Cooking your way through a crisis

Keep calm and cook on

click to enlarge Chef Peter in exile: teaching the grandkids how to make risotto via Skype.
Chef Peter in exile: teaching the grandkids how to make risotto via Skype.
There's nothing like a pandemic to make us realize how fragile we are. It is quite unsettling to realize how unprepared our governing bodies and health care services were as they try to manage this crisis. We look to them for guidance and the best advice they are able to offer is to wash our hands and keep away from others.

I'm watching this debacle unfold through the eyes of a restaurant worker. Our restaurant Nonesuch had to cancel all its reservations and close the dining room. In an attempt to provide continued employment for its workers (who are at the bottom of the pay scale and without benefits), Nonesuch is scrambling to launch an a la carte take-out menu.

My mentor, Michelin Award-winning chef Iliana Regan of Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago, has a history of bringing innovative ideas and unconventional solutions to the table. She had to close her restaurant, but to try to continue to provide ongoing income for her staff, Chef Regan gave them the opportunity to develop daily menus for pickup and delivery service, with all profits going to the team. Chef Regan's spouse is immuno-compromised and her mother is going through chemotherapy so she has chosen to isolate herself to avoid bringing home the virus.

Chef Regan explains: "I'm going to step aside and let my kitchen crew develop a curbside pickup/delivery service. Each day they will create a simple menu, which we will announce the day before on Instagram and our email blast. I'm going to buy their first round of supplies. Then each day all the proceeds will go back into their pop-up for more supplies, and all the profit they will split amongst themselves to keep some money in their pockets. They'll get to learn how to run their business for a bit and that's pretty cool too. My job will be to promote them, keep the lights on, and be their cheerleader, but that's it. At this time, I care most about them and feeding people."

Another Michelin award-winning chef, Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, Illinois, has taken her response to the pandemic in a different direction. In addition to offering curbside pickup and delivery from her shuttered restaurant, she has opened a Cooking Help Hotline. According to Stegner: "Our goal is to help you plan a nutritious, balanced meal with what you have at home and make it possible for you to be comfortable cooking for you and your family. Examples of questions we expect are how to properly roast a chicken; how to cook dried beans; what to make with root vegetables; how to make a potato gratin; and what to do with your leftovers, etc." Her Cooking Help Hotline is open daily 2-4 p.m. CDT. She can be reached at 847-920-8437.

Massimo Bottura is the chef/owner of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena, Italy. It is considered by some to be the world's best restaurant. He has been profiled on Netflix's "Chef's Table." While Osteria Francescana is in shutdown, Chef Bottura is sequestering himself at home with his family. At the suggestion of his daughter, Alexa, he has been broadcasting home cooking lessons he calls "Kitchen Quarantine" to 1.1 million followers on his Instagram channel. The nightly cooking series, which airs at 5 p.m. CDT is truly a family affair. Filmed by Alexa in the family kitchen, Bottura shows how to prepare basic home recipes with the help of his wife, his son and the family dog.

Renowned Southern chef Sean Brock, also profiled on Netflix's "Chef's Table," is proactively managing his self-imposed exile by offering virtual cooking classes from his home. "We work together to decide what you want to learn, then we cook it together via Facetime. Fun! Every penny goes towards paying my team's wages during this extremely challenging and difficult time." He can be contacted at:

As was the case following the 9/11 attacks, life as we knew it will never be quite the same. We've learned that we can't rely on the government or Big Pharma to keep us safe and make us well. When we empower others, we lose control of our own destiny. This pandemic may well be a death blow to independent restaurants. Restaurant chains with deep pockets will adapt to changes and persist, but small independent restaurants, already operating on a small profit margin, may not be able to recover. As a society that has forgotten how to cook, our reliance on processed convenience foods and restaurant foods produced on a large scale in a commissary will increase. The more we relinquish control of how our food is prepared, the more vulnerable we become. The rise in chronic diseases closely parallels the industrialization of our food supply. Antibiotics and additives in our foods have depleted our gut microbiome and weakened our immune response.

Mike Bagale, the former executive chef of Chicago's Alinea writes: "During these crazy times I will continue to focus on Food as Medicine and push my beliefs to help change the thought process of the individuals that inhabit this beautiful planet. Through these tough times, myself and my team will continue to prepare a new cuisine centered in the belief that food is medicine. It's increasingly evident that the way we eat, the way we treat each other, and the way we take care of our planet is as important as ever. Did you know that eating improperly, and digesting processed foods significantly impacts your brain health? Imagine what that does to your decision-making process. Fermenting wellness-supporting ingredients produces surprisingly delicious and beautiful results. Live longer. Eat better."

From Peter Glatz: I hope this finds you all well. I am on Day 11 of Exile in OKC. One of my coworkers has tested positive for Corona virus so I am sequestered in my apartment for awhile. Blessed with abundant free time, I am able to assess what really matters and reconnect with loved ones.

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