With Labor Day over-and-done, a slew of Philadelphia restaurants have taken Mayor Kenney up on his offer to open up indoors at a limit of 25 percent and an extreme selection of safe, spatial distance rules, today September 8. Yes, Governor Wolf says he may allow restaurants to go to 50 percent by September 21, but Wolf ain’t Kenney, so stay tuned on that.
That many long-closed restaurants thought to be desperate are not opening indoors as such as yet – not at 25 percent, buddy, who can make money with that count? – says a lot of what chef-owners and restaurant entrepreneurs think of Kenney’s plan.
A while ago (and thank God I keep everything), I interviewed Eli Kulp, Culinary Director and Founder of High Street Hospitality Group and podcaster, what he thought a Philadelphia – still in the throes of C-19 seating – would look like.
The respected James Beard-nominated Philly chef, famed for his executive roles at Fork, a.kitchen, and High Street on Market – as well as co-founding their umbrella outfit, the High Street Hospitality Group – gave me a picture of the future of area dining, based on focused calculated estimation.
“We’re all in the same boat,” he said of Philadelphia restaurants looking to figure out the loans and grants being offered them, and the sustenance of the present. “The rent is the thing that’s killing us most.”
Crystal-balling the topic of Philly’s restaurant future, Kulp imagines that in six months, the government will have to out its trust in “small business owners to do things the right way,” and providing the Coronavirus doesn’t explode again in fall, “maintain a program of social distancing,” with 30 to 50 percent of seating opportunities moved or trimmed out.
“Especially where fine dining is concerned, a place like Fork, it’s going to hurt. Where you have multiple courses of food, bussers, people pouring you fresh wine or water as soon as you sip and put your glass down – being well-treated on a night out, being served what you want when you want it – that will likely change. Figure, during any four-course meal, someone is coming up to you, close, at least 20 times. Waitstaff and bussers are doing the same thing next to your table. There are germs on all of those plates and utensils,” Kulp explained.
He continued, “After this, things are going to get very sterile when it comes to the fine dining level – so much so that I’m not sure diners are going to want it. We’ll have to make them feel comfortable. And if that means a pre-purchased meal where you know what you’re getting before you get there, where no server comes to your table too often with wine already opened – which you’ll pour yourself, just as you will water, which will already be on the table – that’s the new normal. You’ll be experiencing the flavors. The service model is what will change.”
You can tell me, starting tonight, if that’s what you’re experiencing during your dining and drinking within a restaurant’s four walls.
Then there is his other, still fresh culinary-directed gig: as a podcaster for the local Radiokismet studio networks “The CHEF Radio Podcast” with Eli Kulp” (as well as Spotify). Here, Kulp proves that he has found (with episodes up through July) another calling in which he excels, with import and emotion.
Here’s hoping Kulp keeps this “CHEF” up beyond those episodes – the show is so good, and revealing with guests such as local chef usual suspects Michael Solomonov, Nic Elmi and Jen Carroll all talking about their inner lives and demons, as well as old-world restaurant ideals, new conceits, fresh menus, and frank looks at an industry in trouble due to the raging pandemic.
“I wanted people to know – I wanted to know for myself – that I had a struggle getting back from the accident (Kulp was famously made into a paraplegic due to a 2015 Amtrak disaster), and that I could survive, thrive and make a new life for myself and my work,” said Kulp.