An enthusiastic restaurant review in a large publication can be a double-edged sword for a small business. On the one hand, it can bring international attention to a project that might otherwise have remained a small, local favorite. On the other, that attention can easily overwhelm an operator who might not be prepared for a massive influx of curious new customers with lofty expectations. I remember being in Flushing after the small shop Dumpling Galaxy got a review in the New York Times, in which critic Pete Wells praised the “exhilarating harmonies” that chef Helen You packs into her $8 plates of dumplings. It was absolutely jammed — much busier than I had ever seen it on my previous visits — yet a number of the new customers did not give Dumpling Galaxy or You the benefit of the doubt. Instead, they took to Yelp to complain.
But last week saw a more unexpected turn of events following a standout Times review. In that piece, Wells offered his take on Outerspace, an open-air project in East Williamsburg where a collection of chefs — Chinchakriya Un, from the popular pop-up Kreung; and Anthony Ha and Sadie Mae Burns, from Ha’s Đặc Biệt — had joined forces on a new menu. (Ross Warren worked with the chefs as the general manager.) The review’s headline declared Outerspace to be “the restaurant of this New York summer,” and Wells offered nothing but praise for the project. But then, less than a day later, another piece by Wells appeared, with the headline: ”Hours After a Glowing Review, Three Chefs Leave Outerspace.” And that’s just the beginning of the story.
Indeed, Un, Warren, Ha, and Burns had all left the project that same night, though the residency was originally planned to last through the end of summer. They, however, did not talk to Wells for the follow-up Times story. Instead, in an Instagram post announcing their exit, they posted a joint statement that they “realize this is extremely short notice,” expressed gratitude to supporters, and said that they are looking for new spaces to continue the collaboration. Meanwhile, on Kreung’s Instagram account, Un offered a lengthier statement, starting off by writing “When we are ready, the chefs will speak on why we left Outerspace.” The post then describes the ways in which Ha, Burns, and Un were being overworked and undercompensated, while their concerns went unheard. She writes that they “worked 20 hour days and were struggling to keep a restaurant flowing just off of food revenue” while the owners raked in all the bar revenue. She was also critical of the Times report on their departure, which she described as benefitting the owners’ narrative.
Un’s comments clearly struck a nerve: The post has been widely shared — so far, it has been viewed 98,000 times — and there are now nearly 400 comments, with many coming from other chefs, restaurant and bar workers, and industry professionals who have rallied around the pop-up chefs. The cook and writer Millicent Souris wrote “respect for walking away from that cycle” and the chef Victoria Blamey described it as “same old same old story.” Monica Bryne, who runs the food business Home/Made Hudson, commented on “the broken system” that serves as the foundation for the entire hospitality industry. In a report for Eater New York, former staffers paint a picture of a project that was mismanaged from the start, run by inexperienced operators who didn’t provide the necessary support, not only for projects for things as basic as how to deal with inclement weather. (In a statement to Eater, the owners, who hired crisis-management firm Trident DMG, say it’s “not appropriate to characterize Outerspace’s shortcomings as emblematic of the restaurant industry.”)
The departing chefs didn’t return requests for comment for this story. Their exit has captured the attention of the industry because it seems to speak to so many conversations that are being had in the food world right now. Regardless of whatever happened behind the scenes at Outerspace, it remains very easy for restaurant workers to understand the feeling of being overworked, undercompensated, and taken advantage of in a job that ultimately benefits someone else’s public profile or bottom line.
And who hasn’t dreamt of simply walking away from a job that makes us miserable? To see a group of chefs (apparently) do just that — at the exact moment when a media spotlight is shining on them — offers a vicarious sense of satisfaction.
While reporting on the kitchen culture at Mission Chinese Food, I spoke to Burns, who had worked there at the same time as Ha. “It’s really insane to be making $500 a week and have a whole slew of abuse when you walk in the door,” she said at the time. When she and Ha decided to leave the restaurant, she said of the decision, “We got really, really tired of seeing the same pattern over again, and that’s why we’re hoping not to enter into that same system again.”