When the restaurant industry found itself facing a whole new world during a pandemic, many of us learned to adjust to cooking more at home, placing to-go orders, and sadly, saying goodbye to some of our favorite places to eat. Adjusting to the changing times also became critical for the people in the kitchens who provided us with those memorable meals. As their livelihoods were affected, chefs and industry professionals had to pivot. Many relied on the power of social media to showcase their talent and tap into their cultural pride with meals created from their own home kitchens.
Meal delivery services aren't new, but cooking from home during a pandemic has given professional chefs a particular freedom to create dishes from the heart, without the structure or restrictions of restaurant kitchens. And it has given us the beauty of restaurant quality food in the comfort of our own homes. Weekly menus sent straight to our doors offer a taste of the world with dishes like earthy moles, juicy shrimp dumplings with chicken consomme, braised oxtails, and masa ball soup, a Mexican twist on the Jewish classic.
Before the pandemic hit, chef Cecily Feng was the pastry sous chef at Los Angeles's acclaimed Osteria Mozza. She created Little Sparrow as an homage to her Chinese roots and favorite flavors from childhood. "It's a dream to set my own hours and have sole creative control. Home is definitely my safe space where I get to work at my own pace. Perhaps the best part is I get to work in savory and pastry, so I get the best of both worlds. What I miss most about working in a restaurant kitchen is the teamwork element and of course, I wish I didn't have to do so many dishes" she said.
Feng's weekly menu includes Hong Kong Shrimp wontons, which were inspired by Mak's Noodle in Hong Kong. "I ate at Mak's in 2014 and haven't stopped thinking about their shrimp wontons ever since. I knew I wanted to give others a taste of these magical wontons. The shrimp wontons are super juicy and when served with seasoned chicken consomme, I feel transported back to a trip that inspired my food journey in so many ways."
After Phert Em was furloughed as the general manager at Bar Amá in March, she used her past experiences in food pop-ups around Los Angeles to create Khemla, which offers Cambodian dishes each week like kha (caramelized pork belly and oxtails) and grilled market whole fish with spicy tamarind sauce and coconut rice. "When Cambodian New Year was fast approaching in April, festivals were canceled and people weren't celebrating with their families. I really wanted to do something. Creating Khemla was my way of celebrating and bringing some joy to my fellow Khmer community. I didn't know what to expect, but I knew I was excited," she said.
"I was born in Guangzhou and grew up eating dumplings and wontons for Chinese holidays and special occasions," said Feng. "I can recall a lot of family gatherings where the main activity was folding dumplings. I definitely gained the most knowledge sitting with my mom and grandmother, watching them make the filling, and learning how to fold dumplings with them. Not everything I do is 100 percent traditional. I've incorporated flavors from family recipes, skills I learned while attending culinary school, and eating all of the amazing Chinese food Los Angeles has to offer."
That celebration of culture and nostalgia serves as a driving force of inspiration behind many of these chefs' menus. It's also an opportunity to connect us on a global journey of taste, even if we aren't doing it within the walls of a restaurant.
Elizabeth Heitner started her journey at Lucques as an intern under Suzanne Goin. She quickly fell in love with Goin's approach to cooking and worked her way up to lead line cook. Once the pandemic became widespread in Los Angeles, the whole staff was let go and the restaurant closed shortly after. Heitner knew it would be difficult to find work, so she began to think about how she could keep busy and obtain another source of income. She started selling to-go meals from her home, and it grew into a pop up where she serves Mexican-inspired Jewish food in restaurants around Los Angeles, including Melody Wine Bar.
"Cooking Jewish-inspired food has helped me connect to my heritage. Diving into the history of dishes and ingredients has given me a whole new perspective on what it means to be Jewish. My Judaism was always rooted in food and every holiday I looked forward to gathering around the dinner table with my family. During my time at Lucques, I fell in love with Nestor Silva, my chef at the time. Mexican flavors filled our home as he shared his culture with me. My food is a representation of our bond and our two cultures merging into one. We both have an affinity for cooking, and it was the first way in which we truly connected," she said.
Her favorite menu item is a pastrami taco, served with salsas divorciadas, hibiscus onions, and fermented peppers. "I only recently learned how to pit smoke and it's truly a labor of love. The brisket is brined for seven days in a mixture of sugar, salt, and dried herbs. It is then rubbed in pastrami spices and smoked with white oak for 14 hours. I make the tortillas by hand using organic blue corn masa. It reminds me of my days growing up in New York City eating pastrami sandwiches on my way home from school," she said.
For New Orleans-based chef Hoda Tahmasebi, cooking is also just as much as recalling a memory as it is a labor of love for her customers. Before the pandemic, she worked at the city's famous Jacques-imos, as well as a few of her own pop-up dinners. Persian food is not widely available in many Southern cities and Tahmasebi is changing that with Persian Lime. The weekly menu features traditional dishes like karafs, a celery-based stew, and ghormeh sabzi, which includes fenugreek, lamb, and kidney beans.
"I'm basically cooking my mom's recipes. I grew up eating this food every night and I still love it and crave it. I learned how to cook them over the phone while I was in grad school in New York City. Little did I know, I'd make a business out of it 15 years later," she said.
Janet Bacerra and her partner Jonathan Ragsdale were both working as chefs in Seattle before the pandemic. As they transitioned to being home, they used the opportunity to tap into family recipes by creating their seasonal pop-up, Pancita. “This is the most I’ve cooked at home. I’m first generation Mexican-American. I grew up eating tamales for Christmas and spent my summers eating carne asada tacos. The food at Pancita reflects that. It’s not traditional, but it pays homage to the classic dishes I grew up eating. My mother taught me how to cook. Well, she mostly let me watch, but I took a lot of visual notes. On good days she would allow me to grind tomatoes in the molcajete,” said Bacerra. Their menu features items like curtido, a fermented cabbage relish that they remix with beets, and vegan mole tamales.
The challenges and oddities of 2020 have called for a type of ingenuity that has been implemented everywhere from the travel industry to home kitchens. And if there is anything that can bring a feeling of happiness and comfort, it's food—even in the middle of a pandemic. Flavors that can evoke nostalgia and gratitude with each bite, and have sustained us all, thanks to the creativity of chefs.
"If I can put a smile on someone's face through one of my delivered meals, I'm doing something right," said Em.