What are we willing to sacrifice to keep meat on the table? Is it people’s health and welfare? This edition of the L.A. Weekly podcast discusses food ethics in the time of COVID-19, vegan origin stories, and the importance of food in our everyday lives and relationships.
What is more important: health or meat? “If you do a little bit of research it’s not too hard to get disgusted,” answers podcast guest, Chef Seizan Dreux Ellis of Café Gratitude. From farm and factory workers’ rights to animal welfare, Ellis thinks we may see a change in people’s eating habits post-pandemic. While podcast host and L.A. Weekly publisher Brian Calle and L.A. Weekly Food Editor Michele Stueven aren’t vegan themselves, they agree that a paradigm shift is taking place in terms of sourcing and consumption.
“I think people are going to be looking for healthy food,” envisions Chef Ellis when asked how he thinks the restaurant industry will look once restrictions are eased.
While they had hoped to remain open for takeout during lockdown, Café Gratitude ultimately had to make the hard choice to shut their doors temporarily.
“We tried to run to-go for a little while, but unfortunately the way that the delivery apps work is you have to keep all locations open to service all parts of the city, otherwise you just get orders from one part of the city,” explains the chef. The limited pandemic business model just wasn’t sustainable not only for financial reasons, but due to health concerns as well.
“We brought everything down mostly for the safety of our staff, particularly at the beginning of the outbreak where people were very uncomfortable working and we were very worried about their welfare, so we decided to close everything,” Ellis explains.
As a publisher working so closely with the restaurant industry, Brian has been disheartened to learn that COVID-19 has caused around 10 percent of restaurants to close permanently, finding alarming data that estimates further closures as the public health crisis develops. Restaurants employ more than 11 percent of California’s population, so any closure is devastating for our workforce.
Thankfully, Café Gratitude and its sister, Gracias Madré, plan to open their doors soon.
Opening won’t be without challenges, however, as Chef Ellis and his colleagues will have to determine how to operate in a way that protects their employees, customers and financial wellbeing.
“It just dawned on my yesterday for the first time that this isn’t going to be ‘oh June 15th we will get back open again and then we’ll start running,’ it’s going to be so much longer and so much more drawn out than that with so many more considerations,” Chef Ellis confides. “We have to really look carefully about whether we are going to open all of the restaurants or just a few and how long can we hold out with these business loans – it’s really quite complex.”
With the big picture in mind, the chef gives some insight into what Café Gratitude “3.0” will look like, with even healthier food providing better nutritional immunity than ever before.
An uncertain time indeed, Chef Ellis looks forward to coming out of quarantine. While he’s stuck inside, however, he is relearning to appreciate cooking for pleasure instead of profession.
“I, as a chef, have over the years lost the habit of cooking at home. Because when I’m not in the restaurants the last thing I want to think about is food,” admits the famed chef. But since the shutdown? “I have rediscovered the art of home cooking,” he tells Brian and Michele.
You can too, with his new cookbook Love is Served. Featuring bright plant-based recipes to appeal to vegans and omnivores alike, Love is Served brings Café Gratitude’s wholesome recipes directly to home kitchens.
For Chef Ellis, Brian and Michele, cooking for someone is a way of showing affection. Tune in to this week’s podcast for favorite dishes, quarantine tales and more.