Chef Darrell Smith Talks The Future Of Restaurants Post COVID-19

“I went into this industry to become a chef because I figured people will always need to eat, I will always have a job. Well, this is the first time that restaurants have closed, we’ve never seen anything like this where people just weren’t eating at restaurants anymore and were instead eating at home.”

Chef Darrell Smith (also known as Chef DAS) has cooked for the Obamas and Oprah, served as the personal chef to Diddy, founded his own culinary seasoning company, Spice Sack, appeared numerous times on the Food Network, and has even published his own cookbook. But nothing could prepare him for the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on our restaurant industry. According to data collected by the National Restaurant Association, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the U.S. Census Bureau and compiled by Statista, the foodservice industry lost an astronomical 130 billion in sales between March and October of last year, which has resulted in an industry-wide loss of 2.1 million jobs, with an estimated 110,000 restaurants shuttering forever as a result of the mandated closures and capacity limits brought on by the pandemic.

Meaning that when we’re finally able to make a regular habit of going out and grabbing a bite to eat with our friends and families again, we’re going to be stepping out to a very different culinary landscape than the one we enjoyed pre-pandemic. The number of restaurants, the prices, the layouts — everything is likely to change.

The only sign of hope in this bleak landscape? Chefs, on the whole, are quick to adapt and inventive in their problem-solving. Just look at the creativity shown in keeping independent restaurants afloat thus far. So we had at least a sliver of optimism when we reached out to Chef DAS this week to get his take on the future of food. The conversation ranged from how chefs can diversify their income streams to how restaurants can step up their game in precarious times to what those of us not in the industry can do to help as we reacquaint ourselves with dining out.

The pandemic has rocked the restaurant business, and a lot of restaurants probably won’t be able to survive. What are some ways that chefs can find new ways to stay afloat and diversify their incomes?

This is a great time to be innovative. Going into this pandemic and coming out, it’s time for restaurants and chefs to be creative and solution-based. One way to do that is via delivery services — a lot of people are staying at home, a lot of restaurants can’t open but are able to still use their kitchens. Setting up a delivery service where you can take the food straight from the restaurant directly to your home is a must.

Products are still moving too, a lot of people are at home so if you create some kind of cool product and share your cooking skills and what people love about you. if you can share that through some product, that’s a big deal.

Food trucks are coming back up too, it’s a mobile way to eat and it feels safer. I love the mobile dining experience these days.

Do you see the pandemic changing the food space forever? How has it affected you personally in terms of cost structure and being able to keep a kitchen open while meeting a demand that has been significantly impacted?

It’s affected me majorly. Another company I’m a CEO of is the Caring Culinary Group, and what we do is specialize in food service management for big corporations, schools, colleges, and businesses. We had an account here in Atlanta and we were rolling at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, serving food to the campus. We opened up a big cafe on campus, the college was one of the main things that closed down and still hasn’t opened back up.

It affected us a lot, obviously, because we weren’t able to operate out of a closed school.

Out of this chaos comes the opportunity for creation, how do you see the pandemic continuing to shape the restaurant world going forward aside from the prevalence of mobile kitchens?

When we are allowed to open back up, we just really need to understand the social distancing of dining inside and outside. I think you’ll see more restaurants that have a lot more outdoor space than indoor space, it gives it a free air environment and allows people to spread out. I think a lot more people will feel more comfortable dining outside than inside.

Restaurants need to develop more mobile technology, where people can order and have it ready to go when you get there. I think a lot of people might be ordering food to go and take it home. You really need to think outside of the box when trying to serve customers, it’s forever changing. It’ll never go back to the way it used to be.

It’s a beautiful time to be really solution-based. Although the pandemic is troublesome and really bad for this industry, the problem-solving aspect is something I find inspiring.

How can diners help restaurants once things open up again? Do chefs want us showing up to dine outdoors or do you prefer we do take out? What’s your thinking behind it?

I prefer people coming to the restaurants for sure, I think that’s part of the ambiance, part of the experience is getting dressed up to have a fantastic meal at a venue. I definitely welcome diners, but moving forward I think there are some aspects that can help customers feel more comfortable dining out.

The social distancing of the tables, partitions, hand sanitizer, waiters and waitresses wearing masks, dining in and outside I think are major components, and I’m sure everyone else in the industry is welcoming customers back in with open arms.

In what ways do you hope to see in the restaurant industry change as a result of this?

I would like to have some kind of insurance for restaurants, for owners, and workers — some sort of fallback plan. I went into this industry to become a chef because I figured people will always need to eat, I will always have a job. Well, this is the first time that restaurants have closed, we’ve never seen anything like this where people just weren’t eating at restaurants anymore and were instead eating at home. Some kind of fall back plan, or an insurance policy or support for the restaurant industry should be major moving forward.

For a lot of people, this is their lifeline, bartenders, servers, that’s how they make a living. If restaurants are closed there is no way to survive. Moving forward we have to understand the importance of the community around the whole restaurant industry.

How can the food world come out of this pandemic more diverse and equitable, what can we implement to make sure people don’t fall between the cracks here?

I think you have to support small businesses. You have to seek them out and really support them. As a small business, there aren’t a lot of margins when it comes to bank accounts, they can’t save for three or four years in the future. Big restaurant chains can survive, but small businesses need your support. Your small restaurants, your cafes you one-offs, some of those restaurants make up the landscape of our cities. New Orleans, Atlanta Los Angeles — there are a lot of really small family-owned restaurants that make up the landscape of how cool those cities are.

So it’s very important to support those businesses.

Let’s turn to home cooking, I know you’re a fan of simple recipes, is it the simplicity of flavor that attracts you or is it about the ease of prepping dishes?

I think a little bit of both. Ultimately it just gives us the true sense of honing in on the essence of the natural ingredient and making those ingredients shine. That’s the most important step for me, understanding the ingredient that we’re using and bringing the best out of that ingredient.

Cooking doesn’t have to be hard, it can be fun and it can be easy.

What is one piece of advice you have for the newbie who still feels daunted by the idea of cooking?

Well, that’s actually the exact reason we started Spice Sack. Spice Sack was designed and meant to take the intimidation out of cooking. When following recipes a lot of people don’t really understand how much of a spice to use, one of the biggest things I always say is “you can always add but you can’t take away”

With Spice Sack, we try to make life a little bit easier by providing that flavor profile that’s all in one bundle which helps to eliminate a step and lessen the number of ingredients you need when you are trying to cook something.

What’s your go-to quick and easy meal to prepare that we should all give a shot?

Pan-seared salmon is an easy one. It’s a quick and healthy meal and it’s very simple. Take a piece of salmon, season it flesh side up, put a little bit of oil on top of it to get the pan really really hot and you sear it. The sear gives it some nice color. After you sear it what I do is I actually flip it back in the pan and I finish it in the oven, so I cook it from the inside out, providing it with that sear on top to give some nice color.

Steam up some broccoli or green beans with that, add a few mashed potatoes or little bit of rice and you’ve got an amazing meal.

Because you’re the founder of Spice Sack, I can’t leave without asking you a little bit about spice. What five seasonings do we need to have in our kitchen pantry outside of salt and pepper?

Definitely some garlic — garlic always gives that flavorful profile that makes any dish taste more savory. Some dried parsley, which gives it that spark of fresh herbs. Big fan of cinnamon, it makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy and gives a great aroma. Some oregano is always good to add to your meats, gives them an earthy flavor, and finally just some paprika to give your dish some color.