In October, the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn hosted a free Zoom conference entitled “COVID and Restaurants: Where do we go from here?”
Most such productions are organized around an educational theme and delivered in relative calm. This one was different. At this event, there was a distinct sense of urgency.
A COVID-era discussion of food, menus, seating protocols and the existential threat to restaurant venues simply cannot be an abstract conversation; lives and livelihoods are at stake. Amid onerous lockdowns, chefs, servers, maître d’s and the public all live in fear — whether it’s the prospect of losing a restaurant reservation or losing one’s job.
As the debate swirls over lockdowns and reopenings, we must open our eyes. Anyone who is immersed in the restaurant world during this harsh and unforgiving pandemic knows there are visceral layers of loneliness and dread embedded in the debate. And when we open our eyes, we see that long-dedicated men and women in the business are living on the edge, emotionally, creatively and, of course, financially. Our nation’s culinary leaders are shrouded in distress, isolation and a crippling sense of looming failure that moves like an advancing fog.
I am one of those leaders. I trade in food and teach future chefs. Recently, I looked around EDWINS, my restaurant and leadership institute, which teaches culinary arts to men and women returning home from prison. I could not help but think that closing will ruin our lives. We are a restaurant. We are also a school.
From the inception of this project, my goal was to offer hope and a way to achieve it. I, too, received a second chance, and while on probation I found a mentor who taught me the fundamentals of the restaurant industry. Those lessons saved my life. Fighting for equal footing when you have a criminal record is not easy, mentally or in the job market. But offering some hope and a pathway to achievement has helped many.
For that reason, we remain steadfastly open and doing business. Of course, the pandemic poses risks. But it is possible to keep guests and our team safe and continue doing business. In fact, since March, we have had zero reported cases of COVID-19 in our organization. Meanwhile, the challenges and escalating problems for those in poverty are impossible to ignore.
Given the nature of the lockdown debate, it can be hard to convey this to others, but for us, the mantra “We can’t close” is not an irresponsible gesture but rather an expression of responsibility from everyone in a leadership position serving others. We have taken steps to mitigate the COVID risk. From air-purification systems, masks, taking temperatures of staff to increased hygiene, we have put the safety of our staff, students and guests first.
We are ultimately human. For many, this opportunity for a second chance is an impossible ambition come true. Keeping our doors open is a burden we cannot give up. Our fine students constantly plead: “I just got out after 20 years, and this is all I have. It’s where I belong.” “I’ve been sober for three months, and I’m on the course to getting my son back.” “I’m done with the streets.”
These are powerful narratives. And they’re right: For many of them, closing means the end of an opportunity to excel in culinary arts and makes going back to the streets an unfortunate option to consider. We stay open to be an exemplary catalyst for change in one’s life.
I’ve gone so far as opening a new restaurant in the height of the pandemic simply because we need more space to conduct our classes and do so safely. Some may say staying open is dangerous, but I argue the opposite: Closing is dangerous. Indeed, we simply cannot close — for the safety of our neighborhoods, our families and our finest aspirations.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Brandon Chostrowski is a civil society fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Photo by Anthony Racano/iStock