<em><small><strong>Editor's note:</strong> The Coronavirus story is unfolding at a breakneck pace. That means that something said that was true at the time may no longer be so. On this episode please note that Lola, the Tom Douglas restaurant in the Hotel Andra in Seattle, is now closed, as is the hotel itself.</small></em>
Before the sh*t hit the proverbial fan, I had the next several episodes of Special Sauce all queued up. They were going to feature Susan Spungen, the founding food editor of <em>Martha Stewart Living</em> and author of <em>Open Kitchen: Inspired Food for Casual Gatherings</em>; and Alexander Smalls, an opera singer turned chef-restaurateur and cookbook author (<em>Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes From My African American Kitchen</em>). But when the coronavirus pandemic struck with full force, destabilizing and eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs in our industry, I realized that we needed to put those episodes on hold and change up the Special Sauce MO. So over the coming weeks, the podcast will be focused on the virus' effect on people in the industry who sustain and feed all of us, like chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, bread bakers, servers, and so many more.
For our first episode in this vein, I knew I wanted to speak to our very own <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/editors/j-kenji-lopez-alt">Kenji Lopez-Alt</a>. Kenji, along with his partners, opened Wursthall in his adopted hometown of San Mateo, CA in March of 2018; like the rest of California's restaurants, they were forced to close their doors to all business but takeout and delivery earlier this month. He's spent virtually all his time since trying to aid his laid off workers and keep the restaurant going in order to rehire as many of his people as he can. Miraculously, Kenji did find the time to pen a ridiculously comprehensive and clear-headed <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/2020/03/food-safety-and-coronavirus-a-comprehensive-guide.html">guide to food safety and the coronavirus</a> for us.
On this episode of Special Sauce, Kenji shares the problems he, his restaurant, and his staff are facing, and the tactics he's employing to keep the lights on and the burners fired up. Just as importantly, Kenji also talks about the macro socio-political and cultural issues the coronavirus pandemic has merely brought to the surface for businesses like his.
I hope that those of you who can are able to support Wursthall and its employees past, present, and future. Kenji has opened <a href="https://www.patreon.com/kenjilopezalt">a Patreon account</a>, and 100% of donations will soon go directly toward producing and providing meal kits for local San Mateo families affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
In addition to their own local initiatives, the Wursthall crew has been working with organizations, including <a href="https://wck.org/">Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen</a>, to deliver meals to various organizations in need, including Samaritan House San Mateo, the Oakland Fire Training Center, and San Francisco General Hospital emergency room. Folks will also be able to directly buy meals for families, individuals, and front line workers who are affected by the pandemic. Go to the <a href="http://www.wursthall.com/">Wursthall website</a> for the latest details about this program.
One more note about this ever-changing crisis: Even if the proposed multi-trillion dollar federal legislation is passed in the next day or two, all of these efforts are desperately needed in the short, medium, and long-term.
On this week's Special Sauce, I continue my conversation with visionary pastry chef Claudia Fleming. But before we get to Claudia's captivating story, Kenji fields a question from Serious Eater Joan Moore, who wants to know how long the blade on her Cuisinart food processor should last.
After Kenji delivers his characteristically thoughtful answer, Claudia and I pick up where we left off last week, and talk about her harrowing and moving journey. We start off by examining why she and her late husband, the prodigiously talented chef Gerry Hayden, decided to pack up their knives and scrapers, leave New York City, and buy an inn on the North Fork of Long Island, despite the fact that at the time, Claudia was, as she says, "kind of the it-girl when we left. I was on top of the world."
Turns out, the move was made in part for Gerry. "I felt like I was eclipsing the larger talent in the relationship," Claudia says. "He devoted his entire life to being a chef, a cook. I loved him very much and wanted him to have his time. I hope that doesn't sound patronizing. I wanted him to live his dream and I wanted to help facilitate that."
The inn hardly turned out to be a panacea. "It was a little money pit and it was a bit like The Shining," Claudia remembers. "It was kind of crazy. The inn was literally falling down and falling apart... There were lots of hysterical things about that. But it was kind of creepy and scary, too." If there was a single lesson Claudia took away from the experience, aside from the necessity of being well capitalized, it was this: "Beware of your passion. It can kill you."
The battle to keep the dream of the inn alive took a tragic turn when Gerry was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Claudia became chief caregiver to Gerry, even as she was running the inn. And yet somehow they persevered. "I got my strength from him," Claudia says, explaining how she managed to keep everything running. "I'm like, 'How is he doing this?' It was incredible. I'm like, 'If he can do it, I can do it with him.'"
Claudia and I also spend some time talking about the reissuing (a rare occurrence in the cookbook world) of her profoundly influential book, The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern. I ask Claudia what she set out to do with the book. "I was trying to make restaurant desserts more accessible by deconstructing them," she says. It was also a way for her to advance the idea of dessert as something more than just something sweet to end a meal. "I think maybe I was or am a frustrated cook," Claudia says, "so I started making dessert just like another course: the last course. It became less about sweet than about just another course that wraps up the dinner. It didn't come out of left field."
To close out the episode, Daniel Gritzer checks in from the Serious Eats test kitchen and schools us on grilling pork chops. "Grilling pork chops can present similar problems as chicken breasts. The meat is lean and prone to drying out, even with the slightest overcooking. With a few simple steps, though, you can guarantee that your pork chops will be juicy and perfect every time."
I urge all Serious Eaters to check this episode out, just because Claudia Fleming's story is so moving.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=452053