Last week, as some of the first truly warm days of the year finally seemed to be ushering in a real change of season, I put in my earbuds and took a stroll out my front door, heading west toward Lake Harriet. Headlines coming over public radio shared the news that the head of The United States Department of Health and Human services, Secretary Xavier Becerra, had declared an official end to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency on May, 11 2023. I wondered if in a different time that news would have been met with more conspicuous pomp and celebration, both by myself and my fellow American citizens. Instead, because of what the global pandemic caused and what it revealed, I met the news with the same sort of reticent gratitude any self-respecting Minnesotan would greet a warm day in the month of May.
I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about how I was one of many Minnesota hospitality professionals who stood pensive and uncertain in our kitchens and dining rooms in the first few months of 2020. Coronavirus was showing up on our great nation’s shores, and a crisis unlike anything we’d seen in our lifetimes seemed unavoidable.
My colleagues and I tried our best to prepare for communication, sanitation and austerity. As important as those elements already are to restaurant operations, we were sure our transparency and systemic practice of them would keep our guests and our vocational family members safe.
We were also sure that the necessity of exercising those practices were going to be secondary to our ability to provide certainty, solace and comfort – the foundations of hospitality and the work we chose to pursue. Isn’t that the best part about your local eatery or watering hole? No matter how bad things are, you can gather with others to savor the good things in life – food, drink and the comfort of conversation.
Then we were told that we wouldn’t be allowed to do that. We were told to close our doors, turn off our ovens and stopper our bottles. Hospitality practitioners were told that the best way we could help was to stay home and not do what we do best.
One of the things I’ve always loved about people who cook in kitchens or pour drinks or work the door or the floor of any food service operation is that being told something can’t be done or isn’t possible is always seen as a challenge to be overcome. Restaurant people don’t walk away, we find a way…
That’s why hospitality operations all over the great state of Minnesota continued to gather as teams and prepare and serve food free of charge to as many people as we knew would need it – front line workers, public school students, anyone in need anywhere we could find. It was something we knew we needed to do and we wouldn’t be told “No.” Since we were not allowed to officially open our doors and incorporate commerce, we just did it out of kindness. In doing so we re-discovered the true nature of our vocation and it’s most spiritual reward: the ability to nourish one another.
In the year that followed, despite the violence, confrontations and upheaval that our communities experienced, I saw the bonds that hospitality workers formed over years of pressure in our kitchens and dining rooms grow stronger in our streets and public forums. More than anything, we made it a priority to declare that we are at our strongest and at our best when we declare the importance of our diversity – when we give voice to the fact that immigrants, indigenous and people of color are the foundation of deliciousness in our country.
As I kept walking through our corner of Minneapolis, processing the three years of loss and uncertainty that began in March of 2020, I thought about how, in the aftermath of financial ruin and civil unrest, many restaurants run by several of my friends and colleagues just aren’t around anymore. The hospitality business is fickle and difficult enough without the aforementioned circumstances, but there was a certain combination of the two that caused a lot of hardworking and talented members of our community to wash their hands of the only career they’d ever pursued and just walk away.
It struck me with a certain amount of weight that I was considering those losses while I was crossing Lyndale Avenue on 46th street where, just a few blocks south, chef Miguel Urrutia turned his taco truck into brick and mortar magnificence and worked like a champion with his team to keep it alive with takeout through those dark days of 2020 and 2021. A few blocks north, chef Ann Ahmed had seen her vision through those same ugly years to grace us with the beauty and deliciousness of an homage to her family heritage by opening Khâluna in October of 2021 – a restaurant I consider one of the hands-down finest in Minnesota.
I thought about other recently opened-eateries offering new approaches to Minnesota cuisine like the daytime-only Kruse Markit on Nicollet Avenue run by the triple threat of ‘Collectively Cool Humans’ otherwise known as Beth Fisher, Sarah Lee and Heidi Stark – or the sister and brother team of Aubry and Kale Walch offering their vegan innovations at Herbie Butcher’s Fried Chicken.
How blessed are we that on one end of our neighborhood we can gorge ourselves on the traditional aromatic classics of South Asian gastronomy at Hyderabad Indian Grill on 60th Street while savoring those same flavors elevated to futuristic presentations by Sohil G at Raag Progressive Indian Cuisine on 50th Street just east of France Avenue?
Just before I crossed the 35W bridge on the Diamond Lake exit to head back home, I passed Órale, our neighborhood staple for tacos and takeout – another hearty survivor of tough times – and their new next door neighbor, Thai Pepper, offering up the noodles, salads and savory heat from a country about as geographically distant as one can get from Minnesota.
I, for one, am overjoyed about that.
Something I have always loved about food is its ability to take us anywhere on the planet that we would rather be, for whatever reason we wanted to go there. After the long, dark winter of the past three years, I am beyond grateful that the aforementioned, hardworking visionaries are taking Minnesota into a new season of both culture and cuisine. It seems to me that they are already leading us home.
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