The Tough Decisions Chefs Face As They Decide How To Re-Open

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Chef Michael Gulotta faces tough choices in reopening his New Orleans restaurants. Photo by Denny Culbert

When the COVID-19 crisis hit New Orleans, star chef Michael Gulotta chose to simply close his places down.

The four-time James Beard Award nominee wanted to protect the health of his staff, and avoid the uncertainty of relying on carry out and delivery at his restaurants, Maypop in New Orleans’ Central Business District, and MoPho, which sits near City Park.

Now, Louisiana is allowing restaurants to re-open, with a variety of restrictions, including limits on the number of guests they can serve at one time, and it is requiring personal protective equipment for front of house and kitchen staff.

However, Gulotta says Maypop will stay closed for now, even though he is a finalist for a Beard Award as Best Chef-South for its upscale Asian fusion menu.

Instead, he is re-opening MoPho for carry out only, and he will serve additional items from a walk up window at Rum & the Lash, which is attached to a nearby Irish bar.

His MoPho outpost at New Orleans International Airport, which opened last fall, is likely to stay closed for at least six to eight more months, he believes.

For Gulotta, frequently seen on the Today Show, the moves mirror the same agonizing decisions that chefs across the United States, and around the world face as they deal with the aftermath of COVID-19.

“It’s going to affect a lot of chefs,” Gulotta says.

Back in business

Gulotta says he is able to restart because he received a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration.

Owners are allowed to use the money to pay outstanding rent and utilities. After that, the fund are meant to help supplement employee salaries, until businesses are up and running.

“We kind of feel like we have to get moving,” Gulotta says.

MoPho, a casual place with a moderately priced menu, is opening first “because that’s the one that will bring us money,” he says.

He will sell a limited menu that includes chicken wings, available with a variety of sauces, three pho variations (beef, chicken and vegetarian), and choices of po’boys and a few other dishes.

Gulotta says focusing on carry out will be relatively easy, since about 15 to 20 percent of its orders before COVID-19 were to go.

Previously, MoPho served about 350 people on a busy day, with the average check around $21, while Maypop served about 200, with checks of $45 per diner.

Who’s coming to eat?

The biggest issues as he restarts, Gulotta says, are how many customers will order food, and how many people he will need to have on staff.

He calculates he might have 100 orders per night, although he would not be surprised if it is double that many during the first week MoPho is open.

Between his two restaurants, Gulotta previously employed 110 people, and he doubts he will need more than about 33 to re-start MoPho.

Many staffers have been with the restaurants since the beginning, making the layoffs even more difficult. “I sit here, and some of our employees are like family,” he says.

Gulotta opened MoPho in 2014, aiming it as locals of all ages, who could enjoy a laid back atmosphere and a variety of Asian-style comfort food.

It was followed by Maypop in 2016, when Gulotta was named a “best new chef” by Food & Wine magazine.

Gulotta planned Maypop as a way to showcase his love of more-sophisticated Asian dishes, in more-glamorous surroundings.

“Maypop was always about really pushing it,” he says. “The team was behind it, everyone had a say in the menu, we wanted people to suggest new dishes.”

That approach got him rave reviews and into the finals of the Best Chef — South category. He admits it’s “heartbreaking” that his restaurant may not yet be open when the awards are given out in September.

But says Gulotta, “All the awards in the world don’t matter” if the economy can’t support restaurants.

While MoPho’s clientele is largely locals, Maypop has always depended on business travelers, conventioneers and tourists. It is especially popular with cardiologists, Gulotta says.

That business has largely evaporated, and Gulotta says he can’t risk reopening yet, only to have Maypop shut down once more this summer, when business in New Orleans is traditionally slow.

Everybody’s in the same boat

He believes that the COVID-19 crisis will affect a vast number of chefs, who already are beginning to consolidate and close businesses. “We had a bubble coming, regardless,” Gulotta says.

The restaurant industry could wind up where it was when he started 22 years ago, “before there were rock star chefs,” Gulotta says.

“If you worked in a kitchen, it was because you were obsessed, or because you couldn’t get a job anywhere else,” he says.

The COVID-19 situation could weed out people who see culinary careers as glamorous and use restaurants as stepping stones to commercial fame, he theorizes.

Says Gulotta: “It may only be for the people who really want to cook.”

Micheline Maynard is a journalist and author who tweets @mickimaynard

Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on Forbes.com. NPR and NYT alum

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