'We don't need fine dining right now': What chefs are doing amid COVID pandemic

The silver linings fine dining operators have found in the wake of COVID-19.

May 24, 2020, 9:02 AM

Canlis is a renowned fine-dining restaurant that has been a staple of the Seattle restaurant scene for nearly 70 years.

It features a James Beard Award-winning chef and has boasted menu items like caramelized mussels, fried rabbit with garden herbs and souffle, all prepared as works of art.

But as the coronavirus pandemic tore through the country, first in the Pacific Northwest and then in New York and elsewhere, Canlis and other fine dining establishments have had to do some serious soul-searching as they scrambled to stay alive and afloat amid orders that banished in-person dining.

Even as those restrictions have been eased in recent days, questions remain about what the future of dining will look like and top-notch eateries surveyed by ABC News have answers, from menu changes to mission changes.

The answer, for Canlis was straightforward, but not easy: "fine dining is not what people need right now."

Mark Canlis -- co-owner of the iconic Seattle restaurant with a decades long reputation for outstanding food service -- was among the first to say that out loud.

A classic makes an update -- and fast

Shortly after the first U.S. case of the deadly virus hit Seattle in January, Canlis got the team together to assess it options and plan for a new normal, where fine dining would potentially no longer be a fit.

"We sat down and said, 'OK it seems like the writing's on the wall, but what are the new rules here?' And that was the first thing that hit us was, I don't think that fine dining is what people need right now," Canlis said.

After 69 years with three generations of Canlis men at the helm, he said, "now we have an obsolete businesses -- let's just admit it and then we started listing those new rules -- It's easily the hardest thing we've ever done."

Since March, when the restaurant announced it would close its dining room, Canlis has successfully reimagined itself as a multifaceted food supply service.

"Six days later we opened an entirely different company -- we opened three different concepts in a week," Mark Canlis said, excited and proud of their new ventures. "A lot has been stripped away from us and also a lot is still here. And one of the things that's still here is a huge kitchen, a big staff, a willingness to work and we're on a freeway basically," he joked, noting they have found a way to make their relatively undesirable location work to their advantage.

"So we opened as a drive-through," Canlis said. "We could take 20 cars in the driveway and serve eight of them at a time. We completely restructured the entrance to the restaurant and traffic pattern because on day one the lines were over an hour to get a burger."

They utilized their abundant meat supply, which would ordinarily go to a dinner service, ground it up into hamburgers, baked fresh buns and he said the move "was wildly successful."

Bagels baked by staffer Melissa going into the oven at Canlis in Seattle.

"The next day we opened up a bagel shed. We happened to have a shipping container in our parking lot that has a bread oven and a flour mill in it. Our expediter who no longer had a job was from [Manhattan's] Lower East Side, this Jewish woman who said, 'I am a bada-- baker,'" Canlis said with a laugh.

Their chef Brady Williams who had tasted her bagels, asked how many she could make in a day and she confidently cranked out 600, Canlis recalled. "So we just opened at 8 in the morning for coffee and bagels and again, the lines were nuts."

On the third day, Canlis started a family meal-delivery service that put its employees, from servers and reservationists to dish washers and pianists, who would have been without jobs, into the drivers seat -- literally. "We just hired our entire staff as drivers and started delivering the dinners all over the city," he said.

Family box meals change by the day and include options like Wagyu beef meatloaf with spicy ketchup, for instance and dry-aged duck carnitas enchiladas. as well as buttermilk fried chicken and a "weekend kit" that includes burgers, pasta salad and more.

The to-go family meal with salad, fried chicken and sides offered by Canlis in Seattle.

Canlis also began rounding up the produce from its local farm purveyors to sell community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes. "We started buying from all of our same vendors and when we had all this extra stuff we would make CSA boxes out of them. Then we started delivering cocktail kits and wine out of our cellar," he said.

Their private dining coordinator shared another idea to riff off a game the staff "love to play together" and suggested "what if we play bingo with the city and put bingo cards in the dinners we're delivering, and just livestream it to people?"

So every Friday night at 8:30 p.m. local time, Brian Canlis suits up in a tuxedo and hosts the livestream event "to like 4,000 people," he said. They've even enlisted top-name musical talent to provide some additional entertainment, like The Fray singer Isaac Slade, who will perform next week. "It's the goofiest, hokiest, homespun thing," Canlis said with a laugh, "but hundreds and hundreds of [messages] from families have come in that say, 'this is the highlight of our week, will you send us more bingo cards?'"

The dinner boxes that Canlis sells also include a flower, a candle and other things to set the ambiance, even a link to livestream the restaurants' piano players, "so you can have the experience with the Canlis dinner."

In lieu of using third-party delivery service apps to communicate orders from consumer to restaurants, Canlis invented a new option with their former reservation platform Tock.

"We called them and said, 'we're trying to hack your reservation system to make it a delivery system, can you guys help?'" Canlis said. The Chicago-based company was also shutdown due to the pandemic, but it's CEO "Nick Kokonas called in a team of programmers who worked round the clock for 72 hours" to build the new system that "allows a restaurant to basically be the restaurant and delivery without relying on a third-party carrier to make it a more profitable venture."

Thinking back, Canlis said, "12 weeks ago it was like how do we keep 150 employees working and fine dining is a really inefficient labor model, so it took all of those different ideas to keep everybody employed. But we have not had to layoff a single person."

Although things look "scary and devastating," he highlighted the importance of remembering "the truth, which is that we can do this."

"I think so many people think this is so far from what Canlis used to do, but I think it has been more Canlis than ever in these past few weeks and I feel very much like we're the same company we always were even if our product looks wildly different," he said.

'It's not dead forever'

Famed French chef Ludo Lefebvre removed art from the walls of his intimate 26-seat dining room at Michelin-starred Trois Mec after being forced to shut down and tried to think of a way forward.

Even a reinvented service would be a far cry from a thoughtfully curated and exceptionally executed tasting menu experience that high-level chefs and owners worked passionately for decades to cultivate.

"It's like somebody broke up with you. And now I've got to figure out how to create a new relationship with them," Krissy Lefebvre, who helms front-end operations for her husband's Los Angeles group of restaurants, told ABC News.

Now, Trois Mec has flipped the script on its fine-dining approach to instead help with meals that support the philanthropic World Central Kitchen, run by his longtime friend and fellow chef Jose Andres.

"We had a closed Michelin starred restaurant, but it didn't feel right to try to force a to-go program. It will be a long time before we return to pre-COVID life and until then, I feel better about using Trois Mec in a way that can help the community," Krissy Lefebvre said. "[WCK] hired and engaged restaurants all across the country to allow restaurants to keep the lights on and hire some staff to cook good quality meals to people who need it right now."

Krissy Lefebvre said her husband and staff, who chose to come back into the kitchen when they felt comfortable, serve 400 of these family-style meals five days-a-week.

"The Trois Mec menu as of now is non-existent. So it was really sitting down with the staff and figuring out what kind of food that they could produce with the sources they had," she said of the family meals that include "a vegetable, a protein, like chicken and a pasta dish."

Her chef husband and business partner has been in the kitchen since he was 13 years old and said, "all he's been taught is to cook and serve people."

"Ludo doesn't cook tiny tweezer portion food at home," Krissy Lefebvre said with a laugh. "I think you have to kind of go to the other compartment in you brain and kitchen and say, 'let's find the way we feed our family. This is not a special occasion. This is life. This is survival.' And let's give people what they need to survive," she said of the restaurant's thought process behind their new approach.

"On Mother's Day last year we had over 600 reservations at Petit Trois. This year Ludo got up early to cook something like 60 chickens for the to-go menu and he came home and said, 'I almost cried on the line today,'" his wife recalled. "The special occasion moments are just not what it was. He cooks for people he brings food to the table, you see families experiencing it. Now he cooks it and puts it in a box and somebody in a mask and gloves puts it in their trunk."

The chef's wife said, "I think part of the satisfaction for chefs is the reinforcement that you've brought joy to people. So that point of connection has just been cut off."

Asking about the fate of fine dining is a bit of a loaded question with the dynamic health and business ripple effects constantly changing, but Krissy Lefebvre shared a poignant perspective.

"As of today it's dead. But it's not dead forever," she said. "If you look at something like Trois Mec you only have 28 guests maximum and we built Trois Mec so that you felt like you were in the chef's kitchen." But with new social distancing and health restrictions, like seating people six-feet apart and only allowing limited capacity, Krissy Lefebvre said, "it becomes so bare and sanitized that is that the experience that people want?"

Krissy Lefebve argued that "fine dining can't survive at 50% -- it's just a business model," she said.

Although some cities have loosened restrictions for bars and restaurants to reopen, like in San Diego where people can again dine-in, Canlis echoed Lefebvre saying, "it doesn't really work for us or most restaurants that I know to operate with all those restrictions and at 50% capacity."

"We're planning the whole the next stage, which I think will look very different from opening up a fine dining restaurant," he said. "We're just gonna change the restaurant to work for the rules and we're going to open as a completely different restaurant, like a casual crab shack."

The team is preparing to launch a drive-in movie theater concept and will take any next steps in stride with local, state and government health authorities.

While the current plan has "a completely different everything" from uniforms and decor to its menu, Canlis said, "it will be a restaurant built around this economy and these people. Because I still don't think fine dining is what people need right now."