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Their Restaurants Shut Down. They Got Laid Off. But They All Kept Cooking.

Pop-ups like this have become a radical way to challenge the status quo of restaurants, in which chefs are told to pay their dues “I cooked for almost a decade before I actually put a dish on the menu and saw how the ideas I had in my mind were going to be received,” Eddy says. “I think that’s a very old-school, antiquated way of doing things.” The mass lay-offs of restaurant workers triggered by the pandemic has seemingly leveled the playing field, according to these chefs. “There are really no rules, no matter what level of cooking you were at, everyone had to reset and rethink,” Herrara says. Yi agrees. “It feels like the wild, wild west—everyone is finding any other way they can make food, and it’s going as far as being a lunch lady, working in a dark kitchen, or at their house. It feels like the tech boom, where there are so many options, and given that COVID has made restaurants a really insecure option, we’re just seeing what else exists.”

Eight months into the pandemic, many restaurants are hanging on by a thread hoping for more relief with another stimulus package and gearing up to undergo a challenging winter season. Unemployment of the industry’s workers is still up by 9.1 percent since February. Even with expanded outdoor dining and the gradual reopening of indoor dining in certain states, “no business that was open a year ago is crushing it right now,” as Hockin puts it. “Everyone is suffering.”

But what’s most salient about these groups is a trailblazing optimism. Hockin expects to start building out the interior of his restaurant in tandem with a safe reopening of indoor dining in Los Angeles, but he might end up combining Deodara’s with Side Pie. “We’re just going to go with the flow, see what makes sense. We have so many customers that are like, ‘This is the best pizza ever,’ so why would we change this?” he says.

“Infectious” is the word that Lam used to describe the energy brewing at Sunshine Noodles. “When you see people who want to do more with the restrictions [at play] and being a place that can offer that and excite people, it’s been really healthy,” she says. Lam points out how the pandemic has caused certain folks to leave the industry entirely to pursue other professional avenues. But it’s also fostered a kind of rebirth for people like her who want to make it work.

While access to capital will always be essential for chefs pursuing personal work, Yi thinks this time has “emboldened people to take a little bit more of a chance, regardless of whether they have money or not.” To continue onwards with these pop-ups is not only a way to exercise creative control and build a more progressive work culture, it’s also, for some, a more feasible pursuit than jumping back on board a potentially sinking ship, if and when jobs are even available.

“People were forced to have jobs they didn’t necessarily love or like, and they were professionally burnt out or couldn’t leave because they were financially strapped, but then the pandemic really [brought] perspective,” Hockin says. Pop-ups like Side Pie, Sunshine Noodles, and the like have become a chance to start fresh. “This is a whole new world we’re living in,” he adds.

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