In early 2020, Eric Huang, who had formerly worked as a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, began using the deep fryers at his uncle’s restaurant, Peking House in Queens, which closed during the shutdown, to make spicy chile fried chicken that he initially sold through his Instagram account. The venture, which he called Pecking House, proved wildly popular and enabled Huang to help his uncle with rent. (Orders, for either delivery or takeout, are now placed through a website.) In August 2020, the chef Anthony Strong closed his San Francisco restaurant Prairie and began cooking multicourse dinners in his Volkswagen camper van turned kitchen, which he named Stella, offering personalized dining experiences that can be booked through his website and enjoyed at San Francisco’s Ferry Building or in the diner’s own driveway. And in Detroit, the chefs Chi Walker and Nik Renee Cole, who previously hosted pop-up dinners around the city as Fried Chicken and Caviar, converted their business into a takeout operation, allowing guests to place orders on their website for a menu that focuses, as the company’s name suggests, on crispy fried chicken and briny caviar, with the option to add a split of champagne.
These foods are all designed to be eaten privately, and safely, at home. But in some ways, the technology used to order them creates a more direct link between creator and consumer than typically exists in a physical restaurant setting, highlighting the parties’ interdependence, as well as the hospitality industry’s ability to meet the most basic of universal needs — to be nourished, to survive.
While using technology in this way might be new, the underlying model is, in fact, older than it might seem: it echoes the informal economies that communities of color, in particular, have long relied on to generate funds for local causes or supplement household incomes. Consider the curry cue, a time-honored West Indian tradition in which plates of home-cooked curry are sold via orders placed by phone, and the proceeds are used by dance groups to buy carnival costumes. Or the bags of golden brown, crusty churros handed over to commuters in exchange for a couple of dollars on subway platforms. Or fish fries, barbecues and spaghetti or pancake dinners hosted by local cooks in support of churches, schools or scout troops. As Kim says, “these models have existed outside of the government and typically been used by Black, brown and immigrant communities, and we have to be careful about glamorizing that. It’s about survival.”
For many chefs, realigning their menu to meet the requirements of their local community has permanently changed the way they think about their work. Before the pandemic, the Michelin-starred Harbor House Inn, in the picturesque community of Elk on California’s northern coast, typically welcomed vacationers, but when travel ground to a halt last year, it forced the chef, Matt Kammerer, to reconsider the role of the business. “Our town only has 250 people in it, so we had to shift our mind-set of hospitality and think about how to nourish people,” he says. His team began offering dinners, ordered via the restaurant’s website or over the phone, for around $18 each — far less than the $220, excluding tax and gratuity, that patrons used to pay for the tasting menu — that were available for takeout or for free delivery to anywhere within a 45-minute drive. “The community was really grateful for the support,” Kammerer says. “It’s one of the good things that grew out of the last year.”