‘We Need Some Encouragement’

Marco Canora is ready for a little optimism.

Marco Canora, at his restaurant Hearth. Photo: Scott Heins
Marco Canora, at his restaurant Hearth. Photo: Scott Heins
Marco Canora, at his restaurant Hearth. Photo: Scott Heins

On the day that New York City’s restaurants were once again allowed to serve diners indoors, the veteran big-city chef Marco Canora posted an Instagram story blasting the community of “remote working food journalists who’ve suffered no pain” over a whole list of sins and transgressions. Instead of grousing about inequitable working conditions in the industry (of which there are many) and advising readers not to participate in the indoor reopening for all sorts of reasons (including the very good one that it might be hazardous to their health), Canora suggested that members of the cosseted, shut-in food press “employ more empathy towards those you claim to want to protect, the cook, the server, the porter,” and asked for a few more “encouraging” love letters to an industry that’s been “kicked in the face over and over again.” Our restaurant critic Adam Platt (from the warm, semi-comfortable confines of his own study, for the record) called Canora to discuss his views on the changing food-media landscape, the challenges of keeping his East Village restaurant Hearth alive during the pandemic, and to ask if there was anything else he felt like getting off his chest.  

Obviously we have many things to discuss, but the topic I’d like to explore first is why you woke up one morning and decided to put the food media on blast.
[Laughs.] Is that what I did? I literally woke up that morning. It was the date of the reopening, and I just put it out there. I’ve watched and I’ve listened pretty intently during my career to the murmurs out there, and I felt people were really missing something. What people were writing wasn’t very empathetic to our industry. On the one hand, you think there are a lot of people rooting for us — media and customers — and on the other hand, I don’t see encouraging words being written about the future, about the present, really about anything to do with our industry right now during this crisis.

So you were being a cheerleader?
I wanted to infuse a little bit of optimism and excitement and to give a little bit of our perspective. I’m a chef and I’m an owner, but I’m also a working guy. I’ve worked alongside these people since the mid ’90s in New York City as a line cook, and to this day, I’m working alongside my team. I bought some of my staff back after they’d been gone for a while — not all of the staff by any stretch of the imagination — you could see that they were struggling. I could see the pain in their eyes. Some of them have children. Some of them have partners who don’t work. It’s been hard for all of them, and they don’t have the luxury of remote work, so I wrote what I did. I tried to be as concise and articulate as I could. I put it out to the world, and I stand by it. It’s something I felt needed to be said, and I’m happy to be the one who said it.

Of course, the counter argument would be, and it’s one that many of my colleagues are making, that many of these workers in the restaurant industry have no choice. Their options are limited, and most have to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations.
They certainly have a choice with me. They could say, “Marco, I don’t feel comfortable coming back to work.” That’s fine. It’s absolutely their choice. None of them said that. Everyone seemed to be ecstatic to come back. They were excited on many levels, not just about having their job back. They missed the culture of the restaurant. They missed our restaurant family. They missed all those things that go on when you work with a tight, close-knit group of people. They missed being hospitable to guests. They missed the community of people that have been coming to dine at our restaurant for the last 17 years.

In everything we do, there’s a level of risk. Whether we fly on an airplane or ride the subways, or whether we eat poorly or don’t exercise — in all the things we do, it all equates to some level of risk. I guess my point was that these folks have been out of work for the last 12 months and are struggling, and if New York State says we’re allowed to open 25 percent, they are more than happy to engage in some level of risk to get a semblance of their life back, to feed their family, and start to feel human again. In a perfect world, sure, it would be great if the government gave us a ton of money to sit tight until this goes away, but that hasn’t been happening. So what’s the alternative? You can’t work from home as a professional cook. You can’t work from home as a server.

Tell me a little bit about your own restaurant and the struggle to survive. Hearth employed how many people pre-pandemic?
We have about 55 to 60, but with the first round of layoffs, the staff went down to 6 people. My core managers, thankfully, stuck around. We had the Brodo window selling out beef broth, thank God. Restaurants are like living organisms, I think. You need to keep some level of blood flowing. To shut it down completely and turn everything off is a difficult thing to do for a restaurant that has been operating seven days a week for 17 years. Thankfully, I had the Brodo window, which was a little window of commerce that I could keep alive.

What else did you do?
Well, I had to turn my inventory into salable things. We looked at everything we had sitting around, and we made anything we could. We made a bunch of sauces and a bunch of soups. We froze them and created a menu and called it Hearth at Home, and we sold frozen food out of the Brodo window. We were making 20 percent of what we used to, but still that was great. It was way better than nothing. It kept the blood flowing. It served us really well. I liquidated my wine cellar. We were holding tens of thousands of dollars of wine revenue. We discounted the bottles by 50 percent and customers came by the Brodo window to pick up their wine. We sold, like, $65,000 dollars worth of wine, which was phenomenal. The cash flow issue was what all of us small restaurant owners were struggling with. We had payables north of $150,000. When you turn off the faucet of revenue, you go under water very quickly.

The team of people I have are very devoted, and the customer base we’ve developed over 17 years has also been incredibly devoted. Those are the two things that allowed us to survive, which some of the larger, destination-based places don’t have, the small team and the local customer base.

We’ve done a million fucking things and we’ve done them really well, and it’s all because of my team. Hearth had the best Thanksgiving it’s had in 17 years in 2020. We sold over 200 Thanksgiving boxes. It was extraordinary.

The point I want to make is that all of us in this industry have needed to learn things that most of us didn’t know anything about: Logistics. Branding. Packaging. Building online stores. We did this shit on the fly with very limited resources.

It almost sounds exciting.
I’ve put my foot in my mouth way too many times in these kinds of interviews, but one of the things I wanted to say is that these kinds of challenges bring out the best in me, and they bring out the best in this industry. I have never felt so engaged and motivated.

Has anyone gotten sick on your staff?
We had one person who worked one day a week in the Brodo window. It was the only case we had, but she found out during her six days off, so there was little to no risk to the staff who all got tested. But, knock on wood, because we are not out of the woods yet, for sure.

What’s your view on the city’s COVID dining policy?
Oh lord. I think everybody across the board did a pretty awful job. The fact that our mayor and our governor were having their little spats — oh my God. Before you get in front of the public, you can’t come out with one consistent message?! I learned that at my first management job at Gramercy Tavern in 1997. Make sure you’re speaking with a common voice: That’s a basic tenet of managing people and obviously they haven’t managed to do it. These are the people at the highest position of state and city government. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. We’re all trying to get by, but I sort of equate it with the chaotic vaccine situation now. The whole thing’s been an embarrassment.

You’ve been around for a long time. You’ve been around longer than I have, in fact. How has the relationship between the press and restaurants changed over the years. How have things changed now versus five or ten years ago?
I think restaurants are realizing more and more that it’s really about cultivating your own little community and the people who love you, and that the notion of getting the press or the restaurant critic to write something wonderful about you and drive business isn’t really how it works anymore. The way to drive business today is to build local community, and I think that’s a wonderful change. It might be the harder path, but it lasts longer and it serves you better. Hearth is the perfect example. We were never one of these rainbow love-child darlings of the press by any stretch of the imagination. We did it the hard, old-fashioned way, and its serving us now because we have customers who will buy pretty much anything that we sell because they don’t want us to go away. That’s a meaningful and powerful thing, especially on the scale that we’re all operating these days. It used to be that everyone went the PR route and the let’s-get-the-love-of-the-press route because if the press loves you then the sheep will follow. I think that’s changing. The sheep are getting smarter. The diners are doing their own research and finding the places they want to support, and I think that’s fucking fantastic.

For the record, I am indeed sitting now in my warm little study, but I’ve also been freezing my very large ass off walking the avenues, and I know more than a few food writers who’ve gotten sick; so in fairness, we are out in the world.
I want to be really clear about this. It’s tough times for everybody, and I think the press is facing some tough times too. I don’t think they’re living some easy life. I think the environment out there now is a very difficult one. I would hate to be in your business now. The kind of stories that create the clicks you all need is not exactly the most heartwarming content. It’s a tough time to be a writer. It’s a tough time to be in food media, or any media, I think. I don’t wish ill on anybody, food media included.

Look, every choice I’ve made as a chef these past 17 years hasn’t really been driven by commercial viability. I did it because it’s meaningful stuff that matters to me. I just wish there was more of that in the media. It just seems like everybody’s chasing the clicks, and the stories that get the clicks these days are all bad news. I don’t blame anybody. It’s just unfortunate. After these dark fucking 12 months, Adam, we need some leadership, we need some encouragement, and we need some positivity. We need people to get excited! I’m trying to build my team back, but it’s just a very tough environment right now. I’m optimistic. I think we’re going to get out of this. I just think we could use a little more positivity in the world.

Do you think it’s safe to dine indoors in New York City now?
That’s a difficult question, and in the end, I think it’s a personal question. What I said on my Instagram post, I do believe it, although I’m sure there’s some epidemiologist out there who will tell me I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. Most of the risk is on the diner, not on my staff. So it’s up to the diners whether they want to take on that risk.

The thing that no one ever talks about is our resilience as humans. I’ve been taking care of myself like crazy. I feel healthier and stronger than I ever have. Am I comfortable going out and unmasking and having a quick meal with my wife at a restaurant? Yes, we’re actually trying to figure out where to go because it’s been so long. I think risk is a personal thing. If I were sick and unhealthy, no, I don’t think it’s healthy. If I were a certain age, I don’t think it’s healthy. But if I’m young and I’m healthy and I take care of myself, then yes, and if I’m a server who’s tables keep their masks on my entire shift, and if I’m aching to get back, psychologically and economically, to my job, then I’d say yes to that too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marco Canora Is Ready For a Little Optimism