These days, the concept of a typical workday or new normal is hard to digest in an industry that is ruled by the ever-changing dynamics brought on by Covid-19. Flexibility, adaptability, resilience: These concepts are not new to restaurants and those who work in them, but they are quickly becoming the difference makers in a world that is constantly fluctuating. Follow along for a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to run a kitchen during a pandemic.
By the Hour
7 a.m. By the time most Washingtonians hit the snooze button once (or twice), Michael Habtemariam is already en route to Roaming Rooster. A co-owner of the popular fried chicken shop that’s recently gone viral, he’s the first to arrive at the Northeast restaurant, picking up freshly baked bread for their signature sandwiches on his way in each morning. Once at the restaurant, he shifts his attention to inventory, making sure his team is well-stocked with necessary items and supplies to ensure a smooth day ahead.
8 a.m. Chef Jeeraporn Poksubthong of newly opened Baan Siam also has an early start to her day. By 8 a.m., she’s making the rounds at markets with her mother, shopping for the day’s supplies. After gathering provisions, she heads to pick up some staff members for a carpool to her downtown restaurant.
9 a.m. As his staff starts to arrive, Habtemariam settles into his daily tasks. Pre-Covid, Roaming Rooster operated four food trucks in addition to the restaurant, and he would assist his team with getting materials packed and the trucks ready to hit the road. Now, most of his mornings are spent placing inventory orders, buying equipment, calling contractors and working on the restaurant’s expansion plan. With a new location on U Street and forthcoming food hall Western Market in the works – both open later this year – Habtemariam has no shortage of phone calls and email correspondence with vendors and suppliers.
9:30 a.m. In Dupont Circle, Anju Executive Chef Angel Barreto begins his day by checking in with his prep crew. He makes sure they are all set before he begins setting up his own station – something he and a sous chef have taken on during Covid-19 – before shifting gears to focus on specialty projects such as preparing panna cotta, pound cake and other desserts. Meanwhile, Poksubthong arrives at Mount Vernon Triangle-based Baan Siam with her staff and they begin their prep work for evening service. “Lunches are slow right now with everyone working from home, so we have time to get ready,” she says.
10 a.m. Nina May Co-owner and Executive Chef Colin McClimans begins his day with administrative work – routine it may seem, but routine it is not. During this time, he parses through any news and updates from the mayor’s office regarding regulations and recommendations for restaurants, from business loan packages to new sanitation practices. “So much did change from what the government wanted us to do and what the city wanted us to do,” McClimans says. “A lot of my time in the morning is spent trying to digest that information.”
Noon. After spending a couple of hours on office work, McClimans redirects his attention to seating configurations – both indoor and outdoor. He now finds himself at the daily mercy of the weather gods and must decide how best to reorganize his Logan Circle-based space to maintain social distancing while also keeping guests comfortable and ensuring a welcoming aesthetic. He spends time getting staff up to speed on new protocols, seating arrangements and menu changes as well as retraining the team members he’s been able to hire back since the start of the pandemic. A lot of time is also spent on researching and ordering takeout containers to ensure a seamless experience for those who prefer to dine at home. Barreto continues to prep for the day at Anju. In the beginning months of the pandemic, he spent a lot of time adjusting and streamlining his menu to better suit carryout – something Anju had not offered prior to the pandemic. “That was a whole other type of service we had to facilitate, and we didn’t know how it was going to take off,” Barreto notes. Orders skyrocketed the first week, and as the takeout menu gained traction, he again had to adjust and figure out how best to scale operations while maintaining the same level of quality. Now that the takeout operation is running smoothly, Barreto has shifted his daytime focus to finetuning new recipes and working on a collaboration with local bakery O Bread, whose products were part of Anju’s Bakers Against Racism offerings in June and will become a regular fixture on the new brunch menu.
2 p.m. From dining room to kitchen, McClimans pivots to spend time with his cooks to focus on menu development. Nina May highlights seasonal and hyperlocal ingredients in its dishes, and part of the challenge Covid posed was how to preserve ingredients that couldn’t be used right away. “We didn’t want to lose those seasonal items,” McClimans says. “We didn’t want to feel like we had taken a gap in a season, especially being a seasonal restaurant.” The team spends time brainstorming and coming up with ideas for the everchanging menu before service begins.
3:30 p.m. Over in Dupont Circle, Barreto’s staff starts to arrive. He gives them time and space to get grounded and ready for the evening’s service and then begins making the rounds, checking on each team member.
4 p.m. To-go prep begins at Anju with ssam boards, salad and bibimbap setups underway.
5 p.m. Dinner service begins at Anju, Baan Siam and Nina May. Anju recently opened its patio with timed seatings, and Barreto and his team concurrently take care of diners while filling takeout orders in large numbers. He floats between running his salad station throughout the night and ensuring the kitchen is running smoothly. At Baan Siam, Poksubthong and her team brace themselves for the bustling dinner crowd. “The dinner orders start right at 5 p.m. and don’t slow down until 9 p.m.,” she says. Across town, depending on the day and how early he arrives, Habtemariam may head home. However, if he’s short-staffed or the restaurant is busy, he stays longer to help out – which includes working the line – sometimes remaining until 10 p.m. or later.
9 p.m. Dinner service ends at Baan Siam. The team at Anju welcomes the last timed seating on its patio.
10 p.m. Service ends at Nina May and McClimans sits down with his business partner at the end of the night to review marketing strategies, meet with staff members and brainstorm different scenarios on how the team can stay ahead of the curve.
10:30 p.m. Barreto wraps up his day at Anju following the last seating. After cleaning up post-service and dropping off some staff from her carpool, Poksubthong is back home.
Beyond The Day-to-Day
Putting the finishing touches on a dish, getting the restaurant space organized, executing service – it’s easy to focus on the tangible tasks. But what is often not seen by diners and restaurant guests are the emotional and hidden challenges running a kitchen during Covid-19 can bring. For Barreto, one of the hardest trials posed by the pandemic was the uncertainty of his staff’s future and the prospect of letting some team members go.
“Since opening, that’s probably been the most difficult things for me: having to lay off people who have become family to me,” he notes. “I work with them on a day-to-day basis. I care about these people, so that was very, very difficult.”
Opening a restaurant under normal circumstances comes with its own set of challenges and stress points, but opening during a pandemic? That’s a whole different ball game. With staff self-isolating during the beginning weeks of quarantine, Poksubthong and a skeleton crew were working hard to get Baan Siam up and running.
“We couldn’t get contractors,” she says. “We couldn’t get permits. So many companies we normally use to set up service in restaurants went on hiatus. It was a very challenging way to open a restaurant. Then all these new rules and regulations kept coming out, and we had to constantly change our service model to fit with them. We still have to keep updating our information every day to make sure we are current.”
As restaurants try to move forward, McClimans is optimistic that fellow restaurateurs and chefs will continue to innovate and expand their offerings, pointing to a variety of pop-ups that have recently taken over the city. However, in order for restaurants to succeed, guests must also do their part.
“Chefs, restaurant owners [and other] people that work in this industry – I think there’s a long, uphill battle we will have to fight, and you can’t do that without the support of the guests,” he says.
Despite challenging times, these chefs are still finding the silver lining Covid-19 has dealt them. For Barreto, the pandemic offered more time to spend with family and staff, as well as an opportunity for personal reflection.
It was an “opportunity to look into myself and see the person and chef I want to be, and the person I want to be inside and outside of work,” he says.
McClimans also relished the extra time off. In his 15-year career working in the industry, he has never had back-to-back days off and was able to take advantage of the slower pace to spend more time with family.
For Habtemariam, it was seeing the community come together.
“The community was supporting Black-owned restaurants, and we definitely had so many people come into our restaurant,” he notes. “We are so grateful for that.”
Poksubthong also reflects on her supportive customer base that came from former restaurant Baan Thai.
“This hasn’t been an easy year so far,” she says. “But even after everything that happened – the virus, the delays, getting looted – seeing our customers and staff again made it worth it. All the old regulars from Baan Thai came back and supported us, and the new neighborhood has been very welcoming. It has felt so good to see people coming back again and again. It’s what keeps me going.”
Anju: 1805 18th St. NW, DC; www.anjurestaurant.com
Baan Siam: 425 I St. NW, DC; www.baansiamdc.com
Nina May: 1337 11th St NW, DC; www.ninamaydc.com
Roaming Rooster: 3176 Bladensburg Rd. NE, DC; www.roamingroosterdc.com
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