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Staring at Food

By Troy Johnson

Gerry Torres sat on the concrete outside his restaurant, City Tacos, a face mask dangling from his ear, exhaustion in his voice. He pointed his phone’s camera at some tacos on his lap—the meal he’s giving away free to anyone who shows up this week (his restaurants are otherwise closed). Tommy Nguyen of Cross Street Chicken & Beer had WIFI issues, but when we finally connected he showed us his spicy fried chicken sandwich and his hand sanitizer station. Priscilla Curiel, of San Ysidro’s Tuetano Taqueria, sat alone in her empty restaurant. She’s often cooking by herself in her kitchen, her children with her. She’s shortened her hours due to lack of demand, even though GQ just named Tuetano one of the best new restaurants in the country.

It’s easier to see them now. In the beginning it was heartbreaking. I’ve been interviewing restaurateurs and broadcasting their stories nearly every day since March 17, when Gavin Newsom ordered all California restaurants shut down their dining rooms (allowed to offer takeout and delivery only). Every night, I open my Instagram feed to them, their stories, and their food.

Most of them appear on my screen the same way—mask precariously afixed, voices as muffled as hope, yet still echoing in what is now their empty restaurant. Most are sweating. Behind them, a skeleton crew of cooks also wear masks, laboring over stoves, cutting various foods with their gloved hands.

Some offer curbside pickup. Others dispense the takeout at the front door. At some you can still walk in, with tape marking the social-distance six feet. At their hostess stands, once adorned with flowers or a ceramic cat waving hello, there are now giant bottles of hand sanitizer and signs telling people to stay distant, be cool. Where customers used to sit are now stacks of to-go boxes and containers and cutlery. And every time I ask the same question: “How are you doing?” They all answer just about the same way—a deep breath, a slight hesitation as they consider how much to share, how much grief to spill.

Many restaurants have closed. The fine dining ones, especially, are not designed for the current takeout or delivery. For the weeks after the stimulus package was announced, I asked if they’d received money. The co-owner of Dumpling Inn said no. Many others also said no. So I stopped asking. Then news broke that national chains, like Ruth’s Chris and Shake Shack, had received money designed for small businesses (both eventually returned the money).  

Grief exhaustion is real. I know it. They know it. Humans can only take so many crushing, emotional stories until the brain starts to avoid gloom at all costs. Restaurants have always been the relief—from the daily must-dos, grievances, inconveniences, sublimations, fatigues, injustices. And now the ones who’ve entertained us—given us a warm, welcome place to break bread so that we don’t break—are the ones who need the consoling, the help, the reassurances.

I started the video series with longer, heartfelt interviews, and I watched the numbers of viewers drop. And so now I just have the restaurateurs show viewers the food.

I have the Flavors of East Africa do closeups of their glistening, spicy jerk chicken (available for takeout here), the chef of Campfire zoom in on their coconut rice that’s part of their Caribbean dinner special (available for takeout here). Dario Gallo, owner of Civico 1845, who recently opened a fine dining spot Il Dandy with two Michelin-star chefs, gets the camera close to a lasagna (available for takeout here). Louisiana Purchase comes on screen looking professional, chef “Q” and bartender Rob on their lush patio looking like an episode of “Between Two Ferns.” They show me their fried chicken and ribeye steak with spicy crawfish cream sauce (available for takeout here). New vegetarian restaurant The Plot shows me their meatless loaf, made with mushrooms and beets (available for takeout here). Puesto’s chef shows us how to make rajas chicken on his stovetop (available for takeout here).

Puesto's home taco kit

The home taco kit from Puesto 

We all just stare at food together. It’s odd. And comforting, nearly ASMR. We get to see inside these kitchens, see the human faces of the chefs and cooks and owners and workers still on the front lines, still trying to help their community and save not only their own livelihoods, but also their employees’. We stare at mac n cheese together, pining for a time when we can sit in those restaurants again, eat it there and not be terrified.

Some have wondered if it’s irresponsible. Should we all just be cooking at home and not promoting that people get takeout and delivery? I’m not a virologist. I don’t trust my advice on health matters, and neither should you. So I searched out this interview with Paula Cannon, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. “Yeah, you can [order restaurant takeout] in a way that I think is completely safe….” she said. “The chances of anything being on those food containers is vanishingly small.”

She advised to call ahead, ask about the restaurant’s takeout policy and safety precautions, pay over the phone or computer, ideally do curbside pickup, and advised against standing in a crowded line situation. But, in the end, she surmised, “If you want to feel better you can zap your takeout food in the microwave oven or 400 [degree] oven… you will absolutely wipe out any virus that probably wasn’t there in the first place.”

Hearing that, I was convinced. We can occasionally order takeout to help these small restaurant owners—our neighbors and a vital part of what makes a city special—through this pandemic. (Personally, I avoid delivery, because I feel that puts a driver at risk, but again, don’t follow my advice on health protocols).

Fact is, California has deemed restaurants as essential businesses for good reason (we need to guarantee the security of the national food system during a pandemic), I don’t feel reckless in helping our locals sell jerk chicken.

What has struck me most from this process is how compelled most of them are go give. Whether it’s City Tacos’ free weekly meals, or Philip Esteban donating a meal for every one ordered through his Instagram (@craftmealssd), or Common Stock offering free meals to anyone in the industry who’s lost their job in the pandemic.

They are helping others while desperately needing help themselves. The whole industry is tending to each other’s wounds.

The good news is that many restaurants report this takeout and delivery is saving them. It’s keeping the lights on so that, hopefully, one day, they can bring their employees and people back. For now, until better news comes or until the system breaks, that’s all we can do.

We can stare at food.

Flavors of Africa’s June Owino and his jerk chicken

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