On a gloriously sunny spring Sunday earlier this month, all of New York simultaneously decided to go out and eat lunch. In the West Village, customers thronged outside an upscale restaurant, waiting for their takeout. In my neighborhood, an Italian spot on Broadway set up a full bar on the sidewalk. People stood within two feet of each other, talking and laughing. The bartender had a mask around his neck, corona-casual style, like a fashion accessory.
The customer in me ached to join the crowd: to talk to strangers, stand in the sun, take my mask off and sip a quarantini. I wanted to bask in that sense of community that restaurants can build and pretend that we're finally back to normal. The ex-dishwasher in me, though, felt like she was watching a horror film - you know the killer is there, but the characters are blissfully going about their business. That part of me was screaming: If these guys are this careless out here on the sidewalk in front of the customers, what's going on in the kitchen? Does the dishwasher have a mask? Is he using the spray nozzle, the super-high-powered water gun that disperses a million droplets of whatever is on the dishes all over the kitchen?
Restaurants across the country are starting to reopen - some tentatively and some, like C&C Coffee and Kitchen in Castle Rock, Colorado, with viral enthusiasm. As customers head back out to eat, most of the public discussion about safety is focusing on the front of the house - where customers sit. Some restaurants are rearranging dining rooms. A few are coming up with adorable, slightly creepy ways to enforce social distancing at tables: The Inn at Little Washington, the Washington area's only three-Michelin-starred restaurant, is planning to fill seats with mannequins. Everything will be fine, it seems, as long as patrons stay six feet apart.
But in the back of the house, the part that most customers never see, a very different conversation is taking place. Chefs and other kitchen staff are quietly raising the alarm about the prospect of returning to what once passed for normal: chaotic, overcrowded, poorly ventilated kitchens where everyone is shouting, everyone is touching multiple surfaces and nobody has time for safety precautions when the front of the house gets slammed. "We're touching food. We're in close contact. There's no social distancing," says Michelle DeChesser, 52, a 20-year kitchen veteran who has worked as a chef at upscale restaurants from Portland, Oregon, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Independent chef-owners, who work alongside their staff, are torn between giving customers something approximating a normal restaurant experience and keeping themselves and their employees safe. "It's crazy for people to think they can run old-school-style table service - and I say 'old school' meaning, like, two months ago," says Eric Rivera, 38, the chef and owner of Addo in Seattle. Like a lot of the independent chef-owners I talked to, Rivera is completely reconfiguring his restaurant, including the kitchen, to keep both the front and back of the house safe. "Our dining room now looks like a warehouse," says Rivera, who is offering only takeout and delivery for now. "We have metro shelving. It's like a grocery store."
But there's no official guidance for any of them to follow, and even less advice for how to reorganize the kitchen. At May Kaidee, a Thai restaurant in Lower Manhattan, partner Jonathan Daniel (who also goes by his Thai name, Jo Tao Wan) happened to know an epidemiologist who warned him in mid-February that the virus was beginning to spread. Since then, he's been researching on his own, sorting through vague and sometimes conflicting recommendations from trade groups and government agencies. "We're continually searching for it, but we haven't seen a wealth of advice on how to operate safely," he says. "Especially for kitchen staff."
The National Restaurant Association and various state governments are issuing general guidelines for restaurant safety. But most of what they're recommending is optional. And even when safety precautions are the law, that doesn't mean they're always followed when the kitchen gets hammered.
I learned exactly how much those "Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work" signs are worth while waiting tables at a bar and restaurant in Upstate New York in the late 1990s. Our owner was better than some, but like a lot of restaurateurs, he hated to spend money. He wouldn't even pay for minor repairs, like fixing the $1.99 seal on the bottom of the toilet that keeps it from leaking onto the floor every time you flush.
So on busy nights, here's what would happen: We would take an order, smiling brightly; run, not walk, to the kitchen or the bar; grab a mop and fight through a crowd of drunken customers waiting in line to use the bathroom and frantically mop up the dirty toilet water all over the floor; squeeze out the mop and return it; then dash back to pick up food and drink orders while cooks or bartenders screamed at us to hurry up.
If you think we had time to wash our hands along the way - or a sink that wasn't being used by someone more important, like a customer, a dishwasher or a prep cook - then you've probably never worked in a restaurant.
I actually tried, at first. The more experienced servers spent the first week watching the new girl get yelled at by everyone from customers to barbacks for being too slow. Finally, one of them took me aside and explained the iron law of restaurants: Customers don't know or care what happens in the back of the house. Customers care only about their food.
Now, one of the greatest fears among kitchen staff and owners I've spoken to is that customers will flock back to their old haunts expecting things to be the same as they were. There's incredible pressure on restaurants - from investors, from customers, from employees who've gone without wages for months, even from government - to restore business as usual. But even outdoor seating, which is supposed to be a safe summertime solution, carries risks. "We don't think it would be safe enough, even outdoors, to wait on tables," says Daniel.
Nobody at any level of government seems to have thought about what will happen behind the kitchen doors when restaurants try to fill as many seats as they can. They're going to face an impossible dilemma: Serve more customers, or serve them safely.
On Mother's Day, a Red Lobster in York, Pennsylvania,showed us the worst-case scenario when it tried to reopen for business and follow safety protocols at the same time. The floor was closed to dine-in service. Customers waited outside for takeout. Unfortunately, the combination of new operating procedures and reduced staffing due to the pandemic slowed service down a lot. After waiting for three hours, one woman stormed in to demand her money back. When the staff tried to kick her out, the situation deteriorated into a group wrestling match. Nobody's mask was covering their face; the customer wasn't wearing one at all.
Many restaurant employees thought the virus would be gone by the time they returned to work and had to deal with scenarios like this, says Vince Van Buren, 25, an assistant manager at a food delivery start-up in Los Angeles. But now they're back on the job and facing exposure constantly. "You're coming back to an entirely changed environment, where it's like, 'Hey, we can't have you out of work for this long, we need you back, but you may still get sick,' " he says. Only 35 percent of private-sector food service workers have access to company-provided health insurance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and most don't get paid sick leave.
Undocumented workers are not eligible for the federal government's massive pandemic assistance law, making it even more likely that they'll come to work sick. The Pew Research Center estimates that 11 percent of all food preparation and service workers are undocumented; among back-of-the-house workers, like barbacks, cooks and dining-room attendants, it's 16 or 17%, and for dishwashers, 19%.
There isn't much time for restaurants to figure out how to deal with these problems: We're headed for more sunny, beautiful weekends when anyone with disposable income left is going to want to spend it dining out. To meet demand safely, chef-owners are trying to come up with creative new ways of getting food to their customers.
Daniel and his partners at May Kaidee rearranged their space so one person is cooking in the kitchen and another manages takeout, delivery and prep in what used to be the dining area, with shifts spread out virtually around the clock - "until there's a vaccine widely available," he says. They're experimenting with delivery arrangements like Zoom dinner parties, where friends around the city put in orders for the same time and the restaurant arranges for synchronized, no-contact delivery so they can eat "together." They're also doing picnics where customers gathered safely outdoors drop a location pin and the restaurant delivers the food.
Many chefs have completely changed how they manage their kitchens and their employees. Rivera stops work every few hours to sanitize. Daniel sprays down everything, including shoes, which he and his partners remove before coming into the space. Nancy Batista-Caswell, 38, who owns three restaurants and a catering company in the Boston area, redid her kitchens so that every station preps, cooks and plates each dish on its own, instead of the usual line where food passes from one station to another.
Batista-Caswell sat down with her staff and came up with a time-blocking system in which groups of her employees always work the same shifts together, in isolated parts of the kitchen, so that if one person does get sick, the number of people they've contacted is limited. She's considering asking customers to answer personal questions before they come in, such as whether they've been quarantining with family. She's also thinking about setting aside times for certain age groups, like from 4 to 5 p.m. for people 55 and over. "I have one employee who plastic-wraps her cellphone and changes her gloves every hour," she says. "I'm seeing the fear that really paralyzes her significantly. So I have to take that into consideration."
But there's no easy answer for what to do about customers who come in and don't realize they're infected - or infectious - says Rashanna Newsome, an executive chef at Dumbo's, a restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi, that plans to open in the next few weeks. "You won't know," she sighed.
I love restaurants. I miss working in them, and I miss eating in them. I love restaurants so much I wrote an entire book about the ones that stayed open during wartime in Beirut and Baghdad, and what those acts of perseverance and the sense of community they created meant.
But I'm not willing to risk my life or someone else's just to satisfy my craving for eggs I didn't cook myself. Or even to satisfy the deeper hunger for human connection that restaurants, at their best, can create.
Customers won't be safe until everyone in the restaurant is safe. If that means waiting for three hours to get my food or waiting for a year to sit at a table and be served, I'm okay with that. We'll all have to learn to deal with dining out a little more slowly now. Like I tell waitstaff when they're slammed: No rush. Whenever you get a chance.
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Ciezadlo is the author of "Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War."