The past year has been difficult for the entire world, but foodservice professionals found themselves in a particularly challenging place. Members of kitchen teams that felt like family were furloughed or let go, dining rooms emptied, supply chains ground to a near halt, sourcing became problematic, and foodservice professionals in the banquet, hotel, and convention realms suddenly found themselves without anyone to cook for. As we pass the sobering one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, foodservice professionals – from chefs to distributors to dishwashers – are forever changed.
We spoke to two PMA members, chefs Brandon Felder and Kyung Soo Carroll, to find out what they’ve learned over the last year, how the pandemic has affected their daily lives in the kitchen, and what they expect to see in the next several months as the country prepares for mass vaccination and, hopefully, a full reopening.
Brandon Felder is the Executive Chef at Centerplate, the exclusive food and beverage provider for the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (MCCNO), the site of PMA’s Fresh Summit Convention & Exposition October 28-30. MCCNO has seen a dramatic loss in both revenue and personnel over the past year. Prior to the shutdown in March 2020, MCCNO was handling all food and beverage for conventions of 10,000 – 30,000 people.
Now, one year later, the convention center is slowly returning to hosting much smaller events of less than 1,000. At this time, Chef Brandon and his executive sous chef – a team of just two – are solely responsible for cooking and coordinating breakfast and lunch offerings for events of 500-1,000 guests. Chef Brandon remarked that a team of two taking on every job in the kitchen was necessary and challenging.
Kyung Soo Carroll is the Director of Culinary Operations for the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, CA, where he oversees the hotel’s restaurant, banquet, and in-room dining operations. He
echoed Chef Brandon’s sentiments about staffing, adding that finding better efficiencies and ensuring retained staff were trained in the right ways were key elements to surviving 2020.
He also shared unique insights into the difficulties many chefs have had with the abrupt transition to takeout and to-go orders. Prior to COVID, many chefs at higher-end dining destinations didn’t offer takeout, didn’t have to consider how containers would retain heat or how the integrity of a dish would hold up during the trip from the restaurant kitchen to the guest’s plate at home, and didn’t have to factor in the added expense of takeout vessels and packaging.
The day-to-day uncertainty around business operations in 2020 was another major challenge for many chefs. Because restaurants had to rely on outdoor dining for much of the year, they were at the mercy of Mother Nature. If inclement weather hit on a Friday or a Saturday night – typically the busiest and most profitable days of the week – the restaurant could be empty. In Southern California, bad weather is less of an issue than it is for chefs in New York or Chicago, but Chef Kyung took this opportunity to adapt his menus to cut down on cost and waste. He reimagined dishes to cross-utilize ingredients and consolidated where he could reduce waste, and that made sourcing a challenge in and of itself.
With many restaurants closing – both temporarily and permanently – over the course of 2020, produce and meat vendors weren’t bringing in as much product because they simply didn’t have as many outlets to sell it to. Chef Brandon shared that having to adjust to the new amounts and types of products his purveyors could bring him was yet another way 2020 showed chefs how to adapt. Chef Kyung added that one positive stemming from the pandemic is that he’s now much closer with his vendors. They stepped up in 2020 to maximize communication and ensure they could get the products Chef Kyung and team really needed, and they’ve built much stronger relationships through their resiliency.
Looking toward the future, both chefs see brighter days. MCCNO is preparing to become a vaccination center for New Orleans, and Pelican Hill is seeing a return of the leisure traveler. Chef Kyung predicts that we’ll see a food craze boom and that creativity in foodservice will return in full force once the world is back to normal.
While both Brandon and Kyung commented on obvious pandemic-related changes in foodservice – such as reconsidering the future of buffets and family-style service – they agreed that the biggest challenges of 2020 were letting staff go and adapting to take over the duties of those lost team members. Running with a bare-bones crew for nearly a year, both chefs remarked that this past year has made them stronger as chefs and as leaders, and they are each looking forward to hiring more staff and getting back into the kitchen with a full team. As Chef Brandon put it, “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”