Chef Vanessa Lanier of Second Harvest’s Providence shares her experiences as a chef and on the frontlines at HEARD Collaborative Café, opened in the wake of COVID-19 to provide a daily meal for displaced hospitality workers and artisans.
While restaurants and the hospitality community as a whole have faced challenges before, this time is different. This time, we join nations across the globe in one unprecedented emergency and yet, the worry, the fear of the unknown, it feels so very specific. For us chefs, it has hit our teams, line cooks, and dishwashers, our front-of-the-house service staff, and the many restaurants across our neighborhoods and community – all of the people that make it possible for the doors of restaurants to open every day. It affects the person that greeted you at the hostess stand, the person that served you, the person that cooked that meal, and everyone in that restaurant that helped to shape an experience while you were there. Everything is different now. Restaurants are closed. Dining rooms silent. Coolers empty. Restaurant workers received their last paycheck weeks ago. What will the dishwashers do? How will the line cooks get the hours they need to pay their bills? Who stays…who goes? And for how long? How will the "all-of-the-sudden unemployed” restaurant workers feed their families? How far will a $1,200 stimulus check stretch? Forget about health insurance, paid sick leave…that seldom exists for these folks; an oversight for the sake of “passion.” Will that unemployment check arrive before rent is due?
As chefs we are taught how to fix a broken sauce, but who will teach us to cope with this hard reality?
How will restaurant owners keep afloat and survive this incredible tsunami? How and who will be able to rebuild and start all over again when this is over? The questions are so daunting and there is no effective response. Our industry has been placed in an induced coma. For many restaurant workers, the days where the race against the clock is never ending, the chopping, prepping, searing, braising, baking, the maddening sound of a busy ticket machine, the very thing that sends you home bone tired at the end of a long shift, now keeps you awake at night and wondering ‘where did it all go and how do we get it back?’ We…chefs, cooks, dishwashers, bartenders, front of the house service ...are workers, front liners, invisible and essential. We battle the kitchen lines and do not leave our people behind. We work and cook and serve and stand many hours of brutal stress because, for most of us, it’s all we know. Because we are committed to service, to you, to our team. Because the beast that destroys also very much nurtures and fuels and sends you home triumphant most nights. Even today, when most people are urged and ordered to stay at home, we go to work. Because we work for the people. We volunteer to face the beast and feed people in our community. Chefs, cooks, service staff arrives every day at Heard Collaborative Café to volunteer their time. We wait as we are checked for any running fevers, then mask up, glove up, tie our apron strings and walk the kitchen line. We get our knives and put our heads down. The ticket machine is silent, the restaurant tables are empty, but the people still need us. Because food is essential. 1:45 p.m. Heard Café, Winston Salem NC. Cars line up on the street with people, families waiting for their meal. Most of them are displaced hospitality workers, now jobless. More than 500 meals served. And perhaps, this is how we heal. Through deliberate, intentional, brave work. By recreating a new way and a new normal that still is very much the same. Our kitchens will come back, full of chaos, beauty, promise, sparkle, and grit. In the meantime, we will take care of one another. Martin Luther King once said, “Not everyone can be famous, but everyone can be great, because greatness is determined by service.” Now more than ever, for anyone that may need us: We are at your service.
You can make a gift to support HEARD Collaborative Cafe here.