Chef’s Kiss

Il Piatto's Matt Yohalem on the past, present and future of the restaurant industry

Chef Matt Yohalem opened his Marcy Street restaurant Il Piatto in 1996, and he's weathered storms before. But when the coronavirus hit, Yohalem took a step back, temporarily shuttering his Italian eatery and going into preservation mode. We caught up with Yohalem to get his take on the restaurant biz as we head into more days of social distancing and closed dining rooms.

SFR: You made the choice to close temporarily. Is this still the plan?

Matt Yohalem: I didn't really make the choice. Between the virus and the regulations, I didn't really have the option. I'm a dine-in restaurant, and dine-in is not conducive to social distancing. I'm monitoring continuously all over the world, though, because one thing about the rest industry is, it's global, and it encompasses every society and what brings people together. It's such a fundamental factor of how we live, and this virus has put us in a territory we've never been in before. There are restaurants in Paris that have been open for 500 years. They kept them open during Nazi occupation…they've thrived for hundreds of years no matter what's happening, but with something so dramatic, we don't really have the choice.

Was delivery or takeout ever an option?

We could do food to go, but you're squishing beautiful food in a box. There's a place for it and there are businesses that thrive with it, like pizza or Chinese, but for us, even when times are great, if we're talking Uber Eats or Grubhub, that 30% commission they want, plus the containers cost money, you don't know what happens to your food next—and we're not making 30%. I will say if I did, I'd use Dashing Delivery. They run an immaculate business. I don't know what I'll do at this point, though.

So would you say you're worried?

Of course. I'm totally worried, and I've got a lot of empathy and sympathy because so many people are in this industry. I don't think people realize how many people restaurants support people in the country, from the linen companies, the ice, the fish companies and the produce guys; the farmers markets—it spans out all the way to the importers of wine to the truck drivers who deliver it and the sommeliers. Restaurants become part of your identity. It's not just a job, it's a part of who you are.

Can you speak to some of the challenges you're facing?

The restaurant model has become, over the years, so strained and tightened by by all these different things, and the coronavirus was the straw that broke the camel's back. Well, it was more of a lead pipe, I should say. There's a wage disparity there where we're already making very thin margins, and the business model is one of crowds. It's the opposite of social distancing. How do you bring people together?  There's a psychology that's been introduced that's now wary of close-up things, but the whole thing about cooking is smelling, touching and tasting, and with the loss of that, I don't know how we'll create the same experience.

Is there some ideal solution for helping restaurants get back to a good place? Maybe even just first steps? Would government assistance be a good thing?

Yes, but not necessarily in the manner they've been doing it. What needs to happen involves big thinkers and maybe some regulatory things. We need help, but a few dollars of cash isn't going to fix it. And it should be grants, because lending money to failing business only gives them insurmountable debt if and when they can open back up. What we need is actual help. One idea I saw in New York City was that people might feel more comfortable if they're outdoors. They're talking about shutting down major streets to allow the restaurants to occupy them like they do in Europe. We could do that here, maybe closing the Paseo [de Peralta] loop—OK, maybe not all of it—but if you had some parking lots on the edges and made it more for foot traffic…well, you don't get tourists by giving them lots of parking tickets. And the liquor laws need to be changed. I am not for DWIs, but very few other states have laws where the cashier at Allsup's is responsible for the person who drinks a bottle of something and gets on the freeway the wrong way. Plus, if that bar or restaurant can't serve booze right now, that expensive liquor license is worth zero.

You've been a major proponent of locally sourced foods. Is that still going to be a doable factor after all this?

It's going to be more of a doable factor. One thing that COVID did was expose these weaknesses in the food supply system. If we buy locally and stop our reliance on huge manufacturers…look, food should be sourced from farms. Restaurants used to have their own gardens, some still do, and there are so many sources to get this stuff. It's less expensive, it's more humane, it tastes better. It's a no-lose.

How can regular people support restaurants right now?

I know the curbside thing is so appreciated by the restaurant community, and I have to compliment the whole community for so ardently patronizing these restaurants. I know there are some funds where people can donate, like the New Mexico Restaurant Association [Serving NM Fund], but I don't know I have a straight answer for you, because nobody knows what's going to come up.

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