Black and white photography always has a dramatic impact. Before even reading the article, I was haunted by the black and white image of the piece. Chairs turned upside down on tables, as if the morning mopping is just over and the restaurant is soon to buzz with life. This was exactly how I remember Gabrielle Hamilton for the first and only time we met. We had an appointment together with Rob Tate, the director of many outstanding documentaries, to convince her to shoot a food documentary in Turkey. She did not even go into details, she was convinced, and she wanted to do it. She had full trust in Rob, and that was it. She was quick and sharp, and there was no nonsense. The rest was a bit gossip of the food world. She was funny, witty, and again sharp.
The picture I mentioned appeared in an article written by Gabrielle Hamilton herself that appeared in the New York Times Magazine dated April 23. It was about the closure of Prune on March 15, her 14-table only East Village restaurant in Manhattan, New York City. Though the picture reminded me of that morning, it was not quite the same. When I went to meet her about eight years ago that early morning, she was vibrant and lively, full of ideas, and hopes. Now she looks devoid of that energy, her face distressed, as if a big question mark hangs above her head, as if asking what next. Her question was the caption itself: “My restaurant was my life for 20 years. Does the world need it anymore?”
With four James Beard awards hanging on her wall, success of 20 years does not really save the situation. She questions, wondering if there will still be a place for such small self-sustained restaurants in the future. She asks that for the New York of the future, but the question is relevant for anywhere in the world, any big city that tends to devour its small establishments.
Hamilton notes down that, upon her sharing a picture of packing survival-food kits for the staff, one immediate response came from José Andrés, saying: “We will win this together! We feed the world one plate at a time!” Andrés, himself was just about to initiate his campaign to feed the ones in need. The Spanish-American celebrity chef is a pioneer in giving a helping hand to others. He had established together with her wife Patricia, the WCK-World Central Kitchen, a non-profit non-governmental organization providing meals to people in the wake of natural disasters. COVID-19 is a sort of natural disaster, a true crisis leaving many jobless and helpless. Andrés, joined by many other colleagues, mobilized his staff and transformed some of his venues to soup kitchens serving over 50,000 meals, also reaching out to local hospital staff.
On the other side of the picture, there is big money funding a group of restaurants in their portfolio, or some top-chef venues with a bucket of awards in their hall of fame. Obviously, most could survive to maintain their staff for the past two or three months, but unfortunately some of them, if not most, chose to furlough their personnel the first thing in the wake of the crisis. In welfare states, social security may be in place to support its citizens, but we all know that most staff in those famed multi-starred places is from other countries, mostly low-paid interns that had sacrificed hard-earned money, sometimes bank-loans, to travel and be accepted in those starry celebrity places, in hopes to carve a place in the glittery world of best of the best dining shrines. Actually, very few kept their staff paid during the lockdowns, or turned their efforts to charity organizations, instead many opted for sending pitiful messages like go-fund-me, or pay-now, eat-later, kind of approach. Hamilton says she rejected that approach, not finding it ethical at all, while several other no-name establishments down the corner were suffering, with no hopes of getting such funding.
This being one side of the picture, there are ones taking a positive and pro-active approach. One strong woman in Turkey, Gamze Cizreli, is an entrepreneur who started anew in 2007 by founding her popular café Big Chefs in Ankara, after successfully running two places with her former partner in the same city. Soon the place expanded to having 64 branches in and out of the country attracting investment funds. Knowing each other from our mutual Ankara past, she invited me to have a chat to show her latest menu designed like a fashion magazine, a playful one with loads of QR codes linking to 23 totally Turkish brands, which she names under the title “Proudly Ours.” The codes enable you to shop online while waiting for the order, or just listen to music with the codes, and get into a cheerful mood, even if you’re dining alone in these days of social distancing, quite a positive and clever approach to cheer up in these moody days.
Having noticed that Cizreli kept posting what she calls “family pictures” together with the staff at each of Big Chefs branches, I dared to ask her whether she furloughed her staff, as I knew most café chains of the same segment did so. To my relief she did not. She said her primary choice was to support not only the staff, but also the suppliers of the chain. That was the moment when I noticed on the first pages of the menu-magazine, there was also a list of food suppliers, all women entrepreneurs, farmers, producers, and cooperatives that are purveyors of Big Chefs, again all local, all “Proudly Ours.” In times when small establishments are crumbling down, and bigger ones becoming even more shark-like, it can only be called thinking “big” to put forward and promote small producers, especially small businesses of women, so Big Chefs gets credit for that. It is time to think positive and proactive, and display a creative and constructive approach. The rest will come easier!