The pandemic hit southern chefs hard. So why do some resist reopening?
From Nashville to Savannah, these restaurateurs have been putting community first.
Hugh Acheson was spending a rare moment at his house in Athens, Georgia, when he called to tell me he and his crew have been cooking and donating a staggering average of 700 meals a day, near 25,000 in the past three weeks alone.
Although Georgia was the first U.S. state to reopen officially after the COVID-19 lockdown, Acheson—an esteemed restaurateur and Top Chef judge—has kept his three beloved restaurants (Empire State South, Five & Ten, and By George) shuttered, instead focusing on service of a different sort. He’s still cooking and providing fulsome meals to locals—only now he’s giving them away to groups in need.
“It’s philanthropy doing what philanthropy should,” Acheson explained of his apolitical mission backed by World Central Kitchen and Atlanta’s Blank Family Foundation. “Help me keep a light bulb on and I will churn out nutritious food. I will produce good for you.”
Acheson has been particularly vocal in his opposition to the reopening of southern states, writing op-eds and giving interviews where he speaks of refusing to have employees “used as sacrificial lambs for an economic uptick that is far from guaranteed.”
Acheson emphasized he wants “to be remembered as a good person.” He’s part of a movement brewing among many influential chefs in the South opting not to re-open their successful businesses, but instead searching for ways to make a measurable difference in their communities, forgoing potential profits and, in the process, redefining what it means to be in the restaurant industry.
“This is not the time for fine dining,” Acheson stressed. “It just isn’t.”
There is an erroneous notion that chefs are preening egomaniacs. (And perhaps a handful are.) But few choose to enter a business with profit margins thin as shaved fennel and hours longer than a hundred Sundays because they crave fortune and fame. Chefs cook because they care.
This is especially true in the American South, where food remains a down-home source of comfort. Cookery is a tradition stemming from humble roots, viewed through the lens of the region’s knotty history. This is not to say there isn’t fancy food here, only that folks see French technique as secondary to heart, twee presentation less compelling than soul. Southern chefs boil down the guts and pick the bones clean. They serve food that tastes like the blues sound.
Using ingenuity, charity, and profound reprioritizing, these southern chefs have found ways to surface hope in the ruin, to scrape and scrap, to feed us what we need.
Giving back in Georgia
“I’m sitting with a mask on in our empty dining room, computers, and to-go packaging all around,” an exhausted Steven Satterfield, James Beard award-winning chef and co-owner of Atlanta’s Miller Union explained last month. In his kitchen (under strict new safety protocols), the staff he’d been able to keep on the payroll were cooking daily meals for more than 200 healthcare workers—four-courses including a snack, salad, entrée, a couple vegetables, and dessert. On the back of the meal bag, they placed a thank-you note.
After Georgia Governor Brian Kemp declared his state open for business, Satterfield decided to stay closed and pour his resources into feeding Emory hospital employees, preparing and packing 200 meals (for two), five days a week, starting at 5:30 a.m.
“We aren’t making a dime,” Satterfield said, of the mission funded by donations from corporate and private patrons. “But I’m able to keep on 25 employees and support local farms. We’re working the front lines behind the scenes, doing something important, and I feel pretty proud.”
(Related: Craving barbecue, grits, or bourbon? Here’s how to eat your way through the South.)
At 50, Satterfield has been in the restaurant business half his life, the last decade shaping Miller Union into the sort of cheery fine-dining destination you’d visit to impress a date or win a client.
“The mantra of a restaurant is you want to be busy. We thrive on that rush. But we won’t see that for a while,” Satterfield sighed. “A lot of us won’t make it to the end of the year. I’m cycling through all the feelings. What’s keeping me going is making an impact.”
The farms which supply Satterfield’s kitchen drop off extra produce—tomatoes, greens, radishes—that he bags for his workers, a circle of giving that buoys a team often unable to find time or energy to shop. “We’re grateful to have a purpose,” Satterfield said of the camaraderie that flourished since he shut down.
“If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you see there is something wonderful about taking care of people. And we’re still doing that, even if our restaurants are closed.”
Asked if the larger community frowned upon his decision to keep the doors shut as long as the donation program was funded, Satterfield laughed. “People applauded.”
From James Beard to the front lines
Johno Morisano, co-owner of Savannah’s much-lauded The Grey, experienced a similar rally when he and co-owner/head chef Mashama Bailey, also ignored the statewide re-open edict.
“When we determined we’d stick to our own schedule, we received an outpouring of support from our guests as big as when Mashama won a James Beard,” Morisano said, admitting he was worried about pushing send on the announcement that ended up being “a high water mark of support from our community.”
“Our philosophy was, let’s be who we always are,” added Bailey.
For the pair, that meant pressing pause on re-opening their dining room, giving away as many farm-fresh meals a week as they can to those in need (using money donated from their regulars), and lobbying Congress and educating lawmakers about the restaurant business. Morisano’s on the phone dawn to dark, emphasizing how between 85 and 95 cents of every dollar spent at an independent restaurant goes back into the community via wages, rent, farm purchases, service contracts for electricians, cleaners, linen companies, delivery trucks.
Independent restaurants employ more than 11 million people nationally, he explains to anyone who will listen, nearly seven percent of the entire U.S. workforce. And yet, even the most successful operators subsist on a three-percent profit margin.
“How can it be that some of the greatest chefs running the best restaurants are worried three days after a shutdown that they’ll never open again?" Morisano asked, rhetorically.
“We have to step back,” Bailey warned. “To ask why. To fix what’s broken.” She paused, choking up. “Today was the first day I allowed myself to get emotional.”
Local heroism, Carolina style
When Raleigh, North Carolina chef Ashley Christensen phoned from her screened porch, she was gazing at a 100-year-old oak tree in her yard, just three miles from the city center where all seven of her businesses sit vacant, a blow that took her from 280 to 28 employees in one heartrending afternoon.
“Local restaurants define communities,” Christensen explained, knowing of what she speaks, having singlehandedly led the revitalization of the downtown neighborhood where her places operated. Her flagship Poole’s, an upscale diner known for its vegetable-driven menu, (as well as a mac and cheese both soothing and mind-blowing), languished on an empty block when she moved in December 2007.
Christensen grasps the Jenga puzzle of interlocking choices and consequences, and how when one piece is yanked loose, the whole structure crumbles. It’s one reason she built her southern empire on an ethos of charity and giving back locally—the windows of all her establishments are emblazoned with the words “Don’t Forget Kindness”—a habit she and her wife and business partner Kaitlyn Goalen have only amplified during COVID-19.
With their team, they’ve helped raise $350,000 for North Carolina food-service workers, created another reimbursement program that brought in $1 million and gives $500 grants to those in need within days. They’re also providing hospital workers with meals and running a free grocery for their furloughed employees which offers local meats, dairy and veg. Christensen marvels at the generosity she’s seen reflected back from customers and vendors alike. (Counter Culture coffee donated 500 pounds of beans.)
Christensen finds solace in being “useful,” even as she mourns the loss of the romance of her industry to what portends to be a sterilized, distanced future.
(Related: Craving carbs? Here are 10 ways to break bread around the world.)
“As someone who has spent 25 years in this business trying to make people feel more wrapped in hospitality, it’s wild to think about walking all that back.”
But Christensen pushes through. “This doesn’t work if we all don’t do the right thing.” And that means keeping her eateries shuttered. Even take-out proved dicey, with guests gathering too close for comfort outside. She’d love to be back in business, but only on “terms that keep my team and community safe.”
“We keep our promises, and with COVID, we couldn’t make any.” Christensen said, adding, “In the south, we take care of each other."
Food truckers at heart
Nashville-based Biscuit Love co-owners, chef Karl and CEO Sarah Worley were driving, the hum of the road in the background as they talked about grief.
“I miss my people,” Sarah said flatly over the car speakerphone. “I miss the energy of our restaurants.”
In one week, the Worleys let go of 95 percent of their staff, 125 people who’d helped them build their biscuit-focused breakfast joint into a must-stop, with daily hour-long lines spilling onto the sidewalk. “It was the most horrific thing I’ve had to do,” Sarah remembers. “We’re weary.”
“You get so sad and frustrated, you want to pack it up forever,” Karl acknowledged. “But this is my community. They’re looking to us as leaders.”
The Worleys and a tight team are feeding the front lines, while also operating a food pantry where local farmers sell ham, sausage, flour, butter, and other items Biscuit Love used in their kitchens. A private donor covers operating costs.
“We’re food truckers at heart,” Sarah said, referring to their humble origins. “We never say die.”
The Worleys have also doubled down on their mental-health program, a food-industry rarity put in place when Biscuit Love started out in an Airstream/food truck in 2015. It offers every employee access to free therapy. “We want to create as much mental and emotional stability as we can,” Sarah said.
“Food matters, money matters," Karl adds quietly of their livelihood, his voice thick with emotion. “But not as much as what you do for people. That's all that counts in the end. That's what makes a life.”
Chef on wheels
Acheson acknowledged he’s working harder than he ever has, doing “what needs to be done,” not for his bottom line, but for those in crisis.
“Monday we go to Athens shelters,” he explained of his chockablock schedule. “Today we deliver 400 meals to immigrant-rights groups, and another 125 at a church. Then we hit City of Hope for homeless children, and drop 125 meals there.” Acheson took a deep breath. “I tapped into all my organizer friends to access need, and we’re finding the need is greater than [what] we can possibly give.”
Acheson said he’s trying to be there for the hospital worker going off a 16-hour shift, but also for anyone without the resources to procure even basic staples.
“Last week I gave a woman named Esther enough beans for her mom to make 900 tamales to distribute in her neighborhood to keep people going. If I can figure out how to bring a little joy each time,” he said, trailing off.
To that end, he stews pork posole, grinds herb pesto, slow roasts ham with mustard aioli. Cooking and service give him a sense of pride, and have since he started restaurant work at age 14, becoming what he jokingly calls “the black sheep of my academic family.”
“At the end of the day, when I wash my hands for the 68th time, I feel pretty proud giving back to the community that’s nurtured and supported me.”
Before the world stuttered to a stop, chefs served us dishes and experiences that reminded us we came from someplace, that we were part of something bigger, that we were welcome somewhere. For better or worse, their joy remains inextricably tied to ours.
“When we nourish others,” said Acheson, “it makes us feel like we matter. It gives us a reason to get up in the morning. It implies compassion, empathy. And that’s what I can do right now.”
Not long ago, Acheson brought his 15- and 17-year-old daughters on to package meals and assist with delivery. Recently his eldest texted him.
“Thanks for doing good, Dad.”
This story was reported in early May as Georgia and other Southern states eased coronavirus shutdowns. Most of these businesses remain closed to inside dining, but a few have resumed service in a rapidly changing time.