Chefs at Home Series
Not only does Chef Kim Alter cook up delicious Californian cuisine at her San Francisco restaurant Nightbird, but she’s also a savvy business owner and an altruistic person. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Chef Alter quickly pivoted her restaurant, by working with non-profits to provide high-quality meals to help those in need.
In addition to serving her community in these ways, Chef Alter also supports the broader restaurant industry. She’s part of three industry coalitions trying to save the sector, such as by helping those without lawyers and accountants get through the messiness of this period full of grants and other complex paperwork. Her coalition work also helps farmers by connecting with them to see what crops they have an abundance of right now due to restaurant closures or a lack of farmer’s market attendance. Together, they then work out a price that enables farmers to sell their produce while restaurants can make affordable meals for non-profits.
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In this current installment of our series of interviews with renowned chefs, Chef Alter shares what her experience has been like during the pandemic, and she also takes time out of her busy schedule to share a Miso Brassicas recipe for consumers to try at home.
Symrise: What have you been doing during the pandemic? It seems like you have been even busier than before almost!
Chef Kim Alter: Yeah, I keep telling everybody, I didn't think that I could be busier. Since around day two of shelter-in-place, we’ve been cooking for hospitals, African-American churches, and people in public housing and who are homeless. We're also doing a pop-up at lunch called Nightburger. And then we're doing Nightbird to-go at night. It's been difficult but I've been able to keep my staff and I've been able to pay all of their insurance, even the ones that don't feel comfortable working.
Symrise: What do you think of the growing trend during the pandemic, where people have been discovering cooking and baking at home, and people are experimenting with new recipes?
Chef Alter: I think it's great that people are finally starting to cook because it's fallen off so much, especially in the Bay Area. A lot of people working in tech, for example, often get their meals at work and they haven't had to cook as much, but now they somewhat have to. And I think it’s been awesome to see the interest, especially in breadmaking. I hope that that continues and that people now understand:
a) How hard it is
b) How important sourcing is
Hopefully this will lead to a different perception of value when they do come into a restaurant.
Symrise: Can you tell us more about your recipe for miso brassicas? Why is this a good dish to cook in these times?
Chef Alter: It’s a vegan interpretation of a really umami-focused sauce, and I think most people would have those ingredients, or at least be able to start with cooking down onions. And then I took some brassicas, just because I had some really beautiful romanesco from the farmer's market, and I seared it and then just put the sauce over it.
That's how I eat. I don't like to sit and have a full meal with a starch, an entree and a vegetable. I just want to have a whole head of cauliflower because I'm a weirdo. But you can put the sauce with basically any vegetable or meat and it would be delicious. It's a vehicle basically delivering salt and umami flavor; that’s how I would look at it.
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Symrise: Do you think that takeout and delivery will continue at the same pace once restaurants reopen?
Chef Alter: I think that most restaurants, especially in markets like San Francisco and New York where it's incredibly expensive, can't just do 25% or 50% capacity. We have to hustle on other levels. So when we're making our projections for the rest of the year, I'm looking at to-go, I'm looking at outside dining, I'm looking at inside dining. I'm looking at working with non-profits. I'm looking at so many different aspects to make my rent and pay my insurance for my staff that I couldn't just pick one. I would have to do all of them. And I probably still wouldn't make what I was making the year prior. So I think takeout and delivery will continue to some extent for a while.
But the issue is that there are so many amazing restaurants, including Michelin-star fine dining restaurants, now doing to-go, so the market is very diluted. Some of the most amazing chefs with the biggest following who make great food are sometimes only doing a couple hundred dollars a night in sales because there are just so many options for customers.
I also think at some point people are going to get tired of to-go. When you first open up, it's like, "Oh wow, it's so exciting. Nightbird is open. I'm going to go and have food that I've missed for the last few months." And then two months down the road, another place reopens, or people are just getting sick of all the packaging or having to drive and go get something, or the expense of it once you add delivery fees and service fees. So I think that it's very up and down. But restaurants still have to do everything they can, including takeout.
Symrise: What do you think the experience eventually might be like for sit-down restaurants when more reopen?
Chef Alter: When I was in Orange County, California, recently, that was the first time I've sat in a restaurant in three months. The use of masks and touchless payment and other preventative measures weren’t that bad, but we’ll see if people want to do that once more places reopen. If the whole world has changed and people don't want to sit down for three hours anymore, we’ll see how we can speed up the process and how we can still give hospitality when we're wearing masks and we're temperature-checking people.
We're still trying to figure out how we can give the experience and service that we've always given, but with half the amount of contact and in a way people are comfortable with. So we're just going to hold back and see what it looks like. But as of now, I'm going to try to keep doing all of these business models as long as I can.
Ironically, Chef Alter’s hectic schedule during the pandemic means that instead of itching to go out like many people are, she’s looking forward to being able to take some time off to enjoy a nice meal, a glass of wine, clean her house and sleep. After all her hard work, she’s earned it!
If you’re unable to try her food at Nightbird, you can get a sense of Chef Alter’s delicious creations by trying your hand at her recipe for Miso Brassicas.
Images courtesy of Instagram (@nightbirdsf).
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