and turning restaurants dining rooms into specialty ingredient markets. Some of these programs have stood the test of time and are still around today.

Hendrix emphasized the importance of adaptability to the survival of their restaurants.

“The phrase that stuck in my mind was, ‘Push until it pops, then we pan,'” Hendrix said.

Not all restaurants have had the same success. Avec River North executive chef Paul Oh was chef at the since-closed Pacific Standard Time when the pandemic hit. Though meal package programs and takeout orders helped weather the storm, Oh said it was a temporary fix to a “gash”.

On a typical Saturday night, Pacific Standard Time could bring in as much as $50,000, but when revenue came primarily from food packages, that number dwindled. Even though the restaurant was constantly working to develop concepts to fill the void left by pre-COVID food, the chefs had a mixed mix of success and too many failures to sustain the upkeep in the long run.

Noah and Cara Sandoval, executive chef and general manager, power couple behind two-Michelin-starred restaurant Oriole and acclaimed Japanese bar Kumiko, faced similar challenges in different circumstances.

The onset of the pandemic coincided with Orioles plan to renovate and expand their premises; The Sandoval wanted to create a dining experience where guests could walk through the restaurant and interact with the kitchen staff in the back-of-house and the service staff in front of the house.

The pandemic provided an opportunity to begin renovations, and the Oriole team soon launched a takeout program, “Oriole at Home,” to generate revenue. Chef Noah Sandoval showcased his East Coast roots through his twists on classic pulled pork sandwiches and wowed with his signature pasta dish and muffalettas – a New Orleans-style sandwich. However, despite their popularity, the team had to shut down operations after a few months.

“It wasn’t worth it at the end of the day,” said Chef Sandoval. “Me and Cara would have had to work a lot, make no money and maybe put a few hundred dollars into the restaurant. It did not fit.”

Though restaurateurs quickly turned to keep their businesses afloat, translating gourmet experiences into to-go boxes has not been an easy task. Taylor Ploshekanski, executive chef at Avondale’s Wherewithall, said certain dishes and ingredients are particularly difficult to fit into a to-go format given the sensitivity to time and temperature.

“We’ve had big problems during the pandemic — smaller mom and pop places that don’t offer takeout and have higher standards for fine dining,” Ploshekanski said. “It’s much harder for us to turn the food and the concept into something that’s good to travel.”

Often these challenges went beyond the food.

“What we’re selling is more of a dining experience,” said Chris Jung, chef de cuisine at Japanese-American West Loop restaurant Momotaro. “It’s the whole ambience; It’s the sense of community that these restaurants bring along with the entertainment when going out.”

As if struggles with new take-home and delivery programs weren’t enough, supply chain issues and shortages threatened what remained of the business. Jung said complex labor issues and strict COVID-19 restrictions overseas are putting a strain on sourcing international ingredients like Vietnamese king prawns and non-perishable specialties like vinegar, miso and panko breadcrumbs.

At Wherewithall, ingredients became more expensive across the board as small businesses and farmers hiked prices to make up for lost revenue. For Wherewithall, that means raising the price of their four-course tasting menu beyond affordability — the experience went from $65 per person to $85 per person in 2021. Even latex gloves, which help maintain food safety during the pandemic are essential have increased dramatically in price. The Sandoval’s also felt firsthand the obstacles of renovating their restaurant with an unreliable supply chain.

As restaurants reopened for indoor use in the spring and summer of 2021, a labor shortage hit the industry hard. The kitchens could not find enough staff to keep up with the increasing number of guests. Many former chefs had left the industry, notoriously known for low wages and lack of job security, during the pandemic. Restaurants have reopened, but the pre-pandemic workforce has not returned with them.

“We were very busy, but initially had staffing issues,” Jung said. “From dishwashers to chefs to waiters, we were always missing a person or two.”

While it’s difficult to call any of the pandemic a “silver lining,” the past two years have highlighted the inequalities in the hospitality industry and inspired restaurants to find better ways forward. Staff wages were rising at many restaurants – well above pre-pandemic levels – and Oh said there had been a shift in the way kitchen staff viewed the industry.

“The gastronomy is not an employee. It’s a blue collar job. They are boots on the ground. They sweat their ass off for eight to 12 hours – even 16 hours just to get that extra paycheck. But now people are getting paid more,” Oh said.

“The way people are treated is also completely different now. I’m starting to see more respect for each other,” Oh added.

The pandemic has forced restaurateurs and chefs to evolve and be creative in the face of almost insurmountable challenges.

“I wouldn’t wish the pandemic on anyone, but it has highlighted some of our strengths and how we can leverage them going forward,” Hendrix said.

“You have to be constantly willing to change and adapt and try new things right now,” Ploshehanski said. “If not, you’ll stand in a corner when it’s that hard.”

One thing is certain: Chicago’s gourmet restaurant industry will feel the effects of the pandemic for years to come. Oh, to put it simply, “Things have changed.”

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