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There's a lot going on in the world, but Shelby the dog isn’t asking any questions. Until recently, the Doberman-Rottweiler-who-knows-what-else mix, a rescue from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, was accustomed to long evenings at home by himself. His owners, Kristen Essig and Michael Stoltzfus, would normally be out overseeing their two New Orleans restaurants, Coquette and Thalia. Lately, though, Shelby can’t help but notice that the two chefs have been around at all kinds of curious times. That includes evenings like this one in early May, when the heaviness of the air in their Lower Garden District backyard gives a hint of the humid summer soon to come. Stoltzfus picks up Shelby’s favorite plaything, a drool-soaked fabric fried-chicken leg, and sends it spinning across the yard for the dog to bound after. Life during a pandemic may be filled with anxiety, confusion, sorrow, and existential questions, but, for chef and beast alike, it’s hard to argue with the hours.
Not that Essig and Stoltzfus have been idle since COVID-19 brought its abrupt curtain down on American life. Far from it. Across the country, independent restaurateurs have been scrambling with a crisis of day-to-day survival: navigating a confusing set of government aid programs, weighing conflicting health recommendations, and facing confounding ethical dilemmas about how to keep their staffs, customers, and families healthy, all while asking the suddenly urgent question of what, at this time, a restaurant should be. Many have pivoted to takeout. Others have transitioned to feeding healthcare workers and those newly at risk of food insecurity. Restaurants are reinventing themselves as markets, as food-aid stations, as distribution centers for CSA boxes, as hubs of community gathering and information. What sets Essig and Stoltzfus apart is that they have been trying all these things, all at the same time.
At Coquette—the Garden District bistro that Stoltzfus opened in 2008, which has evolved into one of New Orleans’s top fine-dining destinations, particularly in the six years since Essig joined as partner and co-chef—the couple immediately began offering takeout, swapping the restaurant’s usually refined cuisine for homier fare like pork shoulder and fried chicken. On weekends, Stoltzfus has been adapting Coquette’s long-running and popular No-Menu nights (on which, in normal times, guests are told only a theme before arriving, like “Spanish Wine Trail” or “Breakfast for Dinner”) as meal kits to be cooked at home, complete with accompanying Spotify playlists.
Meanwhile, Essig partnered with a local artist and activist named Devin De Wulf on Feed the Frontline, a non-profit that created a daisy chain of community aid by employing restaurants to prepare meals for hospital workers, and hiring out-of-work musicians, another large group in New Orleans, to deliver them. The couple’s newer and more casual restaurant, Thalia, has been transformed into a twice-a-week market and community center where local farmers and vendors set up tables and CSA boxes are distributed. In a burst of what Essig calls “practical optimism,” the pair have also signed a lease on a new space—equidistant between the two restaurants—to function as a grocery and prepared-food store. It’s in an old chiropractor’s office, but the rent was simply too good to pass up. It will also serve as a place to make use of food that isn’t sold at Coquette or Thalia, a space to do cooking classes, and another source of employment for the company’s out-of-work staff. “It’s all about fluidity and flexibility,” says Essig.
But on this May night, as Shelby inexhaustibly chases his toy through the yard in the waning daylight, Essig and Stoltzfus are facing the most daunting task yet: figuring out if, when, and most complicatedly how to open Coquette’s dining room to guests again when New Orleans moves into Phase One of its reopening. That will mean restaurants are allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity, but there is little other guidance from above. Essig has spent hours scouring the Internet and news for advice and best practices, including a widely distributed set of guidelines published by Black Sheep Restaurants, in Hong Kong, which has become the backbone of her handbook for employees of Coquette.
If the mechanics of reopening weren’t enough, Essig and Stoltzfus have an even bigger ambition. For years, they, along with many in their industry, have struggled with how to address some of the inequities built into the way restaurants are run. COVID-19 starkly exposed those systemic problems, revealing just how many restaurant workers—and, indeed, restaurant owners—were just one unexpected event away from total financial ruin. But it also provided what might be a rare opportunity.
“We see this as a one-time chance to hit a hard reset on how we do business,” says Stoltzfus. “To try to make it better and more sustainable for everybody.”
Only a month before the pandemic shutdown, the company had, for the first time, been able to offer all its employees health insurance. Essig and Stoltzfus paid for that by firing their PR firm and deciding to forgo the circuit of festivals and appearances that has become a de rigueur part of the modern chef’s quest for exposure. Now they are planning on adding a 5% healthcare surcharge to every check at Coquette, which would go toward insurance and paid sick leave. That would allow them to also address the longtime, intractable problem of unequal pay between the kitchen and dining-room staff by raising the minimum wage for servers while having the entire team share tips.
“We need to be asking ourselves, if we’re not taking care of each other, what kind of ‘normal’ are we trying to get back to?” Stoltzfus says.
All this is admirable, to be sure, but given all the other challenges of reopening, also a little like trying to change your shoes while drowning.
Still, Essig and Stoltzfus’s excitement is palpable. Chefs are, by nature, workers. They spend their lives in the rhythms of restaurant service. “You can tell that nobody’s been in the dining room,” says Stoltzfus, who has been cooking for take-out in an empty Coquette for weeks. “It feels so dead and abandoned.”
The two are quiet, sipping their wine, as they contemplate the challenges to come. Stoltzfus shakes his head with a half-smile. “We’re going to work so much harder to make less money....” he says. As if to register the canine vote, Shelby drops his fried-chicken toy at his feet with a wet thwap.
The first fight Stoltzfus and Essig ever had was over the “temperature danger zone”—the range of degrees in which bacteria flourishes most aggressively— and how best to cool a fresh pot of gumbo. (Characteristically, Essig had it right.) This was after years of circling each other from afar in some of New Orleans’s most prestigious kitchens. They were introduced by a shared produce purveyor, who noticed that both were obsessive about ordering local ingredients. A romantic relationship developed, followed by a professional one.
It’s now early June, and Essig and Stoltzfus have assembled the Coquette staff in the dining room, with its stamped-tin ceiling, exposed-brick walls, and tiled floors, to prepare to reopen service later that week. In addition to the chefs there are a pair of managers, the sommelier, a bartender, and three longtime servers at the restaurant. Occasionally one of the two cooks working in the kitchen emerges to have Stoltzfus taste a dish he’s working on. Everybody has a mask, though how much time it spends properly arranged on each face varies.
Masks, by now, have emerged as a source of political tension throughout the US, with businesses like Coquette thrust unwillingly onto the front line. The restaurant has already taken a stab at reopening once, for brunch, two weekends ago, and it didn’t take more than half of the first day for the issue to raise its head: Despite having been informed in advance of the restaurant’s policy that masks must be worn except when seated, one member of a party of four bristled when asked to put one on and eventually left without sitting. Even cooperative customers seem to be confused; a photo in the local newspaper the next day showed one of Coquette’s customers arriving with a scarf loosely swaddled around her head. The entire experience was, Stoltzfus and Essig say later, exhausting, with little to show for the strain. After one more service on Sunday, it was with great relief that they decided to shut down once more.
Now, though, with a staff anxious to get back to work and New Orleans about to move into Phase Two, which allows 50% capacity, they are ready to try again. Essig begins to run through the new protocol for the staff: All guests will be temperature-checked at the door; Essig ordered noncontact thermometers, which have since become scarce, as soon as the pandemic hit. “People have offered me $1,000 for them,” she says. She’s also ordered a set of egg timers—cute and yellow—to place on tables after they are sprayed with disinfectant, to guarantee they sit for the proper three minutes.
Such are the new tools of hospitality, which also include a small paper bag for holding one’s mask, given to all guests as they’re shown to their seats, along with a single-use, disposable menu. Tables will be empty, Essig continues, except for a small spray bottle of lavender-scented sanitizer. Seats will be arranged at an angle, to minimize the amount guests need to touch their backs in order to sit down. Once items are brought to the table—silverware, water, dishes—they are effectively “hot” and can be removed only with gloved hands. “The new white-glove treatment,” someone quips. That means no refilling water or wine; no replacing napkins or idly picking up stray trash on the way past the table. It is not easy to unlearn the years of muscle memory that a professional server has accumulated, and harder still to suddenly acquire a new set of habits more suited for an ICU.
“It’s really difficult, the number of things we are used to being able to do for our customers that we just can’t right now,” says Essig. “ ‘Can I switch tables to be by the window?’ No, you can’t. ‘Can I add another person to my table of four?’ I’m sorry, no.” For all that, she insists, the moment holds enormous potential; could there be a more radical example of hospitality than keeping people safe and healthy?
What’s becoming apparent, as the afternoon goes on, is how complicated an organism a restaurant is; how many intricate systems must be thought out anew. Each decision seems to imply three more: All staff will need to wear masks, so music will need to be kept lower, allowing guests to hear servers speak. Masks need washing, so the restaurant will help with laundry for any staff that doesn’t have it at home. In the kitchen, where staff will need to be smaller both for safe distancing and to reduce labor costs, the menu will shift toward dishes with more elements that can be prepared in advance. Less done à la minute—just before serving—means fewer times a cook has to pull down their mask to taste; there will be more stews. Sending out a “gift” course of soup, in the midst of what will be a three-course set menu, also helps keep staff numbers down—giving the same cook time to prepare an appetizer and entrée. On and on it goes; there is no part of the life of a restaurant that will not be to one degree or another transformed by the reality of the coronavirus. And so what will open its doors in a few days as Coquette will really be an entirely new animal, dressed up in Coquette clothing.
Which brings the conversation to the deeper changes in store for how the restaurant operates. Stoltzfus explains the tip sharing and healthcare surcharge, as multiple sets of eyes watch him warily over the tops of masks. Tips are part of a career server’s muscle memory too. One server, named Darcy, worries that customers will complain about the surcharge, or take it as an opportunity to tip less. “Have you considered just upping the prices?” she asks.
“It’s part of starting the bigger conversation,” says Essig. “We feel that it’s important for us to set the bar for other restaurants in this city.”
Adds Stoltzfus, “If you’re spending $100 on dinner here and complaining about an extra $5 to keep people healthy, maybe you shouldn’t be eating here.”
The staff agrees to try the new system, reserving the right to let Essig and Stoltzfus know if it isn’t working.
“Look,” says Stoltzfus. “Kristen doesn’t like it when I say this, but in the next few months we’re going to see if this restaurant works the way we want it to work. And if it doesn’t?” He shrugs. “Maybe we close. Maybe that’s not the worst thing.” There is quiet as the room contemplates this, and the enormity of the task ahead. Then Darcy raises a hand. “One more question,” she says, deadpan. “I’ve gotten used to not wearing pants over the past three months. Is that going to be a problem?”
The reopening a few nights later goes as smoothly as one could hope. There is a steady flow of tables of two, and while there are a handful of awkward moments—“It feels like a first date,” Essig says, quoting one of her managers— everybody adheres to the rules. Running the kitchen, Stoltzfus admits to being a little out of shape; too many nights home with Shelby. Essig has to occasionally remind him to lift his mask back over his nose. When the first paid receipt that includes the health surcharge comes chattering through the kitchen ticket printer, Essig folds it up to keep as a souvenir. Everybody seems happy to at least be going through the motions of normalcy. In the dining room, if you squint your eyes just so, and take in the music playing over the sound system, the clink of ice cubes in cocktail glasses, the murmur of conversation, the smells of food as it moves past on the way to tables, it’s possible to feel, for a moment, a great swell of nostalgia for the Lost World.
And now, suddenly, it’s July, which brings with it proof that nothing is simple and no path straight, in the time of COVID-19 or any other. Coquette has run smoothly for a few weeks, albeit while losing money, but as cases surge across the country, especially in Louisiana and several neighboring states, Essig and Stoltzfus decide to once again push pause and return to offering takeout. At the end of the month, a local chef named Melvin Rogers Stovall III posts on his Instagram page a series of accounts by former Thalia employees of Essig’s behavior toward them. These include charges of widespread hostility and bullying. Over the next several days, similar stories emerge among employees of both restaurants, giving extra vehemence to what many employees see as a dramatic disconnect between Essig’s public progressivism (both with the press and prospective hires) and her private behavior. Three days after the posts, Essig indefinitely steps away from her involvement in both restaurants.
Meanwhile, the market held at Thalia continues, hosting more and more vendors and producers from across New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana and reliably producing a line down the block, even in the summer heat. Feed the Frontline has morphed into Feed the Second Line, which employs younger musicians and artists to deliver meals to more elderly culture-bearers. Construction has begun on the new grocery and wine store, which has been named Superette, with a sign written in a jaunty script, and Stoltzfus is in negotiations to take over the food and beverage program at a much-loved hotel (with a large porch for outdoor distancing) on St. Charles Avenue.
The future of restaurants, it seems, may indefinitely include all these functions, in any number of different combinations. As for Coquette, Stoltzfus stands by what he told the staff: If the new, more equitable model he wants isn’t possible, he will tear it down and start again. That too is part of a chef’s character: You build a dish and then tweak it; tear up the menu at the last minute; build something new. You try your best and you move ever forward, into the twisty unknown.