Andrew Zimmerman, the acclaimed executive chef of Michelin-starred West Loop restaurant Sepia and younger sibling Proxi, hasn’t spent much time cooking for takeout. That is, until COVID-19 turned the hospitality industry — along with wide swaths of American society — on its head. Suddenly a fine-dining chef known for his meticulous approach and creative vision was faced with the question of how to keep his restaurants viable.
“Generally, Michelin-star food doesn’t go in a box very well,” Zimmerman says. “The challenge is to channel our energy into making food that’s going to travel well and that’s still built around the same core values of quality, attention to detail, and deliciousness that we would put on a plate.”
When he first heard about Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay at home order, Zimmerman says, for a moment, he was a tiny bit relieved. He wasn’t happy about the serious challenges his staff faced, or about being forced to shut down the restaurant. But inside the national whirlwind of uncertainty around COVID-19, and equipped with very little information about the virus itself, he understood Pritzker’s decision.
“How do we keep our staff safe? How do we keep our families safe? Where is this going?... It wasn’t up to us anymore,” he says. “Everything got upended in such a dramatic way that we had to tell everyone, ‘I’m sorry, you’re furloughed. You’re going to have to go on unemployment. We don’t want to, but we don’t have another choice.’”
The early days and weeks of the shutdown gave him the space to examine his own feelings about takeout food, follow a seemingly endless stream of updates on the virus’s spread, and develop protocols for workers when they returned to launch Sepia and Proxi’s to-go operations in late May via Tock.
Zimmerman is keenly aware of health concerns, both in relationship to COVID-19 and the foibles of food delivery. All of his takeout food comes cold with reheating instructions for customers to use at home so dishes don’t linger “in the temperature danger zone” and make someone sick. He’s also only offering pickup orders so he can avoid third-party delivery companies that aren’t necessarily invested in the integrity of the dish en-route, and charge fees that he describes as “criminal.”
Lately, Zimmerman describes his and his staff’s day-to day as a less-glamorous reality of working with what they’ve got. He views Sepia and Proxi’s early to-go menus as somewhat limited, offering pre-fixe meals but no a la carte dishes along the lines of other upscale restaurants trying takeout for the first time. As the team adapts, he hopes to add some a la carte options along with next-day items like breakfast pastries, something neither of his restaurants typically offer. He’s also more focused on managing resources and pacing his workers than on artistry or self-expression.
“One of the things I’m looking at is an opportunity to do dishes that otherwise wouldn’t really make sense in the restaurant’s usual form,” he says. Proxi’s typical menu, for example, draws on Southeast Asian and Indian cuisines where herbal notes are especially important. Those who order a Thai curry, for example, will receive Thai basil leaves and other herbs wrapped in a moistened towel to tear up and add to the dish right before eating. Zimmerman says that even though it takes more time for staff to wrap herbs and put them in the bag than it would to cook them into the dish, the difference in flavor is significant. “There are ways to improve to-go food like that, and finding those details is arguably more important than where the swoosh of sunchoke puree would go,” he says.
Though it seems like he’s just rounded the bend on his last pivot, Zimmerman is already thinking about what comes next. Neither Sepia nor Proxi has outdoor seating, so they are unaffected by the recent patio reopenings across Chicago. “In the back of our minds, we’re wondering what are we going to do when we really reopen, but it’s all academic until they tell us we can do it,” he says. When that happens, he feels strongly that proprietors need better guidance from leadership than what they’ve received so far. Food and drink establishments are already in the safety business, but they need structure. “Leaving it up to restaurants to invent the rules isn’t a fair way to go about it — tell us what we need to do and we’ll do it.”
The question that plagues him most, however, is how long diners will wait to return once dining room service resumes. Though some have flocked to beaches in Florida and tourist destinations like Lake of the Ozarks, Zimmerman doesn’t think that tells him much about how Chicagoans will behave.
“We can open the doors, but if people don’t feel comfortable coming to restaurants, I don’t know what to tell you,” he says. “We’ll be here as long as we can make the food. Hopefully we’ll be doing it long enough that when people start to feel comfortable enough again, we’ll be there to serve them.”