Restaurants in the time of Covid-19

24 Apr

Season to Taste, Pagu mix it up after Covid-19, giving to-go meals the flavor of improvisation

Robert Harris prepares a to-go meal Tuesday at Season to Taste in North Cambridge. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Before the Covid-19 crisis, we were preparing to profile two semi-finalist James Beard best chefs from Camberville: Tracy Chang of Pagu and Carl Dooley, over at Table at Season to Taste (the other locals on the list, Seizi Imura of Cafe Sushi in Harvard Square and Cassie Piuma, serving up Turkish infused plates at Ana Sortun’s Sarma in Somerville, are repeat nominees). Both shut down before Gov. Charlie Baker’s St. Patrick’s Day mandate to close restaurants. But the ovens have remained hot, reflecting where we are and where we are going.

While Table at Season to Taste remains shuttered, chef-owner Robert Harris has continued to evolve catering at umbrella company Season to Taste. “I’ve got a plan to get us back to normal,” said Harris, who was on a ski trip in Colorado when the mandate came down. He returned to Cambridge to lay off 30 employees. Part of his plan is to make Season to Taste’s traditionally “bespoke” catering for corporate events, weddings and parties – with menus dictated by the client – into a Season to Go, a food pickup service at the 2447 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge, storefront.

Taking orders through delivery services GrubHub, DoorDash and Caviar, Harris and a team of three (chef Mark Thompson, a dishwasher and prep helper and Harris’ wife, an attorney, when need be) react late in the afternoon to an influx of orders for Cajun-style fettuccine Alfredo, crispy tofu curry and classic, grass-fed, tender burgers, still crafted from the seasonal and local. Harris had to reconfigure the space to be more like the kitchen for a dine-in restaurant; within it is a mad orchestration that looks to have butting points and bottlenecks, but everything ultimately flows with accent and purpose.

He is retooling Season’s online presence for a model of meals to-go that he expects to linger before a return to business as usual. “Not until we have comprehensive testing for all, a vaccine or antiviral treatment,” Harris said, “and that’s about six months out, right?”

Pagu’s charitable project

Tracy Chang went from serving tapas at Pagu to sending meals out to frontline health care workers through the Off Their Plate project. (Photo: Tom Meek)

At Pagu, at 310 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridgeport, Tracy Chang too has reconfigured her spacious open kitchen and dining area for another mission. Gone is the boar’s leg (it was part of the Spanish-inspired jamón ibérico) on the stainless steel kitchen counter/dining bar, where you could sip wine and watch Pagu’s battery of skilled cooks make Spanish-Japanese fusion tapas. Also gone are the backlit bottles of high-end Japanese whiskeys and other liquids. What’s replaced them are 20- and 30-pound bags of pasta and rice and CDC-compliant packaging materials for bulk meals, as Chang toils daily to help feed health workers battling Covid-19 on the frontlines. She volunteers as part of the new Off Their Plate, an organization dreamed up by Natalie Guo, a Harvard medical student with a background in business, who reached out to Chang and Ken Oringer of Little Donkey and Toro with a simple goal: Raise cash, feed medical workers and put laid-off service industry workers back to work.

As the project got underway March 19, Chang said, she and her team sent out 90 meals; today the organization operates in nine cities and has raised more than $2 million. “We did 10,000 meals this week, and we’re projected to do 15,000 next week,” said Chang, a new mother with seemingly limitless energy.

She hoped to hire back her laid-off workers who supported families in other countries or were the only one in their families here who could get work during the crisis, Chang said. But she’s been so caught up with Off Their Plate that she hadn’t really thought about a return to normal restaurant operations – which she realized was changing when Takeda, the biomedical firm with labs overhead and whose workers made up a big part of her business, sent everyone home.

Like Harris and Season to Taste, she realized that those big clients and events might not come back quickly, or at all. “I serve tapas, food you share with someone else,” she says. “With this, who knows what that means down the line.” In the interim, she’s grateful to a compassionate landlord and focuses on bringing food to frontline workers in a clean and safe manner. The bulk of her delivery has been done, without compensation, by Central Square Florist – even after one of the florist’s vans was broken into Wednesday.

What should people have in their homes to eat during the coronavirus crisis, according to the chefs? Pasta and rice. Harris said the great thing about pasta is that you can add anything in your fridge to it to make a meal – if you’re getting a CSA box, pasta with spring vegetables makes a sophisticated and satisfying meal with little effort. Chang, a fan of rice and curry, was more about a day-two use: “You could have rice curry fresh one day and then fried rice the next day with whatever protein you have in your fridge.”

 

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