Our sommelier's a takeout cashier now: Inside a restaurant's overnight transformation to stay alive

Our dining room used to hum with guests. Now we're serving reminders of normalcy, one to-go container at a time

Published April 25, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Takeout container in a fancy restaurant (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Takeout container in a fancy restaurant (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

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"Yes, chef!"

I'm bagging as fast as I can but can't seem to catch up to a merciless printer that's rat-a-tatting tickets with a ceaseless buzz. My upper lip is sweating beneath my hospital-grade mask and my glasses fog up with every breath. Hot items in one bag, cold in another. Just three weeks ago I was overseeing 100 employees as general manager of a buzzy, high-volume restaurant. Now I'm frantically bagging to-go orders in the kitchen. The rapacious spread of COVID-19 — and our governor's shelter in place mandate forcing restaurants to close except for takeout service — has changed everything. Mayor Eric Garcetti issued the forced closures for Los Angeles on a Sunday night. By Monday, we were open for takeout business.

It's 7:20 p.m. on a Thursday night and our dining room is empty. Chairs lean against vacant tables in a bleak reminder of the isolation the coronavirus has wrought. The bar that used to be stacked two-deep with thirsty patrons is now a repository for takeout containers. Our communal dining table — remember those days? — is now a makeshift liquor display. Prime tables T21 and T22 are the cashier's stand, outfitted with a POS terminal relocated from a nearby service station and a lone bottle of hand sanitizer. Our special events director has ditched her Jimmy Choos to work the phones at what used to be the host stand. A half-dozen iPads to catch orders from UberEats, Grubhub, DoorDash, et al, fill the empty space where guests used to stand waiting for tables. 

I race to the front of the restaurant with two die cut-handle bags loaded with to-go food, passing our level three sommelier, who's been working as the cashier. In a former life, he would glide through the dining room and decant bottles for discerning guests. Now he rings up grocery items and swipes credit cards. He still manages to up-sell bottles of wine to those picking up food, articulately espousing the virtues of Carricante versus Vermentino as he rings people up on the POS.

But no time for that now. The eerie quiet of the dining room offers only a brief respite before I run back to a kitchen that seems ready to burst at the seams with well-orchestrated chaos.

"Rigatoni in the window!"

The rail is a pastiche of chits. The expo's slashing items off tickets in Sharpie as dishes hit the pass. And the orders keep coming. Two roasted chickens, stuffed mushrooms, a pork chop, a whole branzino and a mid-rare ribeye hit the sauté station all at once. Chef directs traffic. "Sauté — you should have three pork chops working. I need that eggplant parm on the fly. Pasta! You owe me two pappardelle, a linguine and a paccheri, extra spicy. Time?"

"Three minutes, chef!"

Our baby-faced pasta chef Carlos — his daughter's name tattooed in script across his right forearm — supervises six bubbling pans; he adds Reggiano to one, a few drops of pasta water to another. This smooth Oaxacan is beloved for his furious work ethic and the homemade moles he makes for family meal. The pasta station is getting hit particularly hard tonight, but he's holding his own.

I'm not so lucky. I'm falling behind. I place an arugula salad (dressing on the side) in one bag, waiting on a side of rapini for a veal chop in another. My knees creak as I bend down for more bags; at least my New Balance sneakers are a pleasant relief from my usual oxfords.

Some days it feels like a losing battle. Not just my struggles at the pass, though years of management have left me soft as a kitten's belly. I mean this entire venture. The coronavirus has decimated our business to the point that we're barely able to stay afloat. We're all working longer hours, yet we're still selling less than we would on our slowest night. It feels like we're trying to empty a swimming pool with a butterfly net. I'm scared for our future. How long can we remain viable? We're selling vintage wines and spirits at ridiculous discounts just to keep the doors open.

My shoulders ache and I'm riddled with anxiety all the time. I didn't realize how much of my identity I tied to my job. I miss the thrum of dinner service, finessing a full room with easy patter and splashes of prosecco. When can we reopen? And will the people come back? We're all worrying about that, but trying too hard to be positive to say it out loud. This new normal feels nauseatingly real, and more so every day. It feels frivolous to complain given the circumstances of all Californians — particularly the medical personnel dealing with the virus on the front lines — but nevertheless, those feelings keep bubbling up. This new life is humbling in the extreme.

"Fire the board!" Chef shouts, signaling his team to begin plating all tickets.

Rogelio's in full command at the sauté station. He looks like a Disney villain — prominent hooked nose, sinister thin goatee — but he is an absolute stud on the line, flipping slabs of ciabatta effortlessly as they toast on the grill. I'm envious of his sheer physicality, of the muscle memory created from years on the line. He rubs salt on the skin of a Mediterranean sea bass, then splashes it with flair from a squeeze bottle of extra virgin olive oil before sliding it in the oven. The air is redolent of roasted garlic and lemon zest.

What started as just takeout has expanded out of desperation to a full boutique grocery store, selling everything from eggs, 00 flour and Maldon salt to sliced mortadella and dried pasta — all the inventory we've got. Ideas swirl for new carry-out revenue streams for the recently quarantined: bagels and lox for brunch, mimosa kits, family-style Sunday suppers, cambros of mirepoix.

Now it's 8 p.m. and the whiskey geeks are back, desperate to escape their homes if only for a little while. They inspect laser etchings on vintage bottles for authenticity and rhapsodize about the merits of mizunara oak in Japanese whiskies. Recently, a minor debate broke out over which floor of a rickhouse is best for aging barrels. (Apparently, it's the first.) They're clustering around the shelves as much as our new pandemic protocols will allow — we've had to tape 6-foot barriers on the floor in blue painter's tape to enforce social distancing.

Delivery app drivers wait up front for orders, cell phones in gloved hands. Where we'd once send desserts or a round of drinks to our regulars, we're now tossing a complimentary roll of toilet paper into their bags. Phones ring. iPads ping. Printers spit tickets. The nights are relentless.

We're going through two cases of to-go boxes a day. Our 25-gallon sauce pot simmers constantly to keep up with the demand: tomato sauce, Bolognese, pork ragu. We've ordered 40 cases of San Marzano tomatoes from our grateful suppliers, a marked increase on our usual 15-case order. Where many restaurants simply threw in the towel and shuttered their doors, we're one of the few still actually ordering product since the forced closure. Plus, our ad hoc grocery store/take out service is keeping 80% of our kitchen staff employed. On hard days, this helps me keep things in perspective.

And so, despite all of the changes and stress, morale remains high. I see now that we're the lucky ones; we still have a job to go to. And we see the fruits of our labor every time a guest comes to grab takeout and thanks us for staying open. They say our food – even though they're having it at home – brings them a comforting sense of normalcy. It feels good to contribute, even just in this small way. The coronavirus has brought forth a newfound solidarity. We know every day we're able to come together and fire up our burners is a victory. We're doing everything we can to ensure there's a restaurant to come back to when this is all over. Sore shoulders are a small price to pay.

By Chris González

Chris González is a Los Angeles-based writer who dreams of dark coffee, perfect sentences and of one day becoming so wildly successful that he routinely leaves summer homes as restaurant tips.

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