How the restaurant industry bubble burst while you were marching

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As told to Maria Burke

Ohen I started in the restaurant industry, I was passionate about the art of cooking, the mechanics and the techniques. But the industry is no longer close to what it used to be. Now, you could have two people selling the exact same thing and one could be technically much better, but if that person can’t sell it on social media, it doesn’t matter. My hope is that food porn fades away. It’s fucking exhausting.

The restaurant industry was already struggling before the pandemic — a bubble that has been slowly deflating since 2014, though few people knew it at the time. In May 2020, what was left of it finally broke. It was seen as having the potential for exponential growth, when in reality it was a pop culture moment that lasted around 15 years.

People are just fed up. You can see it with the sheer number of people leaving the industry. I saw it coming. Big issues were already plaguing the company, like the lack of a living wage and anything else that contributed to the #MeToo movement. The industry is a very dark and archaic system that was based on the Napoleonic French army of the 19th century. Although some of that is gone, it still exists and there is still a lot of toxicity.

The person who most contributed to driving the industry was Anthony Bourdain, when he launched his book, Confidential kitchen, in 2001; he glorified behind the scenes of being a chef and brought out all the bad stuff – the drugs, the alcohol. I wasn’t even 25 and my decision to go to culinary school was pre-media and cellphones, but I remember when I read the book in 2001 I felt like every choice I had made to enter the industry was justified. He highlighted the blue-collar working class and elevated the profession where people in the industry felt more important and were finally gaining some recognition.

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I don’t know if people’s appetite for eating out will ever go away. I just think for restaurants it might come down to survival of the fittest because the business is not economically viable. It’s different from city to city, but here in Honolulu, with our exorbitant rents, it’s even harder to survive. People can’t believe it when they realize the cost of goods and what it costs to run a restaurant. For this city in particular, there is not much land left, and the cost of everything will increase. At ‘Ili’ili, we have organized several pop-ups with other local businesses on closing days. Either people will have to start shutting down or only serve $150 tasting menus.

People who eat in restaurants will also have to start paying more, because everything is going to cost more. The restaurants will still be there, but it feels like going to a restaurant will become more for an occasion again. In Hawaii, the idea persists that there should always be cheap restaurants. But the sad reality is that nothing is really cheap at this point.

I think there’s a lot of food here that’s really good – the people making it just don’t have an outlet. I’m thinking of Farmers Markets and ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace. It looked a bit sketchy, but wow, people were pulling out stuff that you wouldn’t normally see in Honolulu. What I would like to see is a return to tradition and people making really good comfort food. The list of types of establishments we don’t have here is as long as my body, anything from Southeast Asia outside of Vietnamese and Thai, anything from Africa, Spain, France, Germany, South America at large, even many regional Americans lack food.

This whole phenomenon of people in love with chefs just has to die. People have to do constructive things like starting a garden.

There’s a reason you don’t see old cooks and chefs: restaurants are run by young people. At least for the last 15 years, everything was very youth-oriented. There are a bunch of restaurants closing now. I mean, it sucks for people, but at the same time, it could be a good thing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Cecil N. Messick