Aron Pobereskin is a Park-Slope based Chef and Culinary Consultant. With a career spanning over a decade in high-end and casual restaurants, non-profits and start-ups in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico and Copenhagen, Aron’s mission is to inject culture, creativity, innovation and fun to any room—or kitchen—he steps foot in.
What were you working on (or where were you working) prior to the shutdown and how was that impacted?
When the order was given that restaurants close their dining rooms and either shut down or pivot to a delivery service, I was working in a French restaurant on the UES. At the same time, I had just begun a consulting contract with a client producing what can be best described as wholesome “protein" or “meal replacement” bars, and I was wrapping up a consulting term with the company Human Co. (a division of which is well regarded for their line of paleo chocolate bars). While I’ve spent much of my career in restaurant kitchens, I have put a lot of time and energy into broadening my skill set (over the past few years), and now I maintain 2-3 private clients at any given time. I work with independent restaurants and start-ups as well as securely established and successful big name-brands to create products and to improve their existing product lines. All of this came to a halt March 17th. (Immediately, I became much more adamant about bike riding to such far-away places as the GW bridge and the Rockaway’s, and have biked 20 miles per day since, without fail. What’s most impressive is that I’ve learned to shop in one day for a whole week’s worth of groceries!) It was not until the first week of May that my just-signed client returned to me with a new project, and that I found a temporary home learning to bake bread with a master of his craft at a small restaurant in Little Italy that never actually opened (due to COVID 19).
“...what’s next? Therein lies the impact: the need is not to turn a new page, but to write a new book! "
How do you think the Pandemic will impact your industry?
The immediate toll that this pandemic has taken on the restaurant industry is widespread and conspicuous. I won’t expand on that, as I don’t believe I have anything to add that readers don’t already know. Let me instead express a sentiment to you that I’ve carried since things took a turn for the worst, which comes in the form of a question: what’s next? Therein lies the impact: the need is not to turn a new page, but to write a new book! There are always folks who dwell in the sorrow that was yesterday’s devastation…but dwell too long, mourn too much, and you risk missing out on the new life that is being bred by those who turn their focus on to bettering tomorrow. This isn’t a time to wait around and hope that our situation resolves itself. It’s a time to cut losses, however difficult, and begin to rebuild. It’s time to be creative, explore radical ideas and reform an industry that’s been quietly failing forever.
“The restaurant industry must forcibly collide with humanity...Too much money is spent on real estate, materials, glitz and glam and egos. Step one is to make an investment in people"
What ways do you think the dining experience could be innovated to adapt to the changes caused by crisis?
The restaurant industry must forcibly collide with humanity. It’s going to start with the business model. Too much money is spent on real estate, materials, glitz and glam and egos. Step one is to make an investment in people. At first that is going to mean space. And that is counter-intuitive to business. We’re scared to be close to each other, and it’s an awful feeling, but it’s going to last for a while. For what I believe will be at least a year, restaurants will have to figure out how to survive on half-capacity. Square-footage is going to be twice as expensive. Perhaps landlords, real estate brokers, malls and food courts can charge their tenants a rent that is based on a percentage of sales. In tough times, it will give business a break, and in successful times, all parties will share in the wealth. This model exists in some areas, and must become the new normal.
If I had a political voice, I’d call on the cities to close more side streets to traffic and open them to people: build more pedestrian promenades and award sidewalk permits so that restaurants can expand their dining rooms beyond their physical limits. If capacity is regulated and limited, build more capacity. Do this now to boost revenues during the summer months while we can use outdoor space, because the fall and winter will be tough.
Furthermore, restaurants will have to level up their delivery and to-go services. Fears linger, and the dining public will be hesitant to kick back in dining rooms and coffee shops, etc. Restaurants will have to offer all types of food to go: CSA packages, wine-tasting kits, fully cooked meals, meal kits, picnic baskets, pantry-stockers and more. There’s already been an impact on delivery and pick-up foods, and I can only see that tangential business growing and becoming the dominant dining option for anyone who is not willing to cook 3 daily meals at home. Fine dining, for now, is done. The industry will have to turn toward comforting its clientele with more modest approaches.
Finally (there's more, but this is an interview, not an article, right? I could go on forever…) restaurants that are financially able have been providing meals to support front-line workers who are working extra hours to combat COVID. Restaurants are also donating—now more than ever—to food banks and non-profits that help the food-insecure populations of New York receive meals. It took a disaster for this relief to manifest itself, and I hope the impact of this pandemic will mean that restaurants and foodservice businesses will remain conscious of those in need and continue these charitable efforts at their maximum potential, forever.
“To nurture you is the life’s work of a small farmer, and we should do our best to support them in return."
How has the pandemic affected the food supply chain?
Luckily, there has been no major effect on the food supply chain (at least as far as I’m aware). American agricultural production is strong, and products you’ve always had available will not disappear from grocery store shelves. There has been trouble in adequate stocking, but that hasn’t been due to shortages; it’s been due to a change in demand for certain items fueled by insecure shoppers. Now that the desired product mix has been hashed out, we won’t be seeing empty shelves much longer, if at all. Suppliers are anticipating our needs, and in many cases creating jobs to do so.
Something worth acknowledging is that small farms which supplied restaurants (sometimes with exclusivity) are hurting. They’ve got no restaurants to sell to, and often times it is cheaper to let vegetable rot on the vine then to employ workers to pick them and process them even though there’s no outlet for them in the general market. I would urge anyone who lives in proximity to a farmer’s market to visit it with more frequency and with an intent to do their primary grocery shopping there: that small action on your part will make a big impact on someone else’s life and ability to support themselves. To nurture you is the life’s work of a small farmer, and we should do our best to support them in return.
If you could identify a silver lining, what would it be?
The silver lining is this: times are tough, and that can be looked at as roadblock, or it can be seen as what it really is. It’s a clear path— a go-head— toward being better human beings. We have an opportunity to reinvent our behaviors toward ourselves and toward one another. We have a chance now as a restaurant industry, or New Yorkers, or as anyone in any group of people to push our creative, empathetic and intellectual boundaries to their constructive limits. I don’t know what that means yet: focus on one or on a few things to do better each day? For the restaurant industry, it means we can come back stronger, find ways to offer better working schedules and wages; treat colleagues and peers better in the way we speak and act; aspire toward professionalism so that the workplace is comfortable and constructive for all within it; prioritize support for communities, build programs for continuing education and training in leadership skills….
“It is easy to be good to each other when conditions are fair, but the measure of a man is how he behaves when times are tough.” We have the great excuse to be on our best behavior now."