Stir Up Some Love: Helping restaurants regroup

  • SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Unmi Abkin and Roger Taylor of Coco & The Cellar Bar in Easthampton. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • An episode of “Stir Up Some Love.” SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Belly of the Beast, at 159 Main St. in Northampton. FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/14/2020 10:50:21 AM

Editor’s note: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live, work and define community, and for some Pioneer Valley chefs and cooks, it has changed the way they cook — in front of an audience and for a good cause.

“Stir Up Some Love” is a new online series recorded by local foodies offering 15 cooking demonstrations so viewers can learn to make delicious dishes from regional pros in the comfort of their own homes.

Donations for each episode — or for the full season — will be split evenly between the restaurants and Treehouse Foundation, a nonprofit supporting a 60-home community in Easthampton for foster families. The full listing of episodes is available at stirupsomelove.com.

We asked Jesse Hassinger, a participant in the project and chef and co-owner of Northampton’s Belly of the Beast, to interview his fellow participants about making food, owning a restaurant and exercising social responsibility, especially at this time.

First up? Roger Taylor, co-owner of Easthampton’s Coco & The Cellar Bar with his wife, chef Unmi Abkin, who has a connection to Treehouse, having been an orphaned child in South Korea before she was eventually adopted by a Jewish-American father and a Mexican mother.

In their cooking demonstration, Taylor and Abkin present one of their signature dishes: honey miso noodle salad. Hassinger sat down with Taylor over Zoom.

Jesse Hassinger: Restaurants are an industry where people come to us all the time for help, for support, for all sorts of things, and we all love being able to do that, but I think it was such a beautiful statement on the part of Treehouse to say, “How can we help you?”

Roger Taylor: It kind of took my breath away ... It’s so wonderful to see so many of our friends onscreen. Treehouse has done a pretty great job of turning the tables a little bit. I was touched. It’s a pretty special thing.

JH: In the past few years, revelations about behind-the-scenes issues in restaurants have been exposed (improper work environments, a reliance on tipping to make up for below minimum wage pay, slim profit margins, to name a few). What would be a significant change that you would like to see in this industry?

RT: I grew up in restaurants, and so many things have changed. The financial pressures on operators are just so much more pressing and stifling than they were 20 to 30 years ago. It’s a juggling act to try to stay solvent and also treat everyone in the operation, from the customer to the employee to the owner with a level of respect that they deserve.

Every day you have to figure out new ways to compete and succeed, but do it without being a bad person. I do think the industry is changing for the better. The average restaurant employee knows more about their rights and their situation than they did 10 years ago or 20 years ago, and that’s only going to continue to improve.

JH: The majority of guests may not know about what it takes to run a food establishment. Is there anything that you would like to share about what we are facing, especially during COVID?

RT: There isn’t a restaurant in western Massachusetts that isn’t on the edge of their seat right now trying to do everything it can to come out the other side. People would like this to be over, but it’s not over for restaurants, and it’s not going to be over for restaurants for a good long time. Everyone should keep in mind that everyone they encounter is trying their hardest under profoundly adverse conditions, and try to keep that in mind when interacting with them.

JH: How have you found your role as a restaurateur changing in the recent months (or years) in relationship to a greater call for equity and justice?

RT: Watching my wife, who is both a woman and a minority, navigate the world has certainly been an eye-opening experience. It’s all about making the next right decision. Right now our focus is unequivocally on remaining solvent so we can provide jobs for people in our community. That’s the bottom line. The biggest gift that we can give at the moment is to not close and try to make a way so that people have roofs over their heads and families can pay their mortgages.

JH: The Valley is rife with great farms. How do you approach sourcing, and has that changed recently?

RT: We’ve always had a deep relationship with some of the farmers around here. It was so inspiring to watch these farms, which rely on, at least to some extent, restaurants to buy their products and serve them. When that disappeared overnight at the beginning of a growing season, to watch folks like Tim Wilcox and Caroline Pam at Kitchen Garden, or Julia Coffey at Mycoterra, just shift gears so quickly and so effectively … I think that watching those local farms band together and shift into high gear and move forward — watching those farms create those food delivery systems — gave us the courage to move forward, too.

The most significant changes in our menu occurred when we switched from a full-service restaurant to, you know, it’s a take-out restaurant that I have now. I opened a brand new restaurant six months ago. I had to figure out where to buy all these to-go containers and where to get these compostable things; it’s a hustle trying to navigate this stuff. Trying to create a menu that travels well that reflects the type of food that we want to create is always front and center, but certainly more so right now. 




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