COVID-19 has caused many a business to adapt to changing circumstances in order to survive. Such is the condition of many chefs in the Charleston area. Since the advent of COVID has shut or slowed many restaurants, some chefs in the Lowcountry - and elsewhere - have found work doing private cooking for small groups or families right in their homes.
Chef Emily Lane was already doing that, cooking for families three days a week. But she said the Coronavirus changed the way she works. When the virus first hit big, there were shortages at grocery stores where she shops for some of the items she prepares for her clients. "That was very challenging, trying to figure out what I was going to make each week." She plans menus after discussions with her clients, she said, but "for a couple of weeks there, it was 'I'm gonna have to see what I can find on Tuesday, and I'll let you know.'" Other changes included the need to wear a mask in the grocery store and keeping distance in homes while cooking to keep herself and her clients safe.
And safety is always foremost on the mind of chef Ty Kotz, who lost his best friend to COVID in March. When he arrives at a client's home, "the first thing I do before I even unload anything is to get in the kitchen and completely sanitize it myself, regardless of how clean it is." He uses a disposable spoon under the corner of his mask if he needs to taste something, "and throughout the evening I'm just very conscious of everything I touch, which takes extra thought."
The participation of the family or group - properly spaced around the kitchen, of course - is part of the fun of the event. Kotz puts on a show while cooking similar to what Japanese steakhouses do when cooking in front of their customers. "That's exactly what I do," said Kotz. "Unfortunately, during this time of COVID, we need to be a little more spaced out, but you can still get pretty close to the action. I'm literally cooking everything right there in front of you. It's a lot of fun for people to really see what goes on, and a lot of the fun is 'gee, how does one guy do this for 10 people?'"
The chefs depend on social media and word of mouth to get the word out about their services. Chef Lauren Furey enjoys forming relationships with her clients - as they all do - and she even picks up cooking tips and traditions from their families.
"The other night I made some stuffed zucchini bits," she said, illustrating her point. "And the woman I was cooking for said that her mom used to make them, and she shared some of her tips. And those are stories that can be carried along from cooking party to cooking party. And at the end of the day, it makes it so that the experience never really ends. The experience is something they'll remember past the meal itself."
Like the other chefs, Kotz prefers cooking for small groups in homes to cooking in a restaurant. "I get to share what I truly love." In a restaurant, he said, "the dining room's in another place and you very rarely get to have interaction with the guests. You might go say 'hi' to a table or they might come in the kitchen and say 'hi,' but that's not the same as literally standing there cooking for them the whole evening."
Lane said some of the habits she's developed during the COVID months will remain after the virus has subsided. "I don't think we can ever stop, or go back to where we didn't think about the fact that a virus could be living on a surface. So I think a lot of the cleaning is gonna stick around, the extra cleaning."
All three chefs find their work very rewarding and enjoy the relationships they build with their clients. They agreed that cooking in the age of COVID-19 has given them a greater awareness of providing for both the enjoyment and the safety of others.