shutdown diaries

What It’s Like to Self-Quarantine With a Michelin-Starred Chef

Two-hundred square feet, six jars of seaweed, and one stubborn gnocchi recipe.

Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty
Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty
Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty

Here’s my love story, playing out in a 15-foot by 13-foot room. The single window faces a brick wall close enough to touch, and welcomes no sunlight. Under the glare of an overhead light, my boyfriend cooks, and I stare at the blue-gray walls, waiting to eat.

The gentleman is Kevin Rose, the chef of research and development at Atera, a fine-dining restaurant at 77 Worth Street that’s held two Michelin stars since it opened in 2012. If things were normal right now, you could book a seat around the open kitchen and pay $285, and Kevin would be there to serve you a series of beautiful courses, a play in 17 stunning little acts.

He’d hand you a Shigoku oyster with a yuzu bechamel and a mound of Ossetra caviar. He’d slice a perfect scallop into a bath of white miso and sunchoke and Granny Smith apple. He’d set down a plate of rabbit loin and help you to figure out what flavor’s poking through its accompanying bisque (fennel seed, maybe, or green peppercorn). Why, yes, they did burn oak to bring out the flavors of pilsner in that jus. Yeah, that pear was poached with pine needles.

But of course you can’t do that right now, because Atera is closed.

While I’m a freelancer accustomed to working from home, accustomed to sitting very still, Kevin is used to standing for 15 hours a day. He hasn’t gone this long without serving people food since he started working in kitchens in ninth grade. So he cooks for a clientele of one, of me, and every morning around 11 a.m., while I’m answering emails and trying my absolute hardest to maintain the pace of my breath, he interrupts to ask, “What should we eat tonight?”

It’s the only source of joy, the only routine. We must eat, and we’ll make it beautiful, and I’ll feel obscene and grotesque in my luck, and also sated and okay, for a few hours.

What’s it like to date a professional chef? people ask in a thrilled tone, about this rom-com boyfriend job, especially if they’re New Yorkers. Does he cook for you all the time? Well, no, because when he’s not working he doesn’t want to be working. He wants to seek out food that is not like the kind he makes — so it’s pho and sushi and curries and ramen and the sweetest, spiciest Szechuan we can find.

It’s like this: I only see him on Sundays and Mondays, because he works from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. the other days. It is downtime spent watching hours upon hours of YouTube videos about some old farmer in Japan fermenting miso in a barn, or researching new purveyors, or typing up recipes.

The walls of his small, dark room are lined with shelves as tall as I am holding cookbooks by Michel Bras and René Redzepi, Thomas Keller and Daniel Humm, Michel Guerard and Auguste Escoffier, or his former employer Daniel Boulud. When you open the closet you find seven button-up shirts and yet more cookbooks, or four encyclopedias about the wine regions of the world. His nightstand is a mini wine fridge. Under the bed and under the sink are plastic containers filled with pasta tools, silicone molds, madeleine pans, a milk frother, and a tamis for refining sauces until they’re silken. He possesses those little steamer baskets for soup dumplings, plus the gelatin needed to make them himself, plus six jars of seaweed ordered from Japan and South Korea. His skinny, only-in-NYC refrigerator has a shelf of pickling jars: Meyer lemons preserved in sugar, lacto-fermented carrots, umeboshi plums floating in pink liquid.

It means he’ll get a faraway look and ask, on a walk, how do you think it’d go if we added yeast to lighten the gnocchi?

And so he doesn’t usually cook for me, no, but he does now. I request pasta and naan and pizza because heavier food slows down my hummingbird heart and makes it possible to sleep. He preheats the oven to 590 degrees for pizza, the highest it can possibly go, making a sauna of the Lilliputian space, but he’s trying to replicate the effects of the brick ovens in Naples. When that’s too much, we have a night of asparagus in ginger and black vinegar and sunflower seeds, eggplant suffused with orange marmalade, cauliflower swimming in creamy saffron.

Clockwise: Cauliflower with saffron sauce, pizza, asparagus with ginger and sunflower seeds, souffles. Kaitlin Menza.
Clockwise: Cauliflower with saffron sauce, pizza, asparagus with ginger and sunflower seeds, souffles. Kaitlin Menza.

At the nearby Whole Foods, life-saving staffers with walkie talkies now socially distance customers and create a long line down Third Avenue, so we try Gristede’s for once. When Kevin faces the olive-oil display, lines of generic gold, he sucks his teeth in dejected disgust. “Is Gristede’s always this bad, or is it because of the virus?” he asks.

He forms the gnocchi with his fingers and tries the yeast component and hates how they turn out anyway and wonders to me, “If Atera is closed for at least six more weeks, I could maybe make gnocchi six more times? I want to get it right. Is that okay?” Sure, yeah, I’ll eat potato dumplings every seven days. Where am I going?

We start cooking around 4 p.m. every day, and we start drinking wine, and we fret about our dwindling wine supply. And I worry about how my body will feel after six weeks or six months of sitting still and eating and eating and eating with a daily bottle of wine, but I already know how it feels: terrible and great and absolutely necessary.

I try to contribute by chopping veggies or stirring pots, and he controls his face and his breathing very well but I can still feel his pupils dilating when I burn the very basic scrambled eggs, or get the timing wrong when sautéing onions. So I get enraged and stomp away (I have six feet of runway for stomping) and I say, “Okay, you do it then!” If I walked back to my own apartment uptown, with its single pot and single pan, I’d be eating a can of chickpeas every night and we both know that.

So he calmly whisks and measures and froths the sauces, and pauses only to comfort me through anxious rages. Only three days in, I read the wrong Times article at 1:30 a.m. about an 18-month vaccine timeline, and convince myself I’ll probably never see my grandmother again, and I cry until I can’t catch my breath and my eyelids are too swollen to blink. He strokes my hair and holds my angry arms, then boils water for elderflower tea.

The keen awareness that I am the luckiest person in this city, in this country, on this whole ravaged planet, and thus don’t deserve despair, only serves to heighten the despair.

When I’m irritable and exasperated and short in my demands — for quiet, for a hug, for the last piece — his quick joke is to answer with, “Oui, chef!” the response taught to every young apprentice and student and line cook. This is how you grapple with the command to stay inside, indefinitely. You do what is necessary, you do what is asked, and you do it beautifully.

So on we go. He cooks, I eat. We take it one meal at a time.

What It’s Like to Quarantine With a Michelin-Starred Chef