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As Restaurants Prepare for Winter Outdoor Dining, Convincing Customers Remains a Challenge

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As more states are allowing the hospitality business to reopen in varying capacities, restaurants, particularly those in cooler climates, are hastily prepping for a winter al fresco. Heat lamps are selling out and restaurants are attempting to build structures like insulated bubbles, all while encouraging customers to layer up under parkas and blankets. But all these preparations may be for nought if people aren’t convinced that they want to eat outside. To fill seats, restaurants must at least figure out this basic-but-important challenge in appealing to diners: keeping the food warm.

Lester Gouvia, owner of Norma G’s in Detroit, recently made this point in the online publication Crain’s Detroit, saying, “I have to be concerned that if that space isn’t heated well enough, that food is going to go cold very quickly, and that’s not the experience I want for our customer, and I don’t think a customer wants to pay for that experience.” As restaurants continue to struggle, the reality of cold food has become a pressing concern.

The unpredictability of the weather has always been an issue for restaurants that offer outdoor dining, regardless of the season. Many a night have I run under an awning and watched rain soak my dinner as I wait for a freak storm to pass. But in previous years, that was always a minor personal calculation to make for the enjoyment of a summer breeze — if it wasn’t nice out, I could always sit inside. Now, the stakes are higher. Restaurants and workers are trying to make up for time and money lost at the beginning of the pandemic, as rents and mortgages must be met, and with social-distancing protocols, there are only so many tables they can fill. According to the Washington Post, “Restaurateurs are expected to lose $240 million this year.” No one can afford to give up a table, even when it’s surrounded by feet of snow.

In areas where indoor dining is available, people are reluctant to take advantage of the cover and space. “People just don’t want to sit inside that much,” said Mindy Friedler, co-owner of Fiya, a restaurant with a twenty table patio, in Chicago. The wariness comes with good reason; according to a recent study, adults who contracted COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant in the preceding weeks. The study did not differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining, though the CDC says indoor dining makes for a higher risk of COVID-19 spread.

Restaurants have typically used space heaters to extend the life of their outdoor patios. The heaters, depending on density of the space, can keep both customers and food warm in slightly chilly weather. Friedler said one issue with keeping up the quality of dining outdoors is that, with more demand, heaters are becoming harder to find. And while ensuring customers are comfortable and are being served warm food is a priority, she’s also concerned about staff. “I can’t expect my staff to bundle up and run out there,” she said. She’s working on ways to make sure people are comfortable outside for as long as possible, and has thought about changing how service is done so food is delivered quickly. But if you’re worried about your food getting cold? “You just got to eat fast.”

Juanma Calderon, co-owner of Celeste in Somerville, Massachusetts, recognizes that hastily scarfing down your meal can greatly detract from the joy and purpose of dining out. He brought up an article in Boston Magazine in which writer Scott Kearnan implored, “If you would have braved the freezing cold for a Patriots game, you should do it to save local restaurants, too.” Calderon, recognizing it as a clever comparison, still argues that “[at a football game] I’m drinking beers and eating hot dogs. It’s not the same if you go out for a romantic or business dinner.” At Celeste, they’ve put out candles and heaters on the outdoor patio, but as it gets colder, it’s likely diners are just going to have to move inside, where the restaurant has expanded into an upstairs space for better distancing. That, and Celeste is bracing for more takeout and delivery orders.

As someone who avoids football games for precisely the reasons Calderon outlines (along with…every other reason), the idea of eating outside as the temperatures dip is, forgive me, chilling. Obviously, diners have gladly adapted to many of the conditions — whether it’s spaced-out tables or trying to pull up their masks any time a server comes over — in order to support their favorite restaurants In These Times. And in the summer, if you let yourself forget about the pandemic for a second, it might even be relaxing to eat out. But once it’s cold out, there’s really no way to pretend that this is anything close to replicating what has historically made dining out enjoyable. Outdoor heaters have dwindling returns with every gust of icy wind. There’s no such thing as a parka for your steak. And a candle on the table might actually make things worse, by suggesting the presence of warmth without giving any. Dining out risks becoming something to be endured, bundled up and hunched over, rather than enjoyed,

The struggle to make outdoor dining bearable is more proof of the limits of the half-measures taken by our government to protect restaurants throughout the pandemic. Paycheck Protection Program loans were paltry, and another stimulus bill isn’t coming any time soon. There has been no cancellation of rent or mortgages. So restaurants have to rely on the support of the individual, who now must brave increasingly uncomfortable, unenjoyable, and risky conditions in order to eat out. And diners will do it, because everyone wants their favorite restaurants to survive. Get ready to eat fast. Or maybe stick to takeout with a big tip.

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From the Strategist: The 8 (Handsome) Knives a Butcher Uses in Her Kitchen

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As a fourth-generation butcher, I have been around knives my whole life — probably much sooner than I should have been, honestly. The knives my grandpa and his father and brother used were about utility and utility only: How many beef carcasses could they break down before needing to sharpen them? How many times could they sharpen them before they were too toothpick-thin to be useful? If the handle got bloody, could you still grip it? Did the weight make it easy to change position? I don’t think I ever once heard them talk about the beauty of a knife.

When I moved to New York in 2004, I immediately started working in kitchens to pay my way through school. One of the first things I noticed was how the cooks I worked with were so proud of their knives. They’d unfurl their knife rolls with such reverence and sharpen them on a whetstone so tenderly that I sometimes had to look away. My first knife roll, meanwhile, was filled with a random assortment of the cheapest knives I could find at the Bed Bath & Beyond on 6th Avenue. While I quickly realized that all knives are not created equal, it wasn’t until I transferred from kitchen work to full-time butchering in 2009 that the importance of a good knife really sunk in. You only have one cutting arm, so your knife becomes an extension of that arm, and because of that, you grow to worship your knives.

As of about a year and a half ago, I stepped away from butchering to launch a sausage company called Seemore Meats & Veggies (named after my grandpa, Seymour). By then I had amassed an arsenal of butchery knives, but many of them were not really made for use in non-commercial kitchens. The knives I use most at home land squarely in between those beloved by my butcher relatives and those worshipped by my chef colleagues. First and foremost, they’re functional — they hold an edge for a long time and are easy to resharpen, clean, and hold. But — and don’t tell Grandpa Seymour this — they’re also beautiful to look at. Below, the eight knives I rely on in my own kitchen.


My chefs knife and boning knife

Chef’s knife.

For my beater knives — or the ones I use regularly and roughly — I really love Victorinox. My scabbard at work has always been filled with the brand’s knives because they tend to last the longest and keep a sharp edge, even when being used daily on heavy projects. The blades are stainless steel, which make them easy to maintain, and I love the rosewood handle for grip comfort — it’s far preferable to a plastic handle for long hours of cutting, and the rosewood tends to keep grip even when bloody. You may not be breaking down full beef carcasses in your home kitchen (or maybe you are? What do I know!), but you still want knives that don’t need to be sharpened every time you break a chicken. To me, Victorinox’s price point is also very fair for what they offer, which is important in an everyday knife.


My paring knife

A paring knife on white background.

After using such enormous knives every day at work for so long, I get a weird thrill every time I get to use a tiny paring knife in my own kitchen. I inherited (perhaps accidentally) this paring knife from a kitchen I worked in years ago. It sharpens easily on a diamond steel and the super-sharp tip makes it a great tool for things like coring fruit and digging the eyes out of potatoes. I like the light weight of it and the handle is grippy enough that I feel comfortable using it to peel vegetables without cutting my finger off.


My bread knife

Jagged bread knife with wooden handle.

For absolutely no good reason, I held off on buying a bread knife until around the time I started Seemore. I felt a weird prejudice against them because they are made to do one very specific thing. But now that I have one, I will never look back. Bread is my favorite food and I had no idea how badly I was disrespecting it all these years. I like this one by Tojiro because it’s lightweight and sharp enough to slice through even the crustiest bread without squashing it, and the handle is long enough to tackle large loaves. I admittedly don’t have anything to compare it to, but it has changed my life!


My vegetable knife

Cleaver-style knife with a black handle.

This knife goes by a few names — some people call it a vegetable knife or vegetable cleaver, others a Chinese chef’s knife, and sometimes it’s referred to as a chukabocko. I don’t cook much meat at home, so it’s probably my most-used knife. Although it’s shaped similarly to a meat cleaver, it’s a totally different tool. The blade on this is much thinner, allowing for more delicate slices. The knife is also much lighter than a meat cleaver, making quick, agile slicing easy-breezy. If you were to use this instead of a traditional cleaver to wedge through bone, it would chip, and you also wouldn’t be doing your cutting arm any favors because the light weight doesn’t give you much leverage. I mostly use this for dicing vegetables, but it also works really well for thinly slicing boneless meat. The blade is almost totally straight but curves slightly, which is perfect for the rocking motion of chopping, and the tip is slightly weighted to encourage that rhythm as well. This Shun model is the primo version of this type of knife, but I never regret investing in the brand’s knives. I wouldn’t sharpen it (or any Shun knife) at home unless you’re experienced with a whetstone, but the company does offer a free sharpening service.


My cleaver

Cleaver with arched top on a white background.

Despite working in butchery, I rarely ever used a cleaver in professional kitchens because we usually had a bandsaw (and I am, by nature, lazy). Both back then and now in my home kitchen, the thing I use a cleaver most for is to pound out meat until it’s super thin. Unlike meat mallets, which tend to chew meat up into mush, a cleaver has enough of a smooth surface area and heft to do a lot of flattening with minimal effort. I love this F. Dick cleaver for its astonishing, almost comical heft, its long handle, and its ability to take a beating. It’s perfect for pounding out chicken cutlets or schnitzel: I line whatever I’m pounding with a sheet of plastic and then use the flat side of the cleaver to take out all of my anger on the meat. It works equally well for smashing a bunch of boiled potatoes at once before you roast them.


My mezzaluna

Arch-shaped mezzaluna knife with wooden handles on both ends.

Not to be a jerk, but I got my favorite mezzaluna at a vintage market in Sicily. I admittedly bought the knife because I thought it looked extremely cool, but it’s since become one of my favorite tools. I like using it so much that I bought this backup mezzaluna from Williams Sonoma, which I feel less nervous about beating up. I cook with a lot of herbs at home and I love using my mezzaluna to chop big piles of them. It’s also great for roughly chopping up lots of roasted meat, like brisket or carnitas for tacos, or quickly dicing onions and garlic, or making a rough board pesto. This one’s smooth wooden handles are comfortable and it’s lightweight but still has enough heft to spare your arms some strain. The size is ideal, too — big enough to cover a good amount of surface area, but compact enough to do a good, concentrated chop.


My pocket knife

Folded pocket knife with wooden handle.

Years ago, I went to a Vice x Matty Matheson dinner that I had cut a bunch of meat for, and they gave out these Opinel No. 8 pocket knives as a gift at the end of the night. I kept it in my work pants at all times from then on and was always shocked at how often the freebie came in handy for small everyday tasks. Nine years later, it’s still sharp, and I still use it all the time for all kinds of little tasks in my kitchen, from breaking down boxes, to cutting twine for roasts, to opening annoying packaging, to digging into my drain to see why it’s moving so slowly. It’s also the cutest knife I own.

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I Could Never Get Grandma’s Thanksgiving Dressing Quite Right—Until She Was Gone

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My grandmother was born during the Depression. The middle child of three sisters, she moved from Louisiana to California when she was three years old, and to her, the only important things about a meal were to make plenty of food and put plenty of heat in it. The rest didn’t matter much.

Her daughter (my mom) was always a very obedient child, but one of her small, silent rebellions was against this way of cooking: She started reading food magazines—including this one—as soon as she found out they existed, fell in love with then unfamiliar ingredients and spices, and passed down to her daughter (me) a love of food, cooking, and experimentation. And while I grew up enjoying Grandma’s gumbo and jambalaya just fine, the first time my mom and I made gumbo together, I couldn’t get over how delicious it was. We later realized that ours tasted so much better in part because Grandma always added about four times the required amount of liquid to the roux—and used water instead of stock.

But there was one recipe of my grandmother’s that I prized above all others. One thing my mom and I could never make even half as well as she could. And that was her famous cornbread dressing. This big golden crunchy casserole has always been the essence of Thanksgiving for me, far more than the turkey or the pies. Full of cornbread and spicy sausage, it engages all of the senses. Like everything born in New Orleans, it starts with onions and garlic and green bell peppers and celery, and as it cooks you can smell those flavors all coming together with the cayenne and the meat. When you take it out of the oven, it bubbles and crackles, its top a bronze crust, its inside deep yellow.

After I went to college, I spent a number of Novembers away from home, and the absence of that dressing was always the hardest thing for me. Thanksgiving didn’t feel like Thanksgiving without it. There was stuffing—that word I learned to use around white people—on other tables, but even though I was told they were the same thing, just different words, stuffing always seemed bland and soggy in comparison to the dressing I was used to.

The easiest holiday away was the time I went to an Indian friend’s house. Her parents got a turkey, but most of the dishes, like the lamb curry and aloo gobi and an enormous platter of samosas, had nothing to do with what my family was eating 3,000 miles away. I could enjoy the food for what it was and not compare.

Once I was back home in California, my mom and I took over the bulk of the holiday cooking, but Grandma still made the dressing for as long as she could manage to chop all of the vegetables and make the cornbread. I was in my mid-20s and fresh out of law school—the phase where I thought I knew better than everyone else in my family. They had not done the reading, you see, but I had. Fresh was always better than canned or frozen or from a box; doing it the hard way was superior to the easy way; the fancy sausage should replace the kind my grandmother had always used.

Those were the years when Thanksgiving felt like a race, and one I had to win—to make all the food, to make it my way, to try out all of the recipes in this magazine and so many others, to brine and spatchcock and bacon-wrap the turkey, to show how much I knew and could do, always more and better than the year before. But Grandma was suspicious of my need to improve upon everything—and she was probably right to be.

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Eater Talks | What Happens to Outdoor Dining in Winter?

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October 29 — 1:30 p.m. ET / 12:30 p.m. CT

When it comes to living with the coronavirus, one piece of advice is unequivocally clear: Outside is best. What’s far less clear is how restaurants and bars, currently relying heavily on the rare bright spot that is outdoor dining, will make that work as temperatures dip.

On Thursday, October 29, at 1:30 p.m. ET, Eater daily editor Madeleine Davies will moderate a panel featuring editors Monica Burton, Brenna Houck, and Ashok Selvam to reflect on what the upcoming season looks like for restaurants — as they combat not only bad weather but also the lack of holiday parties, big catering orders, and other business boons that the winter typically brings — and what it means for diners.

The conversation and Q+A will take place over Zoom. Register below to secure a spot, receive a Zoom link prior to the event, and add the event to your calendar.

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