Stories / Impact, Awards

These Four Chefs are Imagining a Better Industry

2020 Rising Star Chef of the Year nominees discuss the future of the industry

JBF Editors

February 05, 2021

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Irene Li (Photo: Mei Mei)

As our industry faces an uncertain future in the months and years to come due to COVID-19, the James Beard Foundation is committed to helping restaurants reopen, rebuild, and thrive. Restaurateurs, chefs, and other industry professionals have shown their resilience by shifting business models, creating pop-ups, and fundraising to benefit the most vulnerable. During this period, folks in the industry are taking the opportunity to imagine a more sustainable and equitable industry to come. We spoke to the nominees of our 2020 Rising Star Chef of the Year award presented by S.Pellegrino® Sparkling Natural Mineral Water, to gauge how these chefs are envisioning a better industry for the future.

How have you pivoted your business/career during this period?

Irene Li, Mei Mei: Over the last 10 months we have made the decision to transition the restaurant into a packaged products company. We are working on building a brand that leverages what we have accomplished as a restaurant business and [creating] a packaged dumpling product to carry the brand message and personality forward.

Gaby Maeda, State Bird Provisions: In the beginning stages of being open for business back in May, we must have pivoted every single week. Meal kits, a box full of larder items, take-away service, etc. It was very hard but also a great process to go through as a team during a very scary time.

Ashleigh Shanti: I left [Benne on Eagle] in October. While the pandemic did not fully incite this move, it confirmed so much and certainly put plenty into perspective about what I’m capable of and how my abilities are best utilized.

Paola Velez, Bakers Against Racism, La Bodega, and Maydan: I think more than just learning to pivot, this year is about why I am striving to restructure our industry. Creating, from the ashes so to speak. It’s been an immense challenge and, to be honest, I am worried sick every day [about] the future of our restaurants.

Gaby Maeda (Photo: Rumpasri Chicharoen)

How has your local community stood up to help you?

Maeda:
Our purveyors in the San Francisco/Bay Area have been helping not only us but countless restaurants that are going through the same struggles. I've always believed that restaurants, farmers, ranchers, cheesemakers, winemakers, ceramicists, etc. are all a part of a small-business community that supports one another.

Li: We're working on a couple of community initiatives at the moment. Early on in the pandemic, a friend and I started a GoFundMe, Unsung Restaurants, to help raise money for mom-and-pop [restaurants] and immigrant-owned businesses. In just a couple of weeks, we raised about $12,000. [Another] is Project Restore Us, [which] raises money for restaurants to provide no-cost grocery delivery to essential workers and their families, most of whom are immigrants. [Also], we have a community fridge that we host at Mei Mei. We found that people have been incredibly supportive of restaurants. The sad thing is, that's not going to be enough to save restaurants right now.

Shanti: The pandemic put into perspective how large and meaningful community outreach can be. Sure, packing a dining room is fulfilling, but seeing people show up to benefit our marginalized and minority communities is so uplifting.

Ashleigh Shanti (Photo: Johnny Autry)

As we emerge from this crisis, what are a few changes you'd like to see in the restaurant industry?

Li: I think that a lot of the issues that happen in our industry are because diners don't necessarily understand the mechanics of how the industry works—what their dollars are actually paying for [or] the cost structure of running a restaurant. My hope is that if we [all] are more educated as a whole about the restaurant industry, then we can make better choices in terms of which restaurants we go to.

Maeda: Working for chef Stuart [Brioza] and chef Nicole [Krasinski] has opened my eyes to being not only a chef in the kitchen, but a leader for my team on a more human level. Providing guidance and support to each member of the team has been something they do so naturally, and the trickle[down] effect it has on the other chefs is very strong and inspiring. Having chefs that want to make sure your mental, physical, and emotional well-being are taken into consideration is a huge step in the right direction.

Shanti: The restaurant industry has long been in a state of crisis, now to an even greater extent. While people of color largely built this industry, its systems were not created for our success. I believe the first step is a reckoning with this ideology, after that comes appreciation and recognition.

Velez: Equitable pay and redefining restaurant structures. The old ways have failed us, using each other and not compensating skilled laborers has failed us. Now it’s time to usher in an era of caring. Rebuilding the industry also begins with creating an equitable industry for all.

Paola Velez (Photo: Jennifer Chase)

What steps are you taking to create a more inclusive community?

Shanti:
I’ve been striving for a more inclusive restaurant community for years; it is not an easy task. In defining what that will look like for my establishments: fair wages, childcare, and healthcare are large factors. The plan is for all my staff to receive extensive training in racial sensitivity and sexual harassment. The monetary value in creating these opportunities for my staff and opening them up to the community are just small steps to an inclusive community.

Velez: I am making room for others that look like me or who come from similar backgrounds. We’re often told that there is only one seat at the table. But that simply isn’t true. When we grow as professionals, it costs us nothing to help others grow alongside us.

Li: Being intentional is one of the ways that we can be more inclusive. For example, in Boston, there are very few Black-owned restaurants and there are even fewer that have traditional liquor licensing. There's been a lot more attention paid to who owns these companies [and] who's benefiting from your patronage. The other thing I would say is that building compensation models that are either not reliant on tips or address inequalities inherent in the tipping structure is important.

For young chefs and industry workers looking to enter the industry, what kind of advice would you give them?

Maeda: I think that the best advice I would be able to give is to be ready for constant change and learn to adapt to new situations. This is also a time to take care of yourself and pay attention to your health because it will affect the rest of the workforce and your team.

Shanti: As a young chef, it’s so important to discover who you are and what your food is because if you hesitate, someone will formulate a narrative for you. [It] might change as you grow, but [you must] create a foundation to build upon and don’t let anyone tell you how to define your food other than you.

Velez: Don't be discouraged. Those before you are working diligently to create a safer space for you to grow and flourish.

Learn more about the James Beard Foundation’s Open for Good campaign.