Restaurant Diaries is a weekly series featuring four different people working in the industry. Every week you hear from one of them, from a farmer in Winters, California to a wine educator in Chicago. This week’s diary writer is Peter Steckler, who is gaining a foothold at Line Cook American elm in Denver, he experiences the ups and downs of restaurant closings and restrictions.
I’m pretty new to the industry. I got my current job as a line chef at American elm, a neighborhood restaurant in Denver, in April. I’d say over a third of my dining experience was caused by the pandemic, and I’ve only been to American Elm during COVID, so I don’t even know what a normal Saturday night here looks like.
I know what it’s like when it’s closed for indoor meals and when it’s open at 25 percent and 50 percent. Like everywhere else, we’ve seen a roller coaster ride of restrictions and closings. We just got out of the last shutdown, which started in November, and are now allowed to have 25 percent capacity. At about the same time, we brought six heated greenhouses, and we got heaters for each of our five outdoor tables – we blow through propane – so we got a decent volume between inside and outside almost overnight from hardly anyone in the restaurant. We had 2,894 covers in January 2020. That year we had 2,415. So we’re only down 16 percent. The neighborhood really supports this restaurant and fills the tables when they are available.
We are also in the process of applying for the state 5 star certification program. [Editor’s note: The 5 Star State Certification is a program in some Colorado counties that allows businesses like restaurants and gyms to increase their indoor capacity by showing they’re going above and beyond public health orders. In Denver it allows businesses to gradually reopen and increase their capacity after meeting certain guidelines and thresholds.] It’s a brand new program so we’re still trying to navigate what to do, but we think we may need to move the tables further, focus on customer tracing and improve ventilation.
Since we opened again for indoor dining, we are actively looking for line chefs. We have three to five people in the kitchen during the week and six to seven on the weekend. It is actually a great time to hire as the market is full of talent and people are in need of work. But there is still the uncertainty. It’s winter in Colorado, and while it has been mild so far, the snowiest and coldest months may be coming. I also ask myself: “Are we going to shut down again?” Anytime a new restriction on restaurants is lifted it is sad and demoralizing in the kitchen, especially considering who the shutdowns affect most. Subordinate cooks and dishwashers are given shorter working hours. I got a promotion in the summer; I’m a senior line chef so I’m no longer hourly. I feel safe, but I definitely feel guilty about having work while others don’t.