It’s a quiet Monday morning at the Greenmarket at Union Square, and chefs Diana Freedman and Annabel Sharahy scour the stalls for maitake mushrooms that they’ll use in a new recipe. The pair were preparing for a Rosh Hashanah-themed meal featuring brisket, root vegetable fritters and honey cake.
Freedman and Sharahy are farmer’s market veterans. Both sourced ingredients here while working at fine dining restaurants like Gunter Seeger and Gramercy Tavern over the past several years. This time, they’re gathering produce for Brown Butter Supper Club, a startup that makes and delivers what they call “Michelin Star-quality food” across Brooklyn that will cost you about $35 for an entrée with accoutrements. Their sandwich menu currently starts at $12.
The pair are among thousands of hospitality workers in Brooklyn who have been forced to stake it out on their own amid coronavirus closures. Although the pressure to make a living has led to ingenuity in Brooklyn’s culinary world, it’s unclear whether the revenue from start-ups like Brown Butter Supper Club will garner the same demand in-person restaurants once did.
When the pandemic struck the food industry in March, Freedman and Sharahy found themselves out of a job, without much notice. The restaurant where they worked — Freedman as a line cook and Sharahy as a sous chef — had no choice but to cut their hours.
“We still had our tools in the restaurant, our shoes — everything we would need to work,” Freedman said. “Nobody knew what was happening.”
The pair was also dissatisfied with the way the hospitality industry reacted to the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. They observed some restaurants promoting seasonal cocktails instead of coming up with plans to address racism in the workplace or donating leftover ingredients to protesters.
That’s when Sharahy and Freedman devised a project of their own. Working from a rented-out kitchen in Brooklyn, they began cooking meals for local customers each week, with Freedman personally delivering each order on her bike. As the business expanded, the pair moved to the kitchen inside a luxury hotel in Bed-Stuy called The Brooklyn. The startup partnered with local delivery services Plucker and Dinner Table and the business evolved to include cooking classes, private dinners and pop-up meals.
The duo has focused on reinterpreting cuisine from their childhoods. For Sharahy, whose family is Syrian and Chechen, that means an emphasis on pickling, fermentation and Arabic spices. Freedman, meanwhile, takes inspiration from her Russian and Romanian family’s roasting and braising techniques.
The chefs previously premiered an all-vegan dinner, which included locally sourced polenta cakes, marinated eggplants, shaved radish salad and crispy enoki mushrooms. The menu is ever-changing and currently includes starters like crispy, Brazilian barbecue-flavored fries and hearty main dishes like roasted pork cold noodles and succulent chicken sandwiches.
Nearly two-thirds of restaurants in New York State are either likely or somewhat likely to close by the end of the year in the absence of government assistance, according to a recent New York Restaurant Association survey. The New York City Hospitality Alliance has reported that nearly 90% of respondents were unable to fully pay their rent in October.
Several high-profile New York restaurant owners have, in the absence of sufficient government subsidies, taken to sites like GoFundMe to raise funds that go directly to their employees. Greg Baxtrom’s Prospect Heights eatery Olmsted and its sister restaurant Maison Yaki raised over $90,000 for their employees. Meanwhile, Brooklyn Mediterranean staple Hart’s pivoted to selling prepared ingredients and meals like vegetable soup, homemade breadcrumbs and braised mushrooms to neighborhood residents.
Unlike bars and restaurants whose revenue relies on in-person service, some delivery services like Long Island City-based Ipsa Provisions found that they were better-equipped to endure the pandemic. Ipsa, which launched in February, delivers upscale frozen meals that customers can easily heat on a stovetop. Featuring international fare, the service’s staples include a steamy, lemongrass-infused coconut curry, Morrocan braised chicken and spicy chicken tortilla soup — the meals all serve two to three people and go for a little north of $20 each. Ipsa’s co-founder, Joshua Brau, says the decision to remain open wasn’t easy.
“But what kept us going was conversations with our friends in the healthcare and public health community who said, ‘As small as your business is, you are providing a really essential service,” Brau said.
Back at the farmer’s market, vendors are hauling in vegetables like flying saucer squash, dragon tongue beans and radishes. As Freedman and Sharahy take one last look for potential ingredients, they spot a stall offering bundles of plump concord grapes.
They each sample one and wince, pushing the leftover seeds around in their mouths. The grapes aren’t quite ripe enough. They purchase a bundle anyway to incorporate into a yet-unknown recipe and Freedman readies her bike for the ride home.
Customers can order straight from the menu at Brown Butter Supper Club’s website.
Top photo courtesy of Brown Butter Supper Club’s Instagram.
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