Like others sheltering in place during the pandemic, married couple Alejandra Nicolon and Andre Lev Pavlik have been experimenting in their home kitchen. They tried focaccia, and they attempted croissants. Then, when Nicolon tried her hand at making bagels, they knew they had something great. “It’s a very good combination of everything a bagel should be,” says Pavlik. “It’s a fluffy bread that’s shaped like a bagel, so it’s very fat and firm, gentle, with lots of flavor.” They started getting positive feedback from family and friends, and soon enough, they started their own business. Now, Nicolon now bakes up to 60 bagels a day in their home kitchen, while Pavlik preps and does accounting.
It might sound like grueling work for home cooks, but the duo has plenty of experience: Nicolon was recently laid off from her job as a pastry chef at acclaimed fine dining destination Eleven Madison Park, while Pavlik was previously sous chef at Tom Colicchio’s FiDi restaurant Temple Court. They’re currently booked on bagel sales for two weeks.
Nicolon and Pavlik are among a slew of workers from some of the city’s top restaurants who are finding that now is a uniquely ripe time for entrepreneurial pursuits. Laid off due to the shutdown and without the overhead of rent, many chefs and bartenders say that there’s more flexibility to be inventive with their business ideas. Daniel Burns, from closed, Michelin-starred restaurant Luksus, is making meals ranging in cuisines, from pork katsu to spaetzle with duck confit, and Kate Telfeyan, formerly the chef de cuisine at Bushwick’s popular and eccentric Mission Chinese Food location, has been cooking up dishes like cumin-spiced lamb and kimchi stew and delivering them by bike herself.
But with so much uncertainty in the restaurant world, these new enterprises are not only a way to make some cash right now. Some say the ventures allow them to connect more deeply with their neighbors — and provide an opportunity to rethink the entire restaurant model.
“I think that restaurants are not going to come back and that’s fine,” says Telfeyan. “Personally, I think that there’s a need for imploding the system as it is now and figuring out a system that makes sense.”
For now, the businesses are casual, with chefs and bartenders taking orders over text, Instagram direct message, or email and mostly accepting payment by Venmo. The benefit of few costs like rent, employee salaries, or insurance payments, though, is that the food itself can be more experimental, chefs say. Colin Bixler, who works at Williamsburg pizza shop L’industrie, is now selling baked goods through a service called Quarantine Breads after he tinkered with recipes for research while staying home to reduce risk of infection, as his wife is pregnant. Burns, who cooked Nordic cuisine at Luksus for three years, now doesn’t have to stick to a particular style to unify a single restaurant menu. He’s served spaetzle with duck confit, spicy Korean rice cakes with pork ragu, and he’ll be grilling piri piri chicken for a new pop-up at a local bar called the Diamond.
“I’m completely doing whatever comes to mind, and whatever I’ve been excited to cook,” he says.
In the past, platforms geared toward connecting cooks with diners to provide home-cooked meals haven’t fared well; New Yorkers, it turned out, prefer to be out and about and eating meals from professional kitchens. Such platforms were also criticized for bypassing food safety regulations, and ultimately, they’ve failed to gain traction. And like their predecessors, most of these newer delivery start-ups are operating in a legal gray area for the time being.
Still, they’ve gathered momentum for reasons other than the obvious market force of no more dining rooms: This new wave is being driven by more individuals with deep experience in the restaurant industry — and has expanded through a network effect of trusted recommendations. At first, the customers of these operations were mostly friends, but then those friends told others who posted about it on their Instagrams, and so on.
They haven’t faced any hesitation from customers, many of the chefs say, but instead are hearing from people who are excited to have options that they wouldn’t have otherwise accessed. While they might not have all of the proper licenses, all the people Eater spoke with cited professional restaurant training as evidence of their ability to operate safely as they think through legitimizing their operations.
Instead of stalling the chefs, questions about allergies and cross-contamination that come alongside growing demand are prompting them to consider expansions and long-term sustainability. Telfeyan is seeking an actual space, as are Nicolon and Pavlik.
It’s led to a rich new landscape of shared food experiences, as groups of friends and neighbors who are tied by ordering from the same out-of-work local chefs and bartenders. Pavlik and Nicolon, for instance, have mostly sold through a network of Facebook groups for mothers living in Manhattan, from the Upper East Side to Gramercy Park. Telfeyan only delivers food to the neighborhoods of Ridgewood, Bushwick, and Bed-Stuy, since she does it on her bike.
Many of the customers for a new cocktail delivery service called the Fox Club were regulars of popular East Village bar Death & Co, where the service’s co-founder Shannon Tebay was previously head bartender. She runs it with Nathan Lithgow, an owner of Tribeca restaurant Holy Ground, and together, they’ve seen people use bottled cocktail delivery as a way to send gifts to friends and coworkers, building upon the feeling of community. “I think it’s a really nice thread of this whole subculture that’s developing right now,” says Lithgow.
Burns has lived in Greenpoint for seven years, and his impetus was partly a desire to do something for the neighborhood. After his initial 2020 plan to consult on new openings was scrapped, he got hooked on making biweekly meals from his home kitchen and delivering them on the Long John bicycle he brought back from Denmark, where he worked at Noma. Besides his plans at the Diamond, he’s also thinking about teaming up with his friend Nick Padilla of Alameda, another bar in Greenpoint, for the summer.
“I think everyone is thinking more about, and hopefully it will continue after the COVID times, [their] immediate community and how [they] can make an impact and collaborate,” Burns says.
Telfeyan, who launched her business after missing making family meals for her coworkers before service, imagines that the strengthening of community ties could lead to a “much more cooperative” future, referring to the recently popular idea of turning restaurants into cooperatives. Her hope is to eventually have a space where a team can make a larger quantity of meals or condiments like chile oil, by co-signing a lease with another purveyor or local producer. Ridgewood, where she lives, is already a community-oriented neighborhood where “we go to the butcher and then we go to the baker… it’s sort of provincial in that way,” she says.
The pandemic has not only expanded that notion, but it’s also empowered her to fit into it, she says. “Walking over to someone’s house who I’ve never met before, on a street that I’ve never walked down, and realizing that there are all these people in such a short radius that are hungry and interested in food and willing to support is really cool,” Telfeyan says.
A smaller enterprise may also allow for more flexible hours than what a traditional restaurant could provide, says Bixler. While he still has a job at L’Industrie for now, he recognizes that becoming a dad will impact how frequently he can be at the pizzeria, including late nights and long days. He plans to formalize his operation with licensing so that he can increase capacity.
“I would love for this to continue to be my side hustle [where] every Tuesday and Thursday I know that I’m in my house, making bread for the neighborhood,” he says.
But reimagining the future of food service is a requirement and not just a goal, since fine dining is unlikely to return in a meaningful way for years, some say. Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group has already suggested that restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern are unlikely to reopen without a vaccine, and all across the country, fine dining restaurants are switching their business models to be more casual.
Many of these chefs are eyeing expansion out of necessity. Instead of returning to their former restaurant jobs, Nicolon and Pavlik want to rent a commercial kitchen space and scale their delivery operation, a prospect that works by starting lean now and focusing exclusively on takeout and delivery.
“It’s going to take maybe a year or two for the fear to die down,” Pavlik says. “I have really no interest as a customer eating out at restaurants, away from people in my own little bubble at a table.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Alejandra Nicolon’s name.
Emily Wilson is a freelance food writer based in Brooklyn.