What do you do when the world is turned upside down and the community you serve can no longer walk through your doors? You cook. You recede back to the lab, or the kitchen, and tinker.
Yet, local chefs are doing more than cooking. Rather than succumb to the disastrous circumstances caused by Covid-19, a number of people you know best for crafting delicious meals are still doing just that, plus a whole lot more.
“It’s almost too crazy to wrap our heads around,” says Andrew Dana, co-owner and founder of Call Your Mother Deli and Timber Pizza Company. “It’s probably good we can’t sit back and say, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening?’ We’re just compartmentalizing. How do we get this much amount in our bank account to pay our staff? It’s been batshit crazy, but we haven’t been able to dwell on it. We’re just being positive and staying positive.”
Positivity is great, but restaurants need help and are dealing with logistical problems on several levels. Even with this truth hovering over their respective futures, local eateries are grinding to maintain D.C.’s treasured sense of community, whether cooking meals for frontline workers and people in need, adapting their spaces into makeshift grocery markets, or by granting patrons a dose of normalcy.
Open for Business. Dana and his team at Call Your Mother not only offer deliveries and curbside pick-up from their revered Park View location, but also opted to open a new Capitol Hill spot as well, despite limitations and fears caused by the pandemic. The decision was simple: The building was ready, and they had the capacity and are operating with a “safety first” mindset. So why not?
“It sort of came together in a week,” Dana explains. “We’re having these Zoom calls with managers and trying to come up with creative ways to make money so we can support people. We just slowly came to the realization that we could make more bagels. The people that live over there know how it works, we’re not reinventing the wheel. And the opportunity to do something fun and positive in this time, we were ready to jump on that, and give a glimmer of good news. ”
The feedback from Capitol Hill residents is overwhelmingly positive, despite the deviation from a normal Call Your Mother experience. Another restaurateur who opened doors post-Covid is chef Christian Irabién, with his pop-up Muchas Gracias in Forest Hills. On the heels of establishing an entirely different concept weeks before, Irabién and his team switched up their plans with support from the braintrust behind Comet Ping Pong, and transitioned a “sensory dining experience” to taco platters intended to feed entire families.
“Every person we knew who had worked with us or purveyors or farms, everyone was finding themselves in a giant bubble of uncertainty,” Irabién says. “That lit a fire under us to open the doors [and go] back to what we know how to do.”
What Irabién knows how to do is serve the community, which extends far past fans of his food. Since inception, Muchas Gracias has partnered with Tables Without Borders and Friends and Family Meal in an effort to do more than feed. The pop-up’s website also houses a living guide for immigrants in D.C. who may be facing hardships such as furlough, which includes a how-to Medium article penned by Irabién.
“[That’s] the mission of Muchas Gracias: to support the Latin American community, a giant portion of which is undocumented,” he says. “This community already has a lot less access. There’s language barriers and trust issues, particular[ly] for the undocumented faction of the community. So the messaging is: We’re open to responding and providing food to our neighbors. We can support them in several ways.”
Adapt & Support. New establishments aren’t the only spots responsible for fresh ways to connect in the city. Adam Greenberg’s Coconut Club, known for its tropical menu items and airy storefront, has undergone several evolutions since mid-March. While you can still dig on spam fried rice and grab a to-go cocktail, Greenberg has also tried his best to give people comfort food, regardless of cuisine.
“There’s no time to have an ego or get stuck in your ways,” Greenberg says. “Because of our social media presence and who we are, we just want to feed the public. I don’t give a shit [as to what it is]. Every single week, something new is coming and we’re trying to stay ahead of it.”
Some of the new items offered by Greenberg’s skeleton crew in April included chicken and eggplant Parmesan, Passover meals and lobster roll kits. Aside from its food, Coconut Club has also developed a makeshift market within their walls open Wednesday through Friday in hopes of helping people buy essentials without venturing to empty-shelved, long-lined grocery stores. The restaurant also stocks plants from Salt & Sundry and cookies from Whisked! on a weekly basis.
“I saw on Facebook people couldn’t find chicken,” he says. “That’s how the market started. We have all the staples at this point, and people can chime in and ask us to order specific things.”
Muchas Gracias has adopted the market mentality too, allowing people to nab Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) grocery packs. But, unlike Coconut Club, you can’t physically shop around.
“The big idea behind the market is our hope to provide CSA boxes for our neighborhoods,” Irabién says. “The market items are things people were trying to get a hold of in supermarkets that they couldn’t get. If we have them on hand, we offer it.”
Feeding Those in Need. Ensuring paying customers have food options is obvious, but supplying those in need or on the frontline has also proved a major focus these past two months. Whether through partnering with José Andrés’ emergency feeding nonprofit World Central Kitchen (WCK) or participating in Erik Bruner-Yang’s Power of 10 Initiative, establishments from fine dining to fast casual are exploring ways to help people eat delicious meals.
“Fast casual restaurants are designed to serve low-cost healthy meals at mass scale,” says Sahil Rahman, RASA co-owner. “Throughout the partnership [with WCK] we’ve created over 10,000 meals already.”
Rahman and partner Rahul Vinod decided to remain open to employ as many workers as possible. The duo also provides free meals for people on the frontline, 18-and-under children and for their employees, including those who aren’t currently working.
In addition to their preliminary work with WCK, in mid-April RASA partnered with the Vernon Davis Foundation to raise more than $30,000 toward the initial goal of providing 5,000 more meals and in hopes of extending their offer to other community members, including restaurant and retail workers, and more.
“When the pandemic hit home, and the mayor announced D.C. schools would be closed, both of us, without a thought, considered the kids who go to school to get food,” Vinod says. “The least we could do was offer free meals to children. With regards to the medical workers, these people are putting their lives on the line.”
The sentiment is echoed by Drink Company’s Beverage Director Paul Taylor, who’s putting his love of sandwiches to work with the Get a Hero Be a Hero pop-up run out of Shaw’s Columbia Room cocktail bar. Taylor had previously sought a location for a cocktail and sandwich spot, but figured now was a good time to use his passion for hoagies and subs to help others.
“During this time of changed lifestyles, I know we wanted to be more essential,” Taylor says. “We want to give back more. [For those] not having access to good food that nourishes you and gives you an escape, we wanted to give back to our community. We decided to put my love of sandwiches to work.”
The concept is simple: For every sandwich the pop-up sells, another is donated to an area hospital. Taylor says it’s hard to give a daily average on sandwiches made due to delivery fluctuation, but that they once made 200 in a day, including donations.
“It definitely takes all of us to come together to get everything done here,” he says. “It’s a very small crew. I’m here five days a week and I’m the one making the sandwiches. Thirty minutes before we got on the phone, I made 50 sandwiches for [a] Washington medical center. It’s myself and four other people.”
Banding Together Locally & Nationally. Kwame Onwuachi, of the temporarily closed Kith/Kin, is also working with WCK on a daily basis in an effort to serve the less fortunate, but instead of D.C., he’s cooking for people in New York City’s Bronx, where he grew up.
“I was asked to come help, so I decided to come,” Onwuachi says over the phone. “The Bronx is overlooked. It’s one of the hardest hit communities in the world. I’m advocating remotely, but I thought I should mobilize my talents to further expand what they were doing at these restaurants.”
No local chef other than Andrés has been as publicly active in advocating for the industry than Onwuachi, who has written essays, gone on cable news and participated in several social media Q&As during the quarantine. With the platform and following he’s amassed in the past few years, the chef says it felt natural to step up.
“It wasn’t a role I aspired to have,” he says. “I was asked about topics I felt passionate about. I’m in it and I’m living it. It happened organically. When you have a platform, you have to use it for something.”
Onwuachi mentions revisions to the Payroll Protection Program and tax incentives as ways to preserve restaurants as occupancy slowly climbs from zero toward normal. In the meantime, owners and chefs will have to band together as a congregation.
“I talk to them regularly,” Onwuachi says of his D.C. contemporaries. “They’re my community, so we definitely try to help each other out. I think that’s what’s beautiful about D.C. – it’s such a tightly knit community and you can tell that we care about each other and the well-being of the restaurant industry.”
From Onwuachi’s public appearances to Greenberg and Irabién’s efforts to provide resources for restaurant workers, countless chefs are stepping up to provide relief. Until local governments announce safe plans for reopening and the federal government provides more clarity in its attempts to help economically, the best area chefs can do is keep cooking for their city and stay connected with one another.
“My attitude for this is: We’re either all f–ked or we’re not,” Greenberg says. “I’m going to come [in] and bust my ass, or they’re going to come evict me. The stuff that I can control and worry about, that’s what I focus on. I love to cook. It’s what I love to do. It’s always been a part of me; it’s who I am.”
For more information about these chefs and how their restaurants are helping, visit:
Call Your Mother Deli: 3301 Georgia Ave. NW, DC & 701 8th St. SE, DC; www.callyourmotherdeli.com
Coconut Club: 540 Penn St. NE, DC; www.hellococonutclub.com
Get a Hero Be a Hero: 124 Blagden Alley NW, DC; www.getaherobeahero.com
Muchas Gracias: 5029 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.muchasgraciasdc.com
Kith/Kin: Follow Kwame Onwuachi on Instagram @chefkwameonwuachi.
RASA: 1247 First St. SE, DC; www.rasagrill.com
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