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How to Open a Top-Tier Restaurant in a Pandemic? Rethink Everything

CHICAGO — The chef de cuisine was looking up mask prices online as the team at Ever discussed how to approach guests entering the new restaurant.

Under normal circumstances this would not be an issue. These customers would be paying at least $285 a head to be transported by peerless hospitality and the creativity of the chef Curtis Duffy, who is making his long-awaited return to Chicago’s high-end dining scene after he and his longtime business partner, Michael Muser, abruptly departed Grace in 2017.

Yet following a state recommendation, the restaurant would require diners to wear masks except when seated at their tables. So the team was contemplating providing each arriving diner with a tote bag containing Ever-branded personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

Days later, Mr. Muser reconsidered, and not just because the apparent $10-per-guest cost felt significant and most people carry their own masks now. If diners are supposed to “get lost in a world of food and wine,” he said, then maybe the restaurant shouldn’t greet them with: “‘Here’s your first-aid survival kit. Don’t die. Enjoy your dinner!”

In the best of times, building any restaurant from scratch is a fraught venture. But Ever is a hugely ambitious, high-concept dining room with an elaborate tasting menu, set to open Tuesday night in the thick of a public-health crisis that for many people has made the very notion of fine dining seem alien and scary.

As a result, preparations for the opening have become a series of lofty visions and constant, real-world revisions.

“If the world has taught us anything in the past three months, “ Mr. Muser said, “it’s that anything can happen.”

ImageThe dining room incorporates wooden  slats, layered plaster walls that evoke an eroded canyon — and tables distanced from one another.
Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times

Grace received three Michelin stars for four consecutive years before Mr. Duffy and Mr. Muser left in a clash with the owner. In June 2019, after waiting for a noncompete clause to expire, the two announced plans to open Ever in a new office building in the surging West Loop district. Mr. Muser estimated that backers have spent close to $5 million “to deliver to the city of Chicago the greatest dining room it’s ever seen.”

Its layered plaster walls give the impression of an eroding canyon that leads into a modern room punctuated by vertical wood slats, sliding panels and widely spaced tables. In mid-March, though, with about 60 percent of construction done, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a shelter-in-place order that would prohibit restaurant dining for months in Illinois. When, weeks later, the two partners set a July 28 opening date, it was a big roll of the dice.

On June 11, Ever emailed its mailing list to announce that two months’ worth of reservations were now on sale via the restaurant-ticketing platform Tock. Chicago restaurants had been serving outdoor meals for just eight days, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Governor Pritzker had yet to announce a date when indoor dining could start. There was also no guarantee that a Covid-19 resurgence wouldn’t prompt another shutdown.

When the city did begin to allow indoor service, on June 26, it capped capacity at 25 percent. Ever cut its seating plan to 40 guests a night, not using all of the dining room’s 14 tables at once, but still: Would enough people feel comfortable spending $285 or more for a 10-course menu that would keep them indoors for about two hours? Is this kind of luxury dining still appealing and viable in the pandemic?

Ever might be the test case. Alinea, currently the city’s only restaurant with three Michelin stars, has been serving takeout comfort food since March, and has made no plans to reopen its Lincoln Park dining room. (AIR: Alinea in Residence, an outdoor pop-up on a West Loop rooftop, opened July 1, though it closed for three days after an employee, who had not worked in several days, reported testing positive for the coronavirus. AIR reopened after co-workers tested negative.)

Nick Kokonas, a co-owner of Alinea and the chief executive of Tock, said the Ever partners “probably don’t have much of a choice as to whether or not to open.”

“They started raising money and building this out before the crisis hit,” he said. “At some point if they don’t attempt to open, the financial obligations will be weighty enough that they cannot open.” (Mr. Muser agreed with that assessment.)

John Shields, executive chef at the acclaimed tasting-menu restaurant Smyth, noted that for now, Ever also won’t be able to count on Grace’s out-of-town clientele. “I don’t envy them for trying to get started under this,” he said.


Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times

No wonder Mr. Muser was nervous when, at 6:30 a.m. on June 11, he announced the sale of tickets. By 9:15 a.m., all of the available two-tops were sold out, and tables for four weren’t far behind.

“I don’t think any one of us could have predicted that people were going to want to buy reservations that fast,” Amy Cordell, the general manager, said as she and Mr. Muser, wearing masks in Ever’s windowless office, watched the tickets sell on her computer screen.

“We opened a restaurant today,” Mr. Muser crowed.

But any feeling of triumph soon gave way to awareness that the clock was ticking. The team was behind in so many areas, like hiring; they had just lost two captains for travel and family reasons related to Covid-19. Even obtaining staff uniforms had become a headache; the store that supplied Grace had closed, so Ms. Cordell had to track down a uniform manufacturer online and collect the workers’ measurements herself.

Those were the minor problems.

“We would be idiots, foolish, silly, ungrateful not to look at what just happened with our reservations and be anything but humbled by it,” Mr. Muser said. “But inside my brain and my heart, I’m like every other American on the planet. I feel like we’re all just waiting for the next shoe to drop.”

Mr. Muser, 46, is the talker of the Ever partners. Mr. Duffy, 45, prefers to express himself through his cooking, though his intense glare also gets his message across.

Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times

The chef has three Michelin stars tattooed on his right hand, and he aims to recapture them at Ever. But a week into July, he was still conceptualizing dishes on paper because he couldn’t get into his kitchen amid the cacophony of behind-schedule work.

“I just want the construction to get the hell out,” he said, glowering.

Uncertainty over the availability of ingredients also delayed Mr. Duffy’s menu development, though the chef is prone to improvising.

“Is there less out there?” he said. “Yes. Doesn’t mean we can’t work around it. If we can’t get fennel right now, OK, fine, we’ll find something else.”

As it turned out, fennel would wind up on a dish with lamb loin and lamb tongue, braised sunflower seeds, grapefruit sections and mâche in a puddle of coffee gastrique.

In a conference room on the building’s ninth floor, Mr. Duffy and his chef de cuisine, Justin Selk, brainstormed an array of canapés to serve guests before they reached their seats. The idea was that the diners would pause in a corner to enjoy bites of food that hung from the ceiling on clips and sat on little ledges built into the wall.

But complications loomed. “They’re wearing their mask, they get to the corner — that’s going to involve them removing their mask to enjoy whatever these bites are,” Mr. Selk said. He suggested that towels be handy.

The two chefs imagined what kind of vessels might contain these small bites: spoons, shot glasses, hand bowls, corks, bark, cocktail pins, leaves, branches, a raspberry bush, dry ice or even a bed of sodium hexafluoride gas. Then they considered the food possibilities: Ibérico ham, fruit leather, cured fish, cold soup, bubble tea, tapioca chips, various crackers, savory meringues, frozen beets.

Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times

“They were going to be hung for a half-hour window, with multiple tables coming in,” Mr. Duffy said. “But with this whole Covid thing, I don’t know how many people are going to get weirded out by food that’s hanging there, knowing that someone else had walked through that. They might be weirded out just at the idea of hanging food anyway.”

By the time the full staff of 33 assembled for orientation on July 13, that last instinct had prevailed, and the bites had given way to “more of an art installation,” as Mr. Duffy put it. Now the ceiling and wall would showcase 75 ingredients to be featured in the coming meal.

“As opposed to eating it,” he said, “now you get to look at it.”

There may be some advantages to opening this sort of restaurant during a pandemic. The tasting-menu format, coupled with the advance sale of tickets, removes the uncertainties involved in food ordering, and the check average is guaranteed to be high. The attention to detail and highly ritualized style of service can help keep safety measures on track.

Ever is also able to start with a scaled-back work force rather than trying to support a staff hired in more flush times. By offering just one tasting menu instead of the two originally planned, Mr. Duffy can employ fewer cooks than at Grace, though the sudden departure of two last week left the kitchen short-handed, with four chefs and seven line cooks just days before opening.

Kevin Boehm, a co-chief executive of the local Boka Restaurant Group (which includes Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat and Lee Wolen’s Boka), said Ever’s “silver lining” is that the shutdown didn’t kill its momentum.

“It’s fortunate for them that they didn’t open and then have to close down,” Mr. Boehm said. “I love Curtis and Michael, so I root for them as human beings. They’re super-talented, and I think it’s good for our city to have another restaurant at that level.”

Mr. Muser’s orientation-day speech to the staff hit safety concerns hard and repeatedly. He urged everyone to stay away from other people when not at the restaurant, saying he didn’t want them to get sick or Ever to be shut down. Each employee arriving at the restaurant must submit to a temperature check, sign a health questionnaire and wear a mask at all times.

Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times

“We get to come here and be a part of something awesome, and that does not come free in 2020,” Mr. Muser told the group. “It comes at a cost.”

Yet coronavirus numbers keep rising in Illinois and nationwide. Hours after Mr. Muser’s speech, Gov. Gavin Newsom shut down indoor dining rooms and bars across California. New York City had already postponed its return to indoor dining, and last week Mayor Lightfoot announced that Chicago bars that didn’t serve food could not sell alcohol indoors.

“I don’t read the news anymore,” Mr. Duffy said. “I deleted it from my phone.”

Mr. Muser can’t wrap his head around the possibility of a future shutdown of indoor dining. “It just removes all the joy from my profession,” he said. “There’s no such thing as three-Michelin-star to-go anything.”

He checks the virus numbers every morning, then plows ahead, because there can be no hesitation when you’re in the final stretch of opening a restaurant. Most of Ever’s reservations through the end of September have been sold.

Last Tuesday, the kitchen plated the menu for him and the sommeliers Jessica Dennis and Ryan Rickelman so they could decide which wines to pair with, say, caviar and king crab nestled into a cucumber gel in which the Ever logo has been embedded with roasted coconut pudding.

Late Thursday afternoon, Mr. Selk and Chris Sullivan, a line cook, were hanging dehydrated foods — among them slices of dragonfruit, a maitake mushroom, a Fresno pepper and herbs in rice paper — in the hallway corner as the team prepared for the first of three nights of friends-and-family diners.

Mr. Muser was putting the finishing touches on his elegant solution to the P.P.E. question. He had hired the same craftsman who designed the walls to create a matching sculpturelike table that would sit inside the entryway to hold masks and hand sanitizer.

“It’s a $6,000 problem solver,” Mr. Muser said with a rueful smile. He called it “the Covid table.”

The automatic sanitizer dispenser wound up spewing so much goop onto the first guests’ hands that it dripped onto the floor. Mr. Muser made a note. One more problem to solve.

Source: nytimes.com

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