Jeff McConnell
Jeff McConnell

"I think that we’re going to see a huge number of new businesses from my generation of chefs coming out of this," says Chef Camille Cogswell.

What’s Next for the Chef Industry After COVID-19?

The pandemic led many chefs to leave or lose their posts, but it also opened the door to forging a new path—one of their own making.

After last year, it’s difficult to look at the restaurant industry and not feel a sense of loss. So many concepts—some struggling, some superstars, and plenty in between—closed their doors permanently. Others found themselves fighting to make rent.

For the people working in those restaurants, it was a similar story of turmoil. From servers and dishwashers to executive chefs and managers, employees across the board lost or left their jobs. Even high-profile chefs weren’t immune to the overturn. In Chicago, Mariya Russell, the first Black woman to helm a Michelin–starred establishment, left Kikko and Kumiko. In Detroit, pastry chef and James Beard semifinalist Lena Sareini left Selden Standard. Both cited burnout and stress from operating during the pandemic.

The reasons why these chefs left their posts—assuming it was of their own volition—are far-reaching. The universal thread that binds them is the promise of a new beginning, because for some, leaving the restaurant world is simply not an option. Instead they are viewing the mayhem of the last year as an opportunity to forge new paths for themselves, and in so doing, enrich the industry.

Camille Cogswell

After her departure from K’Far but before relocating to North Carolina, Chef Camille Cogswell hosted Hey Sweetie pop-ups in Philadelphia, with pies being one of the most popular offerings.

Saying good-bye

When 2020 began, Camille Cogswell had a rough timeline in mind for her career. She’d been the executive pastry chef at Michael Solomonov’s Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia for five years and had recently helped open sister café, K’Far. During her tenure, Cogswell won the 2018 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef.

Looking ahead, she planned to stay with the fledgling K’Far for at least a few years before moving onto new projects, and even possibly starting her own business. But then, a couple months into the pandemic, she was let go, throwing any hypothetical plan into disarray. At the same time, her fiancé, chef Drew DiTomo, had his plans upended. He was about to sign a lease to open his own restaurant when COVID-19 struck.

“We were thinking whether we wanted to keep living in the Philly area or elsewhere, but we were really leaning toward staying in Philly,” Cogswell says. “So we were glad that he didn’t sign a lease on a place and then have to pay rent on it without an operating business. This was very unexpected, and we definitely pivoted.”

Amanda Armitage

Chef OMar Mitchell is looking forward to reopening his two restaurants and bringing back the magic of dine-in.

In Detroit, chef Omar Mitchell also found himself without a restaurant, though the circumstances were far different. About a year before the pandemic began, he’d debuted fine-dining concept Table No. 2 in the Avenue of Fashion district, a historic neighborhood that’s been revitalized in recent years.

But that revitalization came at a cost. The area was under construction for months as the city worked to expand the sidewalks and make the Avenue of Fashion more walkable and scenic. Construction wrapped just in time for the winter slow-down that all restaurants—especially those in snowier climes—experience.

In February 2020, Table No. 2 was starting to hit its stride with a flurry of reservations each weekend—and then March arrived.

“We’re booked solid that first weekend in February, then the follow ing week, Valentine’s Day comes up and we’re booked entirely and the week after that. So then it’s the second weekend of March and we’re still booked, and so we’re like, OK great, … this is working. So we’re busy, busy, busy. Then the pandemic strikes,” Mitchell says. Reservations nosedived and shortly thereafter, restaurants were ordered to close.

Like so many of his peers, Mitchell pivoted to continue operating under the new restrictions. Because the dine-in experience had been such an integral part, Table No. 2 put a 50 percent discount on dishes when it began offering carryout. Once word got out regarding both the off-premises options and the reduced cost, business picked up again. The restaurant also received orders from larger sponsors wanting to buy boxed meals for front-line workers

“We’re rocking and rolling, so we continue to do that. We look up and it’s early April and at this point I get a text message from the landlord saying, ‘Hey, I’m really not interested in you operating a restaurant; I think I want to sell the building,” Mitchell says. “So at this point I have to pack up and leave because he wants to sell the building.”

After only 14 months in operation, which was peppered with construction, a pandemic, and essentially an eviction notice, Mitchell was at last forced to shut down Table No. 2. But the chef was far from giving up. Last summer, he set up a GoFundMe page to raise community awareness and funds so that Table No. 2 would be able to find a new home after losing its investment in the first location. At press time, it had raised $26,220 of its $30,000 target.

Amanda Armitage

Endive Pear Salad

A matter of time

While the pandemic may have played a part in Table No. 2’s closure, it was not the direct cause—and it’s an important distinction to make in comparing the experiences of different chefs.

“The food industry faced a reckoning of sorts and in the midst of that I think those of us in the thick of it have been able to evaluate what we stand for,” says chef Ashleigh Shanti, formerly of Benne on Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina.

For Shanti, the decision to leave her post had more to do with continuing on a trajectory she’d long ago established, not in reaction to COVID-19. From 2018 until her departure last November, she was the first chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, a restaurant by John Fleer that showcases African-American influences on Appalachian cuisine. Prior to that she had worked at such revered establishments as Vivian Howard’s Chef & the Farmer in Kinston and José Andrés’s Minibar in D.C.

Shanti knew for a long time that she wanted to own her own business. When the pandemic made so many in the restaurant industry hit pause, it also gave her time to reflect on when she wanted to move forward.

“I’ve always tried to make decisions and career moves that have led to me forging my own path and learning to eventually run my own establishments,” she says. “The pandemic didn’t expedite that process but instead slowed it down and quieted a lot of outside noise and allowed me to make decisions that were strategic, thoughtful, and not largely influenced by others.”

Throughout this year, Shanti has been hard at work laying the groundwork for her first restaurant, with a targeted opening in early 2022 in Asheville. Beyond that, she’s tightlipped about the details, pointing out that revealing too much too soon can be the kiss of death for a new restaurant. While her focus will be exclusively on this first endeavor, the long-term vision is to build a multi-concept portfolio.

Rather than give her time to slow down, the coronavirus crisis sped up Cogswell’s timeline. Shortly after her departure from K’Far, she started Hey Sweetie, a pop-up business that peddled baked goods inspired by her childhood in North Carolina. She also joined the Bakers Against Racism movement, which raised money for social justice causes and organizations through a massive bake sale.

Amanda Armitage

Peachy Peach Cobbler

But after this period of transition, Cogswell and DiTomo decided to make a major life decision and move back to the Asheville area, where Cogswell grew up.

“This property went up for sale, and we said, ‘Wow, that sounds like a life where we could start something really cool,’ and we went for it,” Cogswell says. “The pandemic has definitely been a catalyst for us to be pushed out of the nest. Though we were already growing through the industry, I think that we’re going to see just a huge number of new businesses from my generation of chefs coming out of this.”

Located about a half-hour north of Asheville in Marshall, the property comprises two houses, one of which serves as a residence while the other has been converted into a bakery with two wood-fired ovens built by celebrated baker and masonry builder, Alan Scott, nearly two decades earlier.

The spot has been host to community pizza nights in the past, and it’s a tradition Cogswell and DiTomo plan to uphold and one that plays well to their strengths; the former is a baker and the latter specializes in Italian cuisine. They’re aiming to restart the pizza nights by the end of summer while also exploring other avenues, like selling breads, pastries, and other goods at farmers markets. Opening an on-site bakery may be in the cards, too, but Cogswell says it wouldn’t happen anytime soon.

“Instead of creating a very hard and fast plan from the beginning, we have our starting ideas and things that we want to flesh out and many dreams for the future,” Cogswell says. “We’re really interested in having this grow naturally and in terms of what feels right for us and also what the community wants.”

After overcoming numerous obstacles to keep Table No. 2 up and running, Mitchell was eventually forced to reevaluate his plans. Timing and location played important roles for him, too, but in a different way. The GoFundMe campaign caught the eye of numerous real estate firms and pretty soon the chef found himself with about four dozen offers.

He eventually found the right partner in Bedrock Detroit, a commercial real estate firm owned by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that specializes in redeveloping urban areas. When Table No. 2 makes its triumphant return, it will be doing so downtown in a 6,500-square-foot space—more than triple the size of the original location.

For as challenging as the past two years have been for Table No. 2, Mitchell’s other restaurant, Imaginate, was perhaps saddled with an even worse lot. It opened up Valentine’s Day 2020 only to shut down a month later. Unlike its sister restaurant, Imaginate didn’t have an existing consumer base to tap into for off-premises orders. Not to mention, its over-the-top presentation and visuals made it all but impossible for carryout.

“Imaginate restaurant is a fine-dining, theatrical-dining experience where all the food comes out on props, and it gives off this really cool, Insta-worthy style concept where it makes you want to pull out your phone and take a picture of the actual food,” Mitchell says. For example, the bone-in ribeye comes out on a chopping block with a 3-foot fork balanced on it while the coconut-almond popcorn shrimp is presented in a popcorn machine. Even more visually striking is the cotton candy dessert, served atop a mannequin head.

Mitchell says he’s learned a lot about the execution and importance of off-premises and plans to continue offering the 50 percent deal on carryout at Table No. 2 once it reopens. Nevertheless, the chef remains committed to the magic of dine-in. He even looks to creatives beyond the foodservice world, like Walt Disney, for inspiration in cultivating a special experience.

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with the restaurant, where they have this spectacle atmosphere … That’s how I’m trying to build my empire of great restaurant experiences,” Mitchell says. “If someone asks [guests] how it was, I want them to be able to say, ‘It was amazing. It was totally unexpected.’”

Mitchell will get to put that model to the test when Imaginate opens in its new home in the Royal Oak suburb of Detroit this summer, with Table No. 2 slated to follow four to six months later.

Presentation reigns supreme at Table No. 2, as evidenced by dishes like the deconstructed Southern-Fried Chicken & Waffles.

The restaurant renaissance

It is perhaps too soon to declare with confidence that the pandemic will bring about a new, more vibrant restaurant landscape, but there are hints at this possible future. Many chefs who left or lost their jobs are hatching new businesses, whether they be restaurants, pop-ups, consulting services, or product ventures. By stepping up to support the industry when it needed it most, consumers have shown their appetite for fresh ideas.

“I knew a lot of people who were just cooks at restaurants and, … they just felt free or felt the necessity to get a little supplemental income, use their skills to do something fun, or do something for themselves,” Cogswell says. “No matter who you were, the time felt right and customers seemed very receptive to these one-off ideas or little dreams coming out of this time.”

Again, timing was crucial. For entrepreneurs like Mitchell who had begun pursuing those dreams prior to the pandemic, last year presented more of a setback than a clean slate. How existing restaurant owners were affected varied across the board. The initial rollout of the Personal Paycheck Protection program fell short for many mom-and-pop restaurants. It was even worse for minority-owned businesses, which were disproportionately overlooked in the disbursement of funds.

That’s why it’s so important for Mitchell—who identifies himself as the only Black, fine-dining restaurant owner in Detroit—to continue fighting the good fight and creating successful restaurants. Not only does he have the power to inspire other foodservice professionals, he also has the platform to teach them and help them grow through first-hand, on-the-job experience.

“That’s one of the reasons I decided to continue to be in the restaurant business: because I have to be able to plant my restaurants as a hub for the minority. I’m a big fan of making sure men and women of color are treated with the same respect and given opportunities,” he says. Mitchell adds that prior to shutting down, 98 percent of the staff at Table No. 2 were African American. He also employed high school dropouts, single parents, and even former convicts.

From Shanti’s perspective, the musical chairs of people leaving restaurants, going to new ones, or even starting their own hasn’t been specific to gender or race. That said, she does see younger chefs and restaurateurs making their own place in the restaurant sector.

“Speaking as a Black gay woman in this industry, I think finding a sense of place was once sought after though rarely found. In a lot of my own peers, I see a drive among us to continue carving out our own spaces and standards of leadership,” she says.

In addition to bringing in more diverse voices, a new generation of leaders could have an enormous impact on restaurant culture. Foodservice, like many other industries, has faced a spate of allegations related to sexual harassment and racism. Even for restaurants that stayed open and chefs who stayed where they were, the pandemic represented an inflection point in so many ways.

Cogswell says that she and her group of peers started their careers just at the point when the rigid and often debaucherous restaurant culture was evolving to be more intentional and humane. That dual perspective sets them up for a brighter future.

“Our generation is starting their own businesses, and we have so many ideas and thoughts and hopes for how to build new businesses that are not like the ones that we came from,” Cogswell says. “I think there’s going to be a lot of really interesting and positive new things.”