As one of the hospitality industry’s most profoundly challenging and turbulent years draws to a quiet close in a month normally marked by crowded tables and festive celebrations, Xpress asked five restaurateurs to reflect on the past 12 months and look forward to 2021.
Responding to four questions about the state of their industry are chef Katie Button, owner of Cúrate and La Bodega by Cúrate; chef Michel Baudouin, owner of Bouchon and RendezVous; Susannah Gebhart, owner and founder of OWL Bakery and co-operator of Session Café at Citizen Vinyl; Charlie Hodge, owner of Sovereign Remedies and The Getaway; and chef Meherwan Irani, owner of Chai Pani, Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken and Spicewalla and co-owner of Buxton Hall Barbecue.
What surprised or impressed you most about the local food and beverage industry’s response to COVID-19?
Button: Their tenacity. The ability of everyone to pivot their businesses and pivot again, to shut down, open back up, change, adjust; it has been painful and costly, to say the least. The tenacity that people have had to fight, hold on — that is what small business and the restaurant industry is all about. You have to drag us away broken and bleeding before we throw in the towel. … I wish it didn’t have to come to that, however.
Baudouin: In times like these, you realize who is who, and my main management team along with some other employees stepped to the plate, and overnight we reinvented ourselves and our business format. Just as impressive has been our clientele, who have been unbelievably supportive and generous.
Gebhart: Admittedly, I was so focused on navigating my own ship, I did not keep up well with how others in the industry were responding, especially in the heat of the first two months, when we were all in shock and trying to recalibrate. I did distinctly notice the places that had a “feed the people” attitude really stepped up and pivoted quickly. I was so impressed with their swiftness and dedication to making it work.
Hodge: I am not surprised but I am always impressed with the activism and the generosity shown in our local food and beverage industry. Even when faced with a vanishing livelihood, I felt everyone was asking how they could support each other.
Irani: How we all came together, emotionally and in logistical support of each other. There was an immediate sense, being in Asheville, that I am not alone. There was an immediate reaching out to each other that came very naturally. Nobody was holding their cards close to the chest; we were all honest and open with each other. The No. 1 response was, “We’re all struggling.” But we asked each other, “What can I do to help you? Can you do this to help me? Let’s get our collective brains and resources together,” even if that was just for the pure feeling of not being alone.
Which restaurant closing hit you the hardest and why?
Button: Rezaz. On a call with our elected officials demanding aid for the restaurant industry, I heard [co-owner and chef] Laura Smith tell the story of the closure of Rezaz, a restaurant that had been in this community for more than 20 years. Her story was raw, it was real and felt like a premonition. You could see yourself in her story; you could see every other restaurant in this country in her story. It is absolutely devastating what is happening to independent restaurants right now. Individually, we are small, but even though collectively we are enormous and represent 11 million jobs, it is very hard to get our elected officials to see and hear us.
Baudouin: Over Easy, because it was the restaurant where my daughter and I met most often for late breakfast or lunch. Their quality and creativity were always consistent and so good. They have said that they may come back in the future, and I hope they do.
Gebhart: I was very saddened when I learned that The Mothlight venue was closing. It was such a hub for West Asheville and, especially, one that was accessible and safe. However, I’m excited the space will be reinhabited by a collaborative project called Different Wrld [avl.mx/8sw]. I was also surprised and sad to hear that Waterbird closed. They were another great spot, off the tourist path, that did everything thoughtfully and skillfully.
Hodge: Every person that has had to close their doors this year breaks my heart. I know with every closing there is someone that cares greatly about this town, about the wonderful people that they have employed and in creating a special moment for whoever walked through their door. We have lost so much already. I can only hope that our community will rally around the people living in our community who are up to take on those spaces in the future with the same love and commitment.
Irani: Every time I hear of a restaurant closing — even before the pandemic — a huge wave of empathy would wash through me because a restaurateur knows what that restaurateur went through to open their place and how hard they fought to keep it open. I would say in the pandemic the one that hit me the hardest was Rezaz when they closed. The owners are young and had not that long ago taken it over from Reza [Setayesh], and in them, I saw me and Molly [Irani] 11 years ago opening Chai Pani. To have something so unexpected and out of your control pull the rug out from under them really hit me hard.
What dish or personal food experience brought you the greatest joy in 2020?
Button: Going to one of J Chong‘s pop-up events at Cecilia’s. J worked for me for many years. She did her internship at Cúrate when she was a student at Johnson & Wales, then came back to work for us as soon as she moved to Asheville permanently. Seeing J step out and spread her wings and fly with a concept that she has been dreaming and talking about for years was one of the greatest joys of 2020. Sitting down in my kitchen with my family to eat her delicious food put a smile on all of our faces.
Baudouin: When I get the blues, a roasted chicken and mashed potatoes is the cure. The best meals are the ones you share with loved ones and friends.
Gebhart: My food life this summer was kind of a blur of toast and Taco Billy. However, we did establish a ritual of cracking a bottle of bubbles at the end of everyone’s shift after we completed our bake for Friday pickup orders. Toasting to whatever crazy the week had delivered felt like such a celebration. “Getting by” was a feat of magnitude!
Hodge: I love the addition of Jettie Rae’s in our town. From the food to the great staff and in the entire way they have handled this year, it has become one of my new favorites.
Irani: Never before have I so appreciated the ingenuity and creativity of Asheville chefs as they pivoted from amazing in-house dining experiences to takeaway dining experiences. The one that blew me away the most was from Brian Canipelli (Cucina 24). Molly and I had planned to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary April 29 and invited folks from all over the world to come to Asheville for the anniversary and a reunion. Of course, that went out the window. The consolation prize was I called Brian and said,”Hey, this is our anniversary, and I completely trust you to put together something for me and Molly.” He knew the story and created this incredible meal, and there was something extra special that came through in every bite. It was memorable, not just because of the food, but because of what it represented.
What gives you hope for 2021?
Button: That I am hearing a lot of people say that they need to focus on themselves and their family, to prioritize happiness in life and seek happiness now versus seeing it as some future end goal that you never get to. If that can somehow be a takeaway from 2020, it will be life changing.
Baudouin: That the vaccine is a true solution, but that in the meantime, people wear their masks to protect themselves and others so we can get through this until then. I am a very positive person, and the glass is always half-plus full. I have to admit, as the year went on, that has been challenged at times, but I prefer to believe we will make it.
Gebhart: As perilous as this year felt at times, the truth is that I was incredibly relieved to hit the pause button. Running a food business is arduous, and while I’m deeply weary after this year, I’m grateful that something so momentous forced us to reprioritize the reasons we do what we do and how we do them. At a certain point, we started focusing less on surviving and more on making lasting, beneficial change. Sustainability and a healthy workplace became the most important goal. And to have this perspective at the forefront when opening Session, too, has been tremendously helpful in establishing an entity that we know we are building to last and bring enduring quality to Asheville.
Hodge: It is the same thing that has helped me maintain hope through this year. It is in how so many people have shown up to give each other a hand: the people that organized to get food out when people were instantly jobless, the professionals that donated hours and hours of their time on Zoom calls to help us small-business owners make sense of how to move forward, and people like Jane Anderson of AIR that has been the champion for our local restaurants, keeping us informed and being our voice while we try and hold it all together.
Irani: To open a restaurant at any time is such a risky endeavor, so fraught with so many things that could go wrong. You have to come in completely naïve or the world’s greatest optimist, and I’m an eternal optimist. The thing the pandemic changed about us as humans is it added the word “distance” to the word “social.” The reason I have hope is because I am certain the distance will eventually go away, but the social never will.