Food News

How the COVID-19 pandemic changed my career as a chef

With restaurants closed and chefs shut out of their kitchens, the current pandemic gave many time to pause, reflect and ask themselves: what's next? From going it alone to aligning with social justice causes, five chefs share their experiences.

Alanna Sapwell, chef-owner of pop-up restaurant Esmay in Noosa, Qld.

Nathan Sasi, Leigh Street Wine Room

A year after opening Adelaide's Leigh Street Wine Room, chef Nathan Sasi has decided to step away from the kitchen as he focuses on growing a more sustainable, diverse business.
Interview by Jordan Kretchmer.
Nathan Sasi, co-owner of Adelaide's Leigh Street Wine Room. Photo: Josie Withers
Leigh Street Wine Room is my first venture fully owned by myself and my wife, Sali. I'm from Sydney, but my wife is from Adelaide originally. It was so uplifting to create it from the ground up and nail the concept.
When we opened there was a huge snowball effect – we were so grateful to get some incredible reviews. When we had to close it was like being hit by a truck. We were questioning if we were going to make it to the other side. It took us a good week to gather our thoughts, reassess the landscape, and work out if we had the mental capacity to make it. We had put everything we had financially and mentally into this business – it felt like our lives were on the line. I wondered, "Is this something I actually want to do? Or do I just throw in the towel and move on." But we also had responsibilities to our children, to our staff and to our landlord. After that week we looked at our support systems and our landlord dropped the rent, so we felt like we could just try our best to navigate through this.
While closed we shifted into wine delivery, which we called Juice Traders. It was something we'd always wanted to do – it's amazing the great opportunities that can come out of a bad situation.
In my 20 years as a chef I've probably had three months off in total – I had more time off in the shut down than I have had in my whole career. I've seen what a normal life can look like – relaxing, exercising, eating well. Hospitality is a hard job – and if you don't have the drive, you won't survive. This forced stop has made us think about how we can make this lifestyle and business sustainable long-term.

Xinyi Lim, Megafaunafood

A temporary visit home became permanent when COVID-19 prevented freelance chef Xinyi Lim's return to New York. Now, grateful to be here, she is using her talent for social good.
Interview by Jordan Kretchmer.
Xinyi Lim of Megafaunafood. Photo: Jessica Brent
I started cooking and working in restaurants when I moved to New York more than five years ago. Before that, I was in Sydney working as a lawyer in a commercial law firm.
In February I came back to Sydney for my sister's wedding, and to get my green card. Soon after, my sister's wedding was postponed, my green card interview got cancelled and my plans for New York were put on hold indefinitely.
While I've been back I've been working on two creative projects, which have both come about quite organically. I started mailing dried sourdough starter around Australia, in tandem with a broader initiative under New York-based community art project, Bread on Earth. I only expected to send it to 40 or so people, but it exploded and my starter has since reached more than 700 people around Australia. In the midst of the pandemic, there was a renewed interest in baking bread with sourdough. This came about from people generally having more time. But I also believe the resurgence arose from a need that many felt, to reacquaint themselves with forgotten means of sustaining and feeding ourselves and our families, outside of broken commodity markets and frozen supply chains. Some of the personal messages I've received from recipients of my sourdough have been deeply moving, and it has been so heartwarming to foster a sense of community in a time of physical isolation.
Along with sharing sourdough, I started a weekly meal service called Family Meal. The idea grew out of a family tradition of cooking and sharing a meal every Sunday evening, and my love for the daily restaurant practice of preparing and eating a "family meal". Each Family Meal menu is inspired by a different culture and cuisine, and I produce a limited number of meals each week.
My first stages of planning the service coincided with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in America, and here in Australia too. It became clear to me that whatever Family Meal was going to be, it needed to contribute meaningfully in some way to the fight against systemic racism experienced by Indigenous Australians and people of colour.
I donate $10 from each meal sold to a different charity or organisation each week. It was important to me to include a social justice element to this project from the beginning, to hold myself accountable to something bigger than myself and my creative practice. Family Meal has been about experimenting and researching and learning and giving in a time when not much else feels possible.
Currently, I feel like a bit of a stranger to the industry in Sydney, and know I have a lot to learn. Although I hadn't expected to be spending so much time in Australia so soon, it has been uplifting to see the strong community that exists in the food and hospitality world here. Across New York and Sydney, I've been struck by the support that everyone in the industry has for each other, cheering each other on as they pivot or try to make the most out of this extremely vulnerable time. It's this generosity and camaraderie that I fell for when I changed careers.
I'd like to spend time working in restaurants in Australia, as well as find opportunities to cook and collaborate with friends. Things are changing every day so who knows what's to come. It's taken some time for me to process the impact and reality of this pandemic, but I'm grateful to be in Sydney right now, and hopeful and open to all the possibilities here.

Alanna Sapwell, Esmay

Just days into the COVID-19 pandemic, Arc Dining announced it was closing its doors for good. Now, Alanna Sapwell is going it alone, opening pop-up restaurant Esmay in Noosa.
Interview by Jordan Kretchmer.
Alanna Sapwell, chef-owner of pop-up restaurant Esmay in Noosal Photo: Pandora Photography
The closure of Arc was a shock to the system. It was such a hard time for anyone that had a business. It was a difficult
thing to happen to our industry and the pandemic did not discriminate. Even Arc – which was part of a large organisation – wasn't exempt.
Now everyone has moved on; the closure has allowed a lot of staff to pursue other options they might not have had the opportunity to. And even though Arc is closed, the bonds we have and the feeling of family is still there.
After the initial shock wore off, I started to enjoy myself. In roles like mine, you never really get time off. It was guilt-free real time off – I think a lot of people felt that way. I had never really exercised a lot, so I got into that. It was a nice way to meet with people for an hour – and it was refreshing to see people in a different setting. Some of my favourite days were when I'd do a training session with my old managers.
This period also gave me the time to reflect. It made me realise that I had been making the right decisions – I did want to be in Queensland, I wanted to be close to my family and I wanted to be working with great produce.
I also spent time talking to other people in the industry. It was comforting that everyone was in the same boat, and we were all there for one another. One person I spoke to a lot was Danielle Gjestland from Wasabi in Noosa. I started to look at the possibility of doing something more independent.
Now I have taken on the Wasabi space with my own pop-up, Esmay. I'm still working with a lot of my favourite producers and we're focused on providing a fun time at an approachable price point. Danielle has been a mentor to so many in the industry. She's letting it be my own thing, but also offering so much help.
Arc was such a fantastic opportunity – I got a chance to really step into the head chef role. Now it's a new learning curve for me to see the restaurant as a whole, not just from the kitchen. I never thought I would be in this position – chefs just don't have that much money. To have an opportunity that's relatively turn-key and access to a waterfront restaurant – I'm pretty much pinching myself that it's happening.

Eugenio Maiale, A Tavola

After 30 years in the industry, A Tavola's Eugenio Maiale is embracing a new business model and will return to the kitchen with a renewed love of cooking.
Interview by Jordan Kretchmer.
Eugenio Maiale, chef and co-owner of Sydneys' A Tavola. Photo: Nikki To
When COVID-19 first hit I almost didn't believe it. It wasn't until two weeks before we had to shut down that I really started thinking about the reality of it. All of a sudden, the tap was just turned off.
My wife Michelle and I, and my business partners worked harder than we have in our lives, dealing with the stress of the closure and trying to get everything in order – between sorting out superannuation, suppliers and letting go of staff – I just wanted to crawl into a hole.
I started to question everything – was what we'd worked for across 30 years in the industry, and 14 years on the A Tavola group – worth it? So much of hospitality is about confidence – and to question that was hard. There was a week where I went into a really dark space. But we also knew we had to be positive and we had to make it work. We hadn't come this far to throw it away. We put our heads together and started thinking of ways to survive – still delivering the high standard of food we love doing.
We started by packing our pasta; and all of a sudden we found this new opportunity. I'd always wanted to create a centralised place where we can test and create pasta and train our staff. Now I've taken over two vacant bakeries at the Tramsheds precinct to create a centralised pasta production kitchen, and created A Tavola at Home. We've had so much support from our staff and locals. We've also inherited an amazing wood-oven – and we're excited to be launching our own focacceria later this year. It's a new market for us and one that I've always pushed away. I had tunnel vision – it's hard not to. What I tried to initially avoid is what saved us.
It's funny how things in life repeat – when I first opened A Tavola in Darlinghurst in 2006, it was just me in the kitchen. We had my close friend Nick from Gelato Messina and my wife Michelle on the floor. As the years moved on and we opened more restaurants, I moved out of the kitchen to run the businesses. Now I've got to this stage where I'm so excited to get back into the kitchen. We've gutted the whole restaurant and given it a total refresh – and it's the same feeling of when we first opened all those years back. It's like fashion, it all just comes back around.
Now I am pumped and ready to get back in there – I want to be on the pans and fully immerse myself again. It's hard work, but it's beautiful.
This has been a big reset. Now we're only going to be open five days – and taking the two days off truly for myself and the family. It's also about offering our staff a good place to work and a quality of life. It's really opened our eyes to what's important. Close the door, go home and be a really good father and husband. Instead of being stuck in a time warp. In this industry – the hardest thing is to switch off.
But now I've realised, why waste the energy? I am going to put that energy into new dishes. Talking to staff. Opening a bottle of wine, drinking it, talking about it and learning about it. Because even at my age there's always something more to learn.

Paul Baker, Chefs on Wheels

Within days of entering lockdown, Paul Baker and his wife Annabelle launched Adelaide's Chefs on Wheels. What began as a temporary fix has now become a permanent new role.
Interview by Joanna Hunkin.
Paul Baker, co-founder of Adelaide's Chefs on Wheels. Photo: James Knowler
Man, I cried those first few weeks. It was crazy. I was scared. No one knew what this thing was. As a chef, you think, "Well, if it all goes to shit I can always get on a plane and go somewhere." I've worked everywhere in the world. I've never had a problem getting a job in my life. All of that got taken away from me in one fell swoop. There was nowhere to work. How do I make an income for my family? It felt like I had all my limbs cut off. There was no way of moving. That's what scared me the most, I've never felt so helpless.
We started Chefs on Wheels and just put all our energy into that. There were days that we were working 17 or 18 hours a day and we were so worn down – but it just had to work. It was really built out of desperation and a necessity to create a revenue stream to pay bills. From there, it just took off. We gave ourselves three or four days to prepare and switch a website on. It spread like wildfire. The website melted down on the first day and we had more orders than we could fulfil.
Normally for a business like this you would try and have a three to six months lead in. But we didn't have a choice.
The decision to leave Botanic Gardens Restaurant was more personal than a business decision. In hospitality, career comes before family and friends. It's very hard to balance your life with your job. Going back to Botanic would be going back to what I did before and I needed to change a few things. I wanted to bring balance back into my life. Chefs on Wheels is obviously a great facilitator of that. It won't be my be-all and end-all but it's definitely a stepping stone. I wanted to connect more with the customers and go back to the grass roots of why we do what we do. It's to cook for people and to nourish and look after them. I think that's what we did at the start, we were looking after people's souls.
At the start we said we're better in numbers so we have to work together as a community. We're not competitors, we're helping each other with a common goal. After the first couple of weeks, we realised, "We've got a business here that's going to work for us."
COVID-19 pushed us to where we are now but we've still got to keep working hard to keep it going. Plus, we still need to be spending time with our families and keeping flexibility in our lives. Making sure those things are in check. We don't want to leave our jobs to work in a situation where we're just bleeding ourselves dry like we were before.
Our daughter is three and she's out of her skin now. She's a very smart girl (I'm biased) but we saw a massive change in her just from spending more time with her, taking her to school and picking her up from school everyday. Obviously we're still working a lot but time is a lot more flexible when you own your own business and you don't have dinner service every night. We still have to meet deadlines but it's a more flexible situation. If she needs you, you're there. I've been to more kids parties than I've ever been to in my life. That is real quality time. That was the reason I didn't go back.
I looked in her eyes and thought, "No, I'm not going back to that. I'll do it for you."
This story was updated on October 15, 2020, to reflect changes at Leigh Street Wine Room.