The year 2020 sucked for so many reasons. But one area it shone was in the creativity and kindness of the food and small business community. We saw laid-off chefs launch their own pop-ups in restaurants that couldn’t stay open for service; other restaurants cleared out the dining rooms and opened up onto the street to create a market of local home and kitchen goods, some selling meal kits so regulars could make their favorite dishes at home. Chefs donated hundreds of lunches and dinners to health-care workers and opened their doors to share family meal with unemployed service workers. Small businesses selling condiments and spices faced supply-chain delays and limited product launch opportunities, yet found ways to keep their customers engaged; a museum where guests used to eat together created virtual spaces to share a meal and a conversation.
It’s with all this brilliant work in mind that we wanted to share these stories with the Food52 community, superlatives-style. Allow us to present: the first (and hopefully, only) Quarantine Awards.
"When I lost my job as an executive pastry chef for a restaurant group in NYC, one of the things that I missed the most was creating a sense of community through restaurant-based fundraising events. Reflecting on my past annual holiday baking classes to benefit Lenox Hill Neighborhood House and the annual blowout bake sales I organized to benefit Planned Parenthood, I knew I wouldn't be able to execute events of that scale without the facilities, staff, and budget that come with working at a restaurant. It felt like I had to completely reimagine my approach to activism and community building, and that felt overwhelming and scary! Luckily, there have been many profound ways for me to give back, like moving my baking classes online to virtual platforms like Kitchen Rodeo and DEMI Community; participating in socially distanced bake sales held at local spots like Archestratus and The Fly; continuing to share and develop recipes for some of my favorite NYC nonprofits, like God's Love We Deliver and The Food Education Fund; and dropping off pastries at community free fridges and pantries.
"I've derived a lot of comfort and love from continuing to nurture that side of me. I've even really relished the smaller, simpler, and more intimate scale of these events—it doesn't have to be a big, splashy affair to make a difference." —Natasha Pickowicz
This weekly essay from writer Alicia Kennedy examines food through the lens of the environment, politics, labor, and more. Interviews with people who work in food, from recipe developers to educators to small business-owners, are also available to paying subscribers.
“This year I was able to focus on launching my newsletter because of the time and audience afforded me by the pandemic, and the financial cushion offered by the CARES Act gave me the freedom to work on it without too much worry. It’s now my main source of income and has broadened my readership substantially, as my newsletter features broad cultural critique grounded in food that isn’t really found anywhere else. Food media wasn’t allowing me the space for what I wanted to write, so I created it myself.” —Alicia Kennedy
Sisters Kim and Vanessa Pham launched their company of “starter kits” with shelf-stable sauces in April, right when many other businesses were slowing down. Knowing they had a product that would only benefit those who were cooking from home more often, the Phams pushed out vibrant social media campaigns and harnessed the talent of trusted chefs to help generate attention. Bonus: Their kits make recipes with longer ingredient lists more attainable in a new reality where grocery shopping became challenging.
“Launching a business during a pandemic is a wild ride. For us as founders, it took the idea of ‘wearing many hats’ to the next level. (I've never done any videography, but had to learn how to produce and shoot all the recipe videos on our site!) But bigger than that, we were given the opportunity to bring proud, loud Asian flavors into kitchens across the nation. This period of reflection gave us the clarity that cooking with ease and cultural integrity—two things 2020 really called for—is what we're all about at Omsom.” —Kim Pham, co-founder, Omsom
Nigerian iru, or fermented locust beans, are part of chef, writer, and artist Tunde Wey's disappearing condiments project and brand FK.N.STL. The brand aims to promote indigenously produced condiments that are slowly being ousted by larger mainstream spice sellers. Their iru is currently sold though single-origin spice company Burlap & Barrel, and a restock is expected in January 2021.
"Global capitalism through multinational and national food and agriculture corporations is steadily co-opting and reconfiguring the contents of kitchens on the continent. This collaboration is a small way to push back on that hegemonic agenda. Plus, dishes made with iru slap! So it’s a win-win." —Tunde Wey
Founded by chef Jing Gao in 2018, Fly by Jing is the result of Gao's search for identity (she went by the anglicized name "Jenny" for 25 years). This included opening a restaurant in Chengdu, making Sichuan chile crisp in bulk, then scaling up the project into a formal business. In November, the company rebranded with a new label design, social media campaign (including videos detailing Gao's personal journey with her name), as well as new product launches and merch.
"I was in India when the pandemic hit, with every intention to stay there for a couple more months to continue sourcing beautiful spices, and spend quality time with our farm partners across the country as I do every spring. But at the end of March (peak harvest season for most of our spices like turmeric, pepper, chiles, cumin, and coriander), India went into one of the strictest, most mismanaged lockdowns in the world. We knew that our farm partners were in a real tough spot and wouldn't be able to maintain the wages for their laborers without support.
"Farm laborers are usually migrant/Dalit workers who get paid every day, without much of a safety net, nor enough income for savings to tide them through. Our decision around piloting health-care programs in 2019 and slowly rolling them out to all our partner farms was in large part to provide a better safety net to farm laborers. We put out a call to our community asking for preorders on the 2020 harvests. We were able to raise $120,000 in a matter of days, make 100 percent advances on all our spice harvests by mid-April, and keep every farm worker employed and as safe as possible. We weren't able to fulfill those preorders until early October, and were so grateful to the thousands of people willing to wait six-plus months for their spices, with patience and grace.
"Despite it all, Diaspora Co. grew five-fold this year, and 12-fold in the past two years. We've grown from a one-woman operation into a seven-woman team, and from just one spice—turmeric—into eight spices sourced from six states, and many, many more to come! —Sana Javeri Kadri, CEO and founder, Diaspora Co.
“50Hertz Sichuan Pepper was founded on a simple belief that this unique spice and its tingling sensation is the next flavor in the culinary world. In May, Fuchsia Dunlop, the esteemed chef, author, and thought leader on Chinese food, recommended our product on her Instagram. In July, The New York Times recognized our product; in the following 24 hours, we had orders for 20,000 bottles!
"While thrilled by the demand, we were immediately faced with enormous pandemic-induced logistical challenges. Producing 20,000 bottles of oil in one go was not an easy undertaking. My supplier worked three shifts into midnight and delivered three tons of Sichuan pepper oil in 10 days. Flights between the U.S. and China were massively reduced, but we managed to find a Delta flight from Beijing to Atlanta. It was a miracle that we were back in stock in three weeks.” —Yao Zhao, founder, 50Hertz Sichuan Pepper
Halliday's gluten-free pastries and cakes caught our eyes on Instagram—and led us to her pop-ups at restaurants in Brooklyn. At home on the couch, we snacked on her spiced ginger molasses cookies and rainbow-sprinkled Pop-Tarts while watching her lead inspiring conversations on IG Live.
“I've really steadied myself on my foundation this year—leaning into my community, really being with people, listening, serving their needs, and staying open to seeing where things are going to go next have been key. Pivoting for me was effortless because I'm clear that standing for my vision of success with Brutus is always (pandemic or not) more important than standing in a specific idea of success. I'm open to being guided by what is needed rather than only seeing things one way. Those principles have served me and have seen me to where I am today.” —Lani Halliday
“When it became apparent that we would not be opening our exhibition African/American: Making the Nation’s Table, we had to rethink what it meant to be a museum. We hesitantly tried our hand at virtual programs in early May, and to our delight, they managed to feel warm and intimate, despite taking place over Zoom.
"The best part was that the community—extending well beyond New York City—was able to attend. As our virtual programming offerings expanded, so did our global community, a pandemic silver lining if ever there was one. Beyond the basic format of panel talks, we’ve launched a series that incorporates cooking demos and ingredient boxes that allow attendees to cook and eat together at home, a virtual workaround since our in-person programs always involved eating and drinking together.” —Sari Kamin, public programs director, Museum of Food & Drink
"Bakers Against Racism was started after a month-long stretch of my doughnut pop-ups benefiting our undocumented workforce. When June hit, I felt helpless, like everyone else. After chef Willa reached out to see if I was willing to host one more pop-up, my wheels started turning. I reached out to chef Rob for graphics and showed Willa the new project: Bakers Against Racism. We were hopeful maybe 80 bakers would participate. Then we went viral.
"I felt so proud to be a part of something bigger than myself, a collaborative of bakers that stand in the gap for Black lives, my life. Since June, we’ve activated three times and have raised over $2 million and counting. I love what we have been able to build together. We bakers are strong and loving. I hope that we can keep #bakethechange we want to see in the world." —Paola Velez, co-founder, Bakers Against Racism
“For me, it started with a DM to Paola, who I barely knew, to see if she would want to collaborate on a small bake sale. Paola really had the vision to turn it into something bigger, and I never would have been able to see that without her leading us. I think this is one of the main takeaways for me: Sometimes you have no clue that other people feel the same way as you until you ask. Bakers Against Racism would have just been an idea if it weren’t for all the amazing bakers (professional, amateur, and everywhere in between) that answered the call to action and made it real.” —Willa Pelini, co-founder, Bakers Against Racism
“Bakers Against Racism was a collective of many. The creation of this bake sale was out of a need for change across the globe. Silence was/is not the answer. The fight against racism in our food community needed a spark, so all could light a way in their communities. Thanks to Paola and Willa, I was able to be a conduit that helped connect many together on a shared mission.” —Rob Rubba, co-founder, Bakers Against Racism
"When the pandemic hit, we shut down the dining rooms of all Flour Bakeries and Myers + Chang. Since the spring we have been a takeout and delivery-only business. Even with a decent takeout business, however, we are seeing a fraction of the guests we used to—since so many people are working from home and not coming into the city. We realized that if our guests can't come to us, we should figure out how to come to them.
"So we've created baking kits at Flour that allow you to make our most popular treats at home; we hosted weekend pop-ups in popular suburbs during the summer and fall (and are picking back up in the new year); we created “take and make” kits from M+C that you can pick up to re-create our most popular dishes at home. Anything we can do to bring the spirit and amazing food of Flour and M+C to our guests during this challenging time!" —Joanne Chang, chef/co-owner, Flour Bakery, Myers + Chang
When indoor dining stopped at the start of the pandemic, this restaurant needed to pivot hard. In a solution that aided their business as well as artists within their community, they turned their dining room into Hunky Depot, selling everything from wine, condiments, and cookbooks to notebooks and home goods. They also hosted a number of guest chef pop-ups and got rid of tipping in consideration of the concept's inequitable origins.
"I've always felt that food, wine, art, and community exist in the same orbit, so it felt like a natural evolution for us to shift into a full service market that connects our neighbors with local farmers, small family-produced natural wines, and local artisans and makers. This year has been tough, but being able to work with other small business owners and discovering new ways for our space to be useful to the surrounding community has been a joy." —Erin Lingle, chef-owner, Mola
"From the start of quarantine, we kept our triple-bottom-line mission at the top of our minds: people, planet, profit. Those values helped us to decide to spend a period of time serving our neighborhood customers with groceries. We were maintaining some cash flow, selling what we had on hand (plus ordering fresh produce and dairy), and providing a service that could keep our neighbors close to home. We've since pivoted to include baked goods and sidewalk sales, but our no-contact, outdoor service method has remained the same all year." —Lisa Ludwinski, chef-owner, Sister Pie
"During the shutdowns this spring, we had some time to consider our place in our community, as well as the values we hold in our restaurant. Navigating the challenges of our new reality, economy, and priorities, we decided to convert our dining room in Winooski, Vt., into a market and deli. By pivoting to nourishing take-home offerings, our new aim is to send people home with a piece of the love and commitment to great food and experience we share in our restaurant. Now, it's about helping folks create those really special moments that we used to host here table-side, but in their own spaces. For us, it's a new and exciting way to approach hospitality." —Laura Wade, owner, Misery Loves Co.
"Before the pandemic, Submarine Hospitality was operating two seasonally driven fine dining restaurants: Ava Gene's and Tusk in Portland, Ore. When the shutdowns began, people were really scared. Our neighbors were telling us they were afraid to even go to the grocery store. We were trying to figure out how we could take care of them and comfort them without being able to host them in the dining room.
"We streamlined our menu to focus on comfort foods like take-and-bake pasta, house-baked bread, hummus, cheese, and wine. All the things you want to eat when you're stuck at home, without sacrificing the quality standards we're known for. We even started serving pizza (the ultimate comfort food) from our restaurant Cicoria, which was still a few months from opening. Our customers order online, and we deliver the food to the trunks of their cars in a safe, no-contact fashion. For me, a really important aspect of staying open has been giving members of our team some stability in a world that feels very unstable. —Joleen Morris, chef de cuisine, Ava Gene's, Tusk, and Cicoria, Submarine Hospitality
Chef-owner JJ Johnson launched Fieldtrip’s “Buy a Bowl” program, where people could purchase meals for hospital workers via the restaurant's website, as well as partnered with a local Boys and Girls Club and a chapter of HeadStart to provide prepared meals and produce boxes to food insecure families.
"I know the word of the year is the "pivot"—we just buckled down and focused on the community, on doing what was right, using food as the vessel to keep people happy. Also, we're in a community where most people wouldn't put a fast-casual restaurant. But in these times it really helped people who were looking for food, and for deliciousness." —JJ Johnson, chef-owner, Fieldtrip
Owner Louis Hunter started Trio Plant-Based (Minneapolis's first Black-owned vegan restaurant) in 2017, following his wrongful arrest the year prior. After peacefully participating in a Black Lives Matter protest against police violence (in this instance, stemmed by the murder of his cousin Philando Castile), Hunter faced prison time; with the help of his community, he beat the charges and opened the restaurant. When protests hit the area again this summer after the murder of George Floyd, Hunter donated food and hand sanitizer, as well as a safe space to rest, for protestors and journalists. Hunter continues to work to feed and support his community and just ran a holiday toy drive to benefit a local women's shelter.
"We strive to give back to our community because there's no other way we see it. We came from a struggling place, and if we have it, we're going to give it back. It's really us walking in God's work...I just give back with my heart, and that's what Trio was based off of, heart and love." —Louis Hunter, owner, Trio Plant-Based
“We typically provide ‘family meal’ for our staff twice a day. So, when we were forced to lay off some of our staff in March, we told them to keep coming by for family meal so we could feed them. It was only a matter of days before they were asking if they could grab a couple extra for their roommates who had also been laid off. From there, the numbers doubled every day, with the line wrapping around the block, and 500 meals a day flying out the door at its height.
"The community really rallied around us in the form of monetary and food donations. Anytime anyone reached out in need, from diapers for their babies, to Easter baskets for homeless kids, to clothes, all we had to do was ask. The community gave, and we facilitated the donations, even crowdsourcing delivery to those in need. Thankfully, the numbers have fallen as more get back to work, unemployment kicked in, and others are also helping to feed the people. But family meal continues: seven days a week from 3 to 4 p.m. Just stop by if you’re in need. No questions asked.” —Isaac Toups, chef-owner, Toups’ Meatery
Though the nonprofit restaurant and culinary training space for those at risk of being unhoused is no longer operating regular service, they partnered with numerous local restaurants to feed those displaced by the pandemic staying at temporary shelters.
Directed and produced by Guy Fieri and Frank Matson, this film follows the day-to-day challenges of running a restaurant during a pandemic, as chef-owners faced layoffs, business closure, and illness. The film will be aired nationally on Food Network on December 27.
“Our line focuses on underwear and loungewear made from organic and sustainable fabrics, which is all designed and produced locally in Los Angeles. Each season, we ask our cutter to save the excess fabric from production. We then repurpose the materials for our zero waste collection, which launched at the end of 2019. At the beginning of the pandemic, we weren't sure if we would be able to launch a new, high-quality product in less than a month (our typical lead time can be a year or more). With the hard work of our amazing community of makers, we were able to develop, launch and produce over 1,000 units of non-medical face coverings in March and April, all out of materials we had saved from going to the dumpster.
"With those sales, we were able to refine our design and also create enough units to donate to over 20 organizations across the country that were in need of face coverings for their staff! We are so happy to be of service to everyone, even in a small way.” Misa Miyagawa, designer and owner, Botanica Workshop
"Back in March, most of our industrial customers went dark, and for the first time in 99 years, our shop went quiet. We didn't know what we should do, so we did what we could do: switching our entire cutting and stitching operations over to making masks and bringing in the rest of the crew to clean, pack, and ship them. We went from wondering how we'd keep the lights on to hiring more people than ever before. And 100,000 masks later—over half of which we donated—we're going strong, and we are ready for the next 100 years." —Paul Lordan, owner, Steele Canvas
"Guided by the belief that food is the fuel for the revolution, Fuel the People nourishes and supports protestors on the front lines, and the community in D.C. and NYC by providing meals from local Black and POC-owned restaurants, chefs, and businesses. To us, fueling the people also means fueling our communities. We bring meals from these restaurants to protestors to help sustain them so that they may keep fighting for freedom and justice for us all. Since we began in June, we've fed over 40,000 people. Education is one of our core values, and we also work with scholars and experts to create material for social media. Our goal is to bring awareness about important moments in Black history and the role of food and other forms of mutual aid in social justice movements." —Gaïana Joseph, Allegra Tomassa Massaro, Roodharvens Joseph, Lorenzo Massaro, co-founders, Fuel the People
"For the past five years, up until the lockdown in March, we have both had full-time restaurant jobs. For two of those years, we’ve also run our (mostly) Vietnamese food pop-up on the side... So many places have opened up their doors to us and reached out to collaborate, which has meant we’ve been able to work with some of our favorite people in New York—it all accelerated so fast! It went from a side project, just for fun, to our full-time gig much faster than we had anticipated.
"It’s unlikely that we would have been able to bike our cart around as frequently, or as energetically as we have been, had it not been for the many days spent at home, brainstorming feverishly with one another. We, along with so many others from our industry, have also spent this time reflecting upon the deep-rooted changes that need to be made. Stepping away from the day-to-day work in a kitchen has shown that 'business as usual' cannot continue. This period of constant pain and uncertainty has deepened our belief that we need to make way for a new model of restaurants—one centered in community, connected to the people we are serving, employing and caring for." —Sadie Mae Burns and Anthony Ha, founders and chefs, Ha’s Đậc Biệt
"I launched Doshi during the pandemic because I simply ran out of excuses. The concept had been in my thoughts for over a year, and as I like to say, I'm a slow-ferment. The concept of Doshi (doshiraks are Korean prepared and packaged meals) was a timely launch during the pandemic, as the model was to-go and takeout. I'm ever so grateful for the reception and support, and I'm moved by those who opened up their kitchens to share their spaces and knowledge." —Susan Kim, founder and chef, Doshi
"We started our pop-up in September 2018 and relaunched it again after my partner and I got laid off from our restaurant jobs. When I started it again in June 2020, we got so much support from our close friends and the Indonesian community here in L.A. Every week we got busier, and a lot of new customers have become regulars now. I am so thankful for the supportive community here in L.A., especially during this time, as a restaurant server.
"This pandemic was a big hit for my life: I lost my job. But this pop-up is really helping me, not only financially but also mentally. It helps me not to focus on all the bad things happening and makes me focus on what I love to do (cooking Balinese food), and what I want to do in the future. I can't thank all of my customers enough for helping me get through this rough year.” Niti Putu Suarniti, founder and chef, Bali Mesari
"I started Vicky G’s as a catering company the October before the pandemic, so there was a brief honeymoon period before the sofrito hit the fan in 2020, so to speak. In those first few months, holiday parties kept business going; so when people abruptly stopped gathering during the quarantine, it really stung. I put any brick-and-mortar dreams for Vicky aside and started to focus on the pickup and delivery aspect of the business. I started offering my empanadas frozen so people could buy in bulk and bake at home while quarantining. I didn't even have a driver's license until I started doing deliveries!
"I don't have any employees, so it's tough to be the one making the food and driving it around on top of trying to be your own hype girl. On the bright side, the pandemic has really united the small food businesses in my community. We had no choice but to band together, get creative, and help each other survive." —Gabriella Vigoreaux, founder and chef, Vicky G’s
"Amidst all of the bad, 2020 gave us the opportunity to slow down and get back to our roots. Our community has given so much to us...now, we feel it is our duty to give back to nurture our city through what we know best: food. We’ve been able to cook recipes that have been resilient for generations within Mexican, Thai, and Lao cultures. With our culinary background, we are taking this food and elevating it further for a comfort food experience unlike any other. Despite every fallback, we've worked harder to cook that which defines us. Pivot or die, baby." Asia Keovorabouth, co-founder and chef, Mijo Gordito
Which chefs, restaurants, and small businesses have you loved supporting this year? Tell us about them in the comments!
On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.
Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.
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