In late February, estimates for the duration of COVID-19 lockdowns lasted just a couple weeks. Yet here restaurant owners are today, three months later and $52 billion poorer, with restrictions only mildly eased and waves of protests rolling across the country. “Flattening of the curve!” tweeted President Trump almost two months ago. “Two weeks to flatten the curve has become three months to decimate the state,” points out one observer. “It was originally two weeks to flatten the curve. It’s now 10 weeks,” says another.
For Michelin starred chefs, two weeks could turn into nine months. “It’s not going to be easy, but we are definitely reopening,” says Eric Ripert of Michelin 3-star restaurant Le Bernardin. “September or October at the latest.” Fellow New York City chef Danny Meyer agrees, “We won’t be welcoming guests into our full-service restaurants for a very long time — probably not until there’s a vaccine.”
In mid-May, only 13% of Michelin-starred restaurants were open globally. Generally expected to be the last class of restaurant to reopen, Michelin diners care as much about ambiance and service as they care about food quality. With masks and social distancing undermining the enjoyment of fine dining, most restaurateurs have simply opted to wait.
“We will probably have a smaller menu with less choice,” Ripert said. “We’re going to have to make some very big sacrifices at the beginning.” Alongside Ripert, the two other chefs in New York City with Michelin 3-star restaurants are opting out as well. Thomas Keller’s 3-star Per Se is silent on social media about reopening plans, and Daniel Humm has temporarily donated his 3-star Eleven Madison Park kitchen as a commissary for underprivileged residents. He still plans to remain closed indefinitely, with reporters at Bloomberg skeptical that he will ever reopen.
On Thursday, all three chefs participated in a benefit event in Times Square, calling on insurance companies to extend business interruption insurance benefits to affected restaurant owners across the country. “We need to shine a light on the need for federal support and fairness from insurance companies,” tweeted Ripert on Thursday. All three chefs are members of the Business Interruption Group which organized the event, a 15.6 million member lobby seeking insurance relief for restaurateurs. The three chefs are also members of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, founded three months ago. Individually, Keller advises the White House directly as a member of the Food & Beverage Great American Economic Revival Industry Group (GAERIG), formed by President Trump on April 14.
In San Francisco, Michelin 3-star chefs are actively lobbying as well. Dominique Crenn of 3-star restaurant Atelier Crenn retweeted Amnesty International yesterday, “Peaceful protest is a human right.” Before the pandemic, Crenn employed 70 people. Today, she is “in the process of imagining the post-pandemic world she wants to see” with no calendar date for reopening.
Fellow 3-star San Francisco chef Michael Tusk is silent on Twitter, as is his Quince partner Neil Stetz. Corey Lee and Brandon Rodgers of San Francisco’s 3-star Benu have no calendar date for reopening, although they are serving scheduled takeout meals.
Patrick O’Connell of 3-star The Inn at Little Washington has decided to reopen, one of the first to do so in the country. The Inn is offering “a new dining experience” starting this weekend. According to reporters at CBS, that will include masks, gloves, sanitizing equipment, a limited menu, and mannequins to prompt social distancing.
“It all came out of the necessity for creating space between tables,” says the starred chef about his increasingly popular choice to place mannequins in empty dining room seats. “Even if you should arrive and be the only party for a while, you feel like you’re not alone,” says O’Connell. “They’re creating a little narrative. One man is proposing on bended knee to his girlfriend, and she’s looking very surprised. The others are trying to figure out what is going on at that table and turn to stare. They’re all drinking wine. And this allows our waitstaff to play.” O’Connell’s attempt to trend the hashtag #ManniSelfie has earned no posts on social media as of today.
Almost all chefs have been participating in Congressional lobbies for restaurant industry relief. This month, they successfully convinced the House of Representatives to pass the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Flexibility Act, which could eliminate key restrictions on the use of billions of dollars in fiscal aid. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has exhausted over 77% of PPP funding to date. Restaurateurs are also championing Microloan debt forgiveness. SBA Microloans are designed to assist low income entrepreneurs, including restaurant owners.
Michelin director Gwendal Poullennec has told reporters at AFP in France that this year’s rating will not be delayed. Michelin competitor Gault & Millau will also publish its guide on-time, although it is delaying rankings for individual chefs and sommeliers.
Another Michelin competitor in the United Kingdom, 50 Best Restaurants, has cancelled its 2020 ranking outright.