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Story Publication logo July 30, 2021

‘We’re at the Crossroads’

A chef prepares food for takeout at Reverence, a fine dining restaurant in Harlem.

Sara Sheridan's reporting project follows the pandemic struggles of fine dining through the story of...

A masked chef in his kitchen
Chef Russell Jackson opened the fine dining restaurant Reverence in Harlem just months before the pandemic began. Image by Gary He. United States, 2021.

Chef Russell Jackson was tired. When his New York City restaurant, Reverence, opened in August 2019, guests could sit at the U-shaped chef’s counter beneath 14-foot ceilings. The buzz of Frederick Douglass Boulevard would hum from the other side of floor-to-ceiling windows, and diners could watch as he and his team swiftly, silently plated courses of locally sourced, California-inspired dishes, like Koda Farms barley and Hudson Valley nukazuke in a pool of vegetable scrap puree, topped with Santa Barbara uni. But this past March, Jackson peered at me through the camera on his laptop, a new $400 air purifier humming behind him. He let out a sigh, rubbing his hands over his face, dusty with five-o’clock shadow. It had been a year since the start of a pandemic that’s killed more than half a million Americans and decimated countless industries — the restaurant industry more than most. “Honestly,” he said, “I’m broken.”

Reverence is one of hundreds of thousands of independent restaurants across the country maimed by COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, restaurants were in a precarious position, squeezed between ever-increasing rents, food costs, and payrolls. A September 2020 Yelp report found that more than 32,000 restaurants across the country had closed between March and the end of August — 61 percent of them permanently. And that was before the fall and winter surges, which resulted in an exponential rise in virus-related hospitalizations and deaths, followed by new rounds of closures and restrictions. By March 2021, that number had climbed to nearly 80,000 restaurants, while, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as restaurants closed — then reopened and closed again — over the past year, the U.S. shed nearly 4 million industry jobs out of 15.6 million.

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“We’re never going back to normal,” Jackson predicted shortly after the pandemic reached New York City in March of last year. At the time, Reverence had been open in Harlem for just over six months, and the city had just closed down dining rooms. Jackson, 57, who’s been cooking in restaurants since he was a teenager and is best known for his pop-up dinner series in San Francisco and appearances on Iron Chef America and Food Network Star, was worried about transitioning from the intricacy and intimacy of dinner service to boxed takeout. But he hoped that a stripped-down version of his offerings — prepped three-course meals with entrees like seafood oil-poached Long Island bonito — would still draw the patronage of people in the neighborhood.

Within weeks, as the pandemic began to disproportionately affect Black communities like his own, he wanted to offer something beyond running a takeout program for the well-off, so he partnered with the anti-food-waste certified B Corp Too Good to Go, to donate leftover food. Bento boxes and contactless pickup weren’t quite what Jackson had envisioned for Reverence, but he had bills to pay and a staff to support.

A chef stands inside his restaurant
Chef Ian Boden stands inside the Shack, which is devoid of dine-in customers during one of the repeated lockdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Image by Tom McGovern. United States, 2021.

Four hundred miles away from Harlem, on a sweaty Saturday last summer, chef Ian Boden, 43, and his sous chef, Zach Weiss, 26, were assembling takeout orders in the kitchen of Boden’s restaurant, the Shack, in Staunton, Virginia. Located about 45 minutes west of Charlottesville, Staunton is the kind of place where the MAGA banners only slightly outnumber the trans pride flags waving from people’s front porches. That day, Boden was focused on finishing a salad of Salanova lettuces and fried Virginia peanuts when his wife, Leslie, walked into the kitchen. She kept her mask up to greet him over the hiss of the grill and the gurgle of fryer oil. Before sealing each to-go box, he spun the requisite twirl of olive oil and finished each with a sprinkling of sea salt, which he buys from a salt miner friend in West Virginia. Leslie watched as Boden gingerly tweezed herbs and an array of pickled vegetables onto the salad. “It’s just going to get smushed in someone’s backseat,” she said. “You don’t have to do all of that.”

Boden stopped and looked up at her. “But... I kind of do.”

For seven years, the Shack has been a tasting-menu-only spot where Boden married his Jewish roots with Southern cooking, relying on locally sourced, Appalachian-grown products. He envisaged it as a way to raise awareness of the vast bounty of mid-Atlantic agriculture, and to boost the local economy by attracting tourists to the area. As the pandemic exploded in early March, Boden shut down. Then, like many chefs, he laid off most of his staff — many had worked with him for years to establish the restaurant’s reputation as destination-worthy — and cobbled together a takeout program of dishes like burgers and pot stickers. Though he struggled to convince locals that the restaurant’s reimagined to-go menu wasn’t just more of the “fancy” stuff he’d offered for years, like heirloom grains and sweetbreads, selling pared-down versions of his food kept him in the kitchen. “Cooking is the only thing I know,” he said. “It keeps me going.” 

I was surprised, then, when he told me late last spring that he was going to invest all of his savings into an entirely new business, the Staunton Grocery. The switch to takeout hadn’t been enough to sustain the restaurant: According to Boden, in an average year, the Shack made around $450,000; between late March and early July 2020, he lost $200,000. He hoped that a grocery store selling many of the local products he uses in the kitchen, with events like a cheese tasting with a local goat farmer and an instructional pop-up on shucking Virginia oysters, would attract more customers. “This isn’t what I want to be doing, but it’ll keep the local farmers and suppliers with a steady client, and hopefully I’ll be able to hire more people back and focus on the food again,” he said. “If this doesn’t work, as crazy as it is, we’re done. This is all we have left.” 

No restaurants suffered more acutely last year than the independently owned, with businesses run by Blackand Asian Americans enduring disproportionate rates of closure — as well as persistent racist attacks throughout the pandemic. The restaurants that stayed afloat — whether by skipping rent payments or winning the lottery with a Paycheck Protection Program loan or through crowdsourced charity — were overwhelmed by the ways they were forced to fundamentally transform their businesses, sometimes more than once. From rolling out new takeout programs seemingly overnight to trying to adhere to constantly shifting public health guidelines issued by warring levels of government to handling mask-averse patrons and facing the growing banality of perpetual trauma, the restaurant industry seemed all but bled out going into 2021.

A cook prepares burgers on the grill
A cook at the Shack prepares one of the smashburgers that became a staple of its COVID-19 takeout menu. Image by Tom McGovern. United States, 2021.

As the restaurants that have survived aim to fully reopen, the labor force that powers them (whether historically underpaid back-of-house staff like porters, line cooks, and dishwashers, or tipped workers like servers and bartenders) is coming off of a year marked by underemployment and a series of reckonings over the racism, sexism, toxicity, and exploitation endemic to the industry. As these workers continue to face both economic uncertainty and risks to their health and safety, it has led many to push back, resulting in a chronic worker shortage that has hampered some restaurants’ abilities to return to full service, re-centering the conversation about the nature of work in the hospitality industry and whether it can ever be equitable or sustainable in anything resembling its current form. 

In the realm of fine dining, which is often a bellwether for the entire industry, the usual broadly existential questions about the future of hospitality have become especially pointed, sharpened by a year in which issues of institutionalized racismgatekeeping, and pervasive workplace violence against people of color were rendered more visible than ever before. I’ve spent much of the past year watching Jackson and Boden attempt to work through some of these questions as they’ve hobbled from one survival strategy to the next. As Jackson tried to dig more deeply into the broader restaurant community — while hoping that fine dining as he knew it would eventually return — Boden, whose restaurant is in a rural town that relied on tourism — an untenable demographic for a global pandemic — was forced to rethink his entire business model, one without fine dining at the heart of it. Now, as reopened restaurants in New York and Virginia find their footing, Jackson and Boden are emerging into a world that promises to be radically different — but also more of the same.

When Reverence debuted in the summer of 2019 as the first Black chef-owned fine dining restaurant in Harlem in more than 30 years, local residents were wary of a fancy new restaurant in the neighborhood. The restaurant’s reservations-only, five-course tasting menu cost $98 per person, with an optional $89 beverage pairing. Even before the pandemic, 40 percent of residents were rent-burdened in the area, according to recent census data. “I like the idea of fine dining, but I can’t afford it,” Sheryl Hallett, a barista at a coffee shop just a few blocks from the restaurant, told me as Reverence prepared to open that summer. “It doesn’t belong here. If you’re trying to build culture, why not make it accessible?”

Still, Jackson, who lives in the neighborhood, saw no reason for his tasting menu restaurant not to exist there. “Building Reverence in an underserved community was important for the improvement of the community and building in a predominately African American community was personally important for me,” he wrote in a blog post last year

Jackson moved full-time to Harlem in 2014 and soon after began dating his now-wife, Lora, who lived in the area. “I was standing at the corner of West 125th and Adam Clayton Powell, and I had this moment, ‘Why doesn’t Harlem have this?’” he told me, referring to the mass of fine dining restaurants in the richer, whiter parts of Manhattan. “This is the restaurant Harlem deserves.” 

Despite opening to warm reviews, Jackson’s lofty vision for a fine dining monument to Californian cuisine in the middle of Harlem still struggled to connect with locals. “I am consistently being asked, ‘What are you doing for the community?’” he said. So when the pandemic hit, he felt determined to do more than just ensure the survival of his restaurant — he wanted to embed more deeply in the neighborhood, albeit from within the tightly circumscribed framework of fine dining. 

Every few weeks, Jackson and his staff implemented a new iteration of takeout, provisions, packages, partnerships, and sponsorships: In March 2020, he launched three-course bento boxes for $35.95; by late summer that year, he had added $125 take-home, five-course tasting menus; grocery items and luxury pantry grabs, bottles of wine, and logo-emblazoned gear. And he strived to make his takeout customers continue to feel like guests: One regular was a huge fan of the chocolate that Reverence sells a la carte, so the beverage director, Kate Chunn, slipped a bar into their bento box as a callback to the days where surprise in-between courses added to the allure of dining at a chef’s counter.

In August, I spent a day with Jackson as he and his staff prepared takeout meals, which consisted of a choice between the fully prepared three-course bento box or the five-course, DIY tasting menu with follow-along videos of Jackson walking through the preparation. Each week, the menus changed and were based on a favorite music album of Jackson’s or on Black cooking pioneers; that week it was N.E.R.D.’s In Search Of. When I showed up in the morning, the four-person team of Jackson, Chunn, and two sous chefs, Kenya Lacayo and Machel Alleyne, were in full swing. Alleyne pickled cabbage and artichokes; Lacayo made dough for Parker House rolls; Jackson butchered Western Pennsylvania trout, all in preparation for the 15 orders on queue for that evening. The entire time I was there, no one seemed to stop moving. In the middle of the rapid-fire run of his knife through root vegetables and the marinading of black walnut brine onto chickens, Jackson remembered to box up a mush of sweet potatoes for his toddler, Kingston Bowie; tried to figure out what the hell was going on with the inflated water bill, again; and took a call from a credit card company looking to feature him in a Black-owned restaurant initiative.

At 4 p.m., after hours of baking and basting and plating and sanitizing, Jackson trotted out to the front of the restaurant to be ready for the first guests arriving to pick up their dinners. Order pickups were organized into time slots to help maintain social distancing between customers. Each bag or box required personal flourishes for each order, harkening back to the restaurant’s old soigne system, which recorded guests’ allergies or birthdays or the wine they mentioned they liked that one time. Chunn slipped a handwritten, personalized note from Jackson into each order. On one, in black ink, a John Lewis quote read: “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have,” followed by the date and Jackson’s signature in red. 

The orders were then set up on a table in front of the restaurant. The first couple grabbed their bags amid bottles of hand sanitizer and Chunn’s watchful eye, and left with a wave from Jackson from the kitchen inside. He jogged out to greet the next customers in the queue by their first names and bumped elbows, eyes squinting with smiles behind face masks. A couple of hours later, as the last to-go box went home with a family from a few blocks away, I asked Jackson how he was still going. He furrowed his brow and shook his head at me before answering, as if what he was about to say was obvious. “I just go,” he said. “This is what I do. I do my best for my family and my crew and the people I feed. And then I go home, get up, and do it again.” 

By fall, as sales plateaued with colder weather forcing people back inside, Jackson continued to roll out new ways to bring in business. He begrudgingly began offering delivery to the immediate neighborhood. The fragility of his food — finishing herbs are plucked from plants that rise along the windows of the restaurant — didn’t take well to being driven or biked even a few blocks, and the effort ended within weeks. In late October, he launched Reverence’s Soup Store, offering an a la carte menu and other takeaway items, followed by a virtual cooking class called Reverence Culinary Academy, which built off the video demos for the restaurant’s assemble-at-home tasting menus. Jackson told me that despite his cheerycheeky posts on Instagram and a steady stream of new programs, it didn’t feel like enough. “I despise the word pivot because that’s not what we’re doing,” he said. “I’m not fucking pivoting. I’m fighting to survive.”

Chef tests a sauce
Jackson works with a sauce as he prepares that day’s take-home menu. Image by Gary He. United States, 2021.

Last summer, New York City’s Open Restaurants Program offered a lifeline, allowing thousands of restaurants to open for outdoor dining. Streets throughout the city were transformed into cafe-lined boulevards as countless restaurants rustled up outdoor arrangements, whether elaborate patios or makeshift dining sheds and yurts. Despite “fighting to survive,” Jackson had no interest in following suit, even as restaurants as luxe as the $650-a-head sushi icon Masa opened for outdoor service. He feared exposing his staff or family to the virus, thinking that so-called safety measures, like plexiglass dividers, were entirely theatrical (not to mention a legal minefield). Besides, he said, “This restaurant wasn’t built for that. And if I’m going down, I’m going down on my terms.”

Jackson’s desire to run a restaurant exclusively on his own terms stems in part from his experiences as a Black chef in a predominantly white industry. For years, Black owners of small, independent restaurants struggled more than their white (and more likely to be corporate-backed) counterparts. The pandemic only exacerbated these inequities, both from a financial and a cultural vantage point, while the protests against police brutality and white supremacy that swept the nation threw them into starker relief. As Jackson said in an interview with longtime friend (and the godmother of his son) Dominique Crenn last summer: “Twice in my career, two big-name chefs – who are still cooking today – both hired me sight unseen. The day I walked in to start work, I was fired without ever pulling out a knife… In the majority of the upper-level kitchens I’ve worked in throughout my career, I was usually the only African-American cook.”

In that same interview, Jackson explained that he wanted to open the restaurant in Harlem because of its lack of Black ownership of fine dining. “For me to build a place in Harlem was not just important from the standpoint of being able to do something for the community, but also to realize — and this is the tough part that always chokes me up — that I needed this community more than it needed me,” he said. But one morning in July 2020, he arrived at Reverence to find shit smeared across its towering windows. “If it weren’t for my staff and their love and their ethics and my customers’ support, I was done. You just don’t know how to absorb that kind of hatred,” he told me a few weeks after the vandalism, believing that it was targeted. He still doesn’t know who defaced the restaurant.

As the summer wore on, Jackson continued to realize just how much of his time in restaurants had exposed him to oppressive treatment by bosses and coworkers alike, and how untenable fine dining had become. “We’ve been working in a broken system for a really fucking long time,” he said. “With Reverence, I still want to change that.” Before the pandemic, he had implemented a no-tipping, service charge policy, with his four-person staff pooling tips and working as a team in which everyone could take on every role, from server to cook to dishwasher. He remains adamant, though, that in order to pay restaurant staff a living wage, diners must be amenable to hikes in menu prices and accept the proliferation of service charges across the country. “The era of ‘the customer is always right’ is over,” he said.

But the shift toward better pay and working conditions must extend beyond individual restaurants, he says. As a board member of the One Fair Wage campaign, Jackson has lobbied legislatures throughout the U.S. to pass the Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the minimum wage for tipped workers nationally. He also attends weekly Zoom meetings with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a group of restaurateurs, owners, chefs, and other culinary professionals that came together just days after pandemic closures rolled through the country. After successfully pressuring Congress to pass the Restaurant Revitalization Fund — part of the American Rescue Plan stimulus bill that provides grants to restaurants still trying to break evenfrom the losses of the pandemic — thousands of restaurants across the country, including the Shack, became eligible to receive desperately needed money. Recently, the program came under attack by independent restaurant owners (and a cadre of Trump-adjacent lawyers) in TexasTennessee, and Pennsylvania, who claim the Relief Fund’s policy of prioritizing Black- and women-owned restaurants to receive the grants first is “unconstitutional” and “discriminatory.” When Jackson and I spoke recently, he was furious, decrying their actions as not just racist, but as a betrayal of the wider industry.

Chef holds a knife in the kitchen
At the height of the pandemic, Reverence put out just 15 orders for its take-home tasting menu per night. Image by Gary He. United States, 2021.

Jackson has perhaps surprisingly little interest in displacing fine dining as the centerpiece of American restaurant culture. He wants to fix it, in part because of his belief — a cliche among chefs, to be sure — in the idea that restaurants like his can bring people together. “The core aspect of why this restaurant exists is that the act of sitting down with someone else, whether you know them or you don’t, and being able to connect with an experience of eating, is in large part what our entire society has been built on,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to live in a society where I couldn’t have restaurants.”

Still, some chefs wonder if it’s possible to reform fine dining into an equitable system, or even argue that the industry’s not worth saving at all, as the chef-provocateur-activist Tunde Wey suggested on his Instagram and then in an interview with the New Yorker. Chef Eric Rivera of Addo in Seattle, who came up at Alineabut is now one of the industry’s most outspoken voices, notes how intransigent fine dining is as a whole. “It’s very classist, it’s very racist,” he told me. “Everybody’s realizing now how non-diverse everything is… but I’ve seen it happening in my eyes forever.”

“I think that we are rushing back to something that was inherently already broken and doing it in a way that is even more harmful than it was before,” chef Irene Li, 31, whose restaurant Mei Mei has earned her multiple James Beard nominations, told me last year as restaurants were beginning to reopen following the first wave of lockdowns. Li’s skepticism is significant, given her approach at Mei Mei, which has been a leader in improving working conditions for its employees — including offering health insurance when few other establishments did, and providing new staff members with professional development on the business side of running a kitchen and dining room. “Is there a future for the restaurant industry where we are not relying on existing power structures and existing pools of resources that people have and where we can really kind of start over?” she asks.

It’s a tall order: Even before the onset of the pandemic and the series of ensuing economic catastrophes, being a successful independent restaurant was next to impossible. With pre-COVID profit margins of 5 to 10 percent in fine dining, operators like Jackson — who’s bled more than double of what he initially invested in the restaurant — have suffered immense losses. Ruefully, he pointed out to me that he’d been open as a takeout restaurant longer than as a sit-down one. “I’ve done what was necessary,” he said. “When you are led by your heart and your convictions, you end up doing a lot of shit that you may not have ever thought that you were going to do.”

By the start of last summer, the takeout concept that Boden hastily put together in the early weeks of the pandemic was just barely covering bills and payroll, even amid a summer surge in tourism. “The Airbnbs are all full, but I’m nowhere near what I used to make,” he said. He was able to rehire his sous chef and a few front-of-house staff members to help with the cooking and delivering of food to parked cars outside, but the more affordable menu of smashburgers and fries, despite selling at a higher volume, simply didn’t bring in the kind of revenue the restaurant used to make. A five-course meal in the Shack’s 400-square-foot dining room cost $80 per person; the takeout pulled pork barbecue sandwich at the grocery store cost $12. 

That tension has been part and parcel of the Shack’s entire existence: On one hand, just a few minutes away from the restaurant, there’s an Edison-bulbed coffee shop with craft kombucha on draft; a sleek wine, beer, and cider bar; and a yoga and wellness co-op. On the other, the surrounding county’s median income has hovered between $25,000 and $30,000 for nearly a decade. “It felt like an uphill battle most of the time,” he said. “The community didn’t really get what we were doing when we first opened. I think they thought we were snobs.” 

Diners sit outside of a building
A pair of diners wait for their food outside of the Staunton Grocery. Image by Tom McGovern. United States, 2021.

Like Jackson, Boden struggled to find a place for his restaurant in fine dining while also fighting to defend its existence to the community — which, also like Jackson, is in his wife’s hometown. While its menu is more rooted in the area than the California-inspired menu at Reverence, with a focus on local farmers, winemakers, foragers, and even ice cream makers, it had a more explicitly outward-facing goal: to put Staunton on the map as a culinary destination that could attract more people — and money — to the small town. In that, Boden has succeeded: Dishes like seared redfish with smoked greens, grilled purple cauliflower, and fried sunchoke chips have earned him loyalty and praise from tourists, as well as nods from the James Beard Foundation and publications including VogueFood & Wineand Forbes. As the pandemic was quietly spreading through the U.S. in the early months of last year, Boden received his long-awaited review from the Washington Post, proclaiming him “a gifted chef whose range you don’t want to miss,” and writing that the food is “complex,” “compelling,” and “made with your eyes in mind.” After the review hit, and mere weeks before he had to shutter the dining room, Boden was feeling optimistic. Months later, its publication felt like lemon juice in a persistently nicked finger. “I had been working so hard, for so long. And then it all just stopped. I had no choice but to close,” he said.

Boden was able to partially reopen for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity last fall, with two turns of service per night, three nights a week. Then a staff member had a COVID scare, and Boden decided it was too dangerous to weather what would become the deadly winter surge of the pandemic. It was a long winter: Come February, his sous chef, Zach Weiss, had resigned, telling Boden he’d be leaving the restaurant industry entirely. The pandemic, he said, made him realize that he needed a change of pace; that his priorities had shifted. (Weiss wasn’t alone in making this exodus.) 

The Grocery is the only reason the Shack survived the stretch between October and March, according to Boden. Its goods are not as affordable as grocery-chain versions — organic Appalachian pink-eyed peas; collard greens kimchi and sorghum butter; the pandemic necessities of Virginia-brewed beer and ciders — but they allowed him to engage more closely with customers who came into the store, to talk about where and who he buys from and how it matters to local supply chains and agriculture. He thinks that people were more receptive to the Grocery because they viewed it as more accessible. “It’s easier to sell a couple jars of jam than a whole meal,” he said. “And I don’t mind doing it. I miss cooking how I used to, but until we can get back to full capacity, we’ll just keep going with it.” 

And now that the Shack is back to its reservations-only dinners, there is a sort of “pipeline,” as Boden describes it, for tourists to try local foods from the Grocery on a Friday, dine at the Shack on a Saturday, then pick up lunch from the Grocery again on their way out of town.

A cashier inside a shop
Ian Boden working at the Staunton Grocery, which was a lifeline for his restaurant during COVID-19. Image by Tom McGovern. United States, 2021.

As Staunton has come back to life, Boden remains concerned that fine dining chefs and owners who focus on sustainable agriculture and community engagement are a continually shrinking pool. As we spoke over the past year, I was struck by how Boden was more frustrated with the economic and cultural forces that, in his view, have tainted the core of restaurants in general, than by the prospect of closing his own. “The way that we’ve been operating as chefs… of course it’s not essential… what we do is inherently elitist,” he said. “All the fancy shit, and I do the fancy shit, is really not what this is all about. It’s about connecting to the local ecosystem, the people, your staff. But we’ve lost sight of that. We’re all so driven by ego, and I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from that.

“We’re all hypocrites and realizing that is at least a step in the right direction. But the older I get, the more I realize that the only thing our society listens to is cents and dollars. So for me, the most impactful thing I can do is choose where I spend my money,” he said, referring to his commitment to source the products in the restaurant and the Grocery from as close to Staunton as possible. 

For his part, Boden has focused on tending to the immediate needs of his community even as his restaurant’s fate remained in limbo until Virginia lifted all COVID restrictions in May 2021. On the sweaty Saturday back in August when I visited the Shack, a tropical storm tore through Staunton and damaged several local restaurants. The next morning, Boden was out with his wife assessing the destruction and helping to plan a fundraiser. Now that the Shack has opened back up for four- and five-course tasting-menu reservations — thanks in part to a lump sum from the Restaurant Relief Fund — Boden continues to try to link the wellbeing of his business with that of Staunton. He sits on the board of the town’s farmers market, peddling and promoting the same farmers and vendors who’ve also suffered disproportionate losses over the past year. “For locals, we’re definitely still a special-occasion restaurant,” he told me in June, “but we’re able to buy more focused product and support more of our community.”

In April, Reverence fully reopened for the first time in a year. It was a loaded day. “I can’t quantify the emotional toll that this all has taken on me,” Jackson said. He’s offering the same style of tasting menu as he did before the pandemic — locally sourced, story-driven, intimate — with an added semimonthly Sunday supper. Even as reservations slowly pick up for the single seating for up to 12 at his chef’s counter (instead of the pre-pandemic 16) Thursday through Saturday, he still isn’t convinced that “normal” is even close to a proper description of the current industry landscape. Jackson consulted on the Aspen Institute’s “Safety First” COVID-19 protocol guide for restaurants, and Reverence will maintain them — screening, contact tracing, plastic shields for guests to hold up when a staff member approaches them with a drink or dish — through 2022. 

Jackson is still in what can be best described as survival mode, hopping from menu to menu, initiative to initiative. “Everyone keeps asking me why I keep saying yes to new things, but that’s just what this year has taught me,” he said. “You can’t stop.” The to-go box tasting menu remains — now limited to once a week. 

Fine dining is still at the core of what Jackson wants to do, however. “I think more fine dining should exist. And it’s not about the price point… Michelin has shown it can be in a subway station. I want to see more of these types of restaurants here in Harlem. I mean, that’s the reason why I built it here,” he said. At the same time, he remains wary of guests coming back with their pre-pandemic expectations. “Do we want to rebuild a broken, unequitable, highly racist, highly sexist, misogynistic industry? Or do we want to build the industry of the future where people get paid a fair wage, people have opportunity for growth, people aren’t used as a commodity for greed? That’s not what the hospitality industry is supposed to be about,” he said. “We’re at the crossroads.” 

After talking with locals who were ready to dine-in again, and after his entire staff and family received the vaccine, Boden reopened the Shack for indoor dining on March 25. The old hum of a restaurant returned — of tinkering glassware and the inescapable beep of the ticket machine in the kitchen — but Boden has no intention of going back to pre-pandemic working conditions. “I can’t go back to how bad it was… beating myself up all the time, criticizing myself for every little thing. I won’t go back,” he said of the 90-hour weeks he used to put in. “As long as my business is sustainable, my staff is happy and the guests are happy, I don’t care.” 

Man walking in a parking lot with snow
Boden no longer has the desire or the drive to work the 90-hour weeks he had put in before the pandemic. Image by Tom McGovern. United States, 2021.

Instead of the pre-pandemic six nights of service per week, the Shack is down to three, offering prix fixe menus at $70 for four courses with an optional $70 wine pairing. The lighter schedule gives Boden at least a full day off, which he says has helped his mental health. And the increase in menu prices has allowed Boden to raise the hourly wage for his tipped employees to $6 (in Virginia, the tipped minimum wage remains $2.13 per hour). The Shack’s and the Staunton Grocery’s revenue equations have also flipped: According to Boden, around 75 percent of guests are from out of town, and people inclined to take the scenic drive to Staunton are in search of fine dining, not premade sandwiches. 

Yet Boden’s view of the grand return of restaurants is more subdued than one might expect: He remains unconvinced that diners are ready to pay the higher prices necessary to make restaurants fairer and more equitable, and is skeptical of the intentions of many of his fellow chefs. The last time we talked, on an early Wednesday morning en route to inspect a walk-in refrigerator that had fritzed out, he told me, “I think there’s still a lot of lip service. The guys that have been successful are going to keep on doing what they’ve always done… and until the old guard of my generation is gone, and your generation comes up, there’s not gonna be a lot of change.” He paused. “I think that anybody who doesn’t come out of all of this on the other end and hasn’t changed is destined to repeat history.” 



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