“What I miss most is honestly sitting at a bar and having a beer and just people-watching,” Padma Lakshmi tells me.
We’re speaking over Zoom about Lakshmi’s work with the James Beard Foundation’s Open For Good restaurant recovery campaign, and I’ve asked the author and activist what she thinks restaurants bring to cities. Given Lakshmi’s recent Hulu series, Taste the Nation, which explores how restaurants across the U.S. have shaped American cuisine, I’d expected her to wax poetic about how restaurants allow you to explore different cultures. She does, briefly. But she also reminds me — and makes me miss, acutely — the real reason it’s more fun to eat out than it is to eat at home: snooping on strangers. “There's so much more than just connecting on an emotional or social level. It's also from a fashion standpoint, seeing how everybody dresses and overhearing little bits and pieces of conversation. It's a look. It's a glance. It's a handshake. It's a smile,” she says. She makes enjoying a beer or a plate of fries al fresco sound so glamorous that I nearly toggle to OpenTable to book a reservation for that night before we’re even done talking.
While I waited till the Zoom call was over to make that reservation, I also appreciated the fact that, just a few months ago, I wouldn’t have been dining-in anywhere in New York, thanks to COVID. The pandemic hit the restaurant industry especially hard, and Lakshmi is acutely aware of its ongoing problems. “I think we're all hurting, but it is hard to overstate the magnitude of difficulty that restaurants and the hospitality industry itself has gone through at this time,” Lakshmi says. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, restaurants were down 1.7 million jobs and $290 billion in sales nationally in May 2021, and more than 90,000 restaurants across the U.S. had closed altogether. And as Lakshmi pointed out, as social gathering places, restaurants have the power to shape a city’s culture and economy. So when they suffer, entire regions suffer.
The Foundation's campaign looks for ways to help independent restaurants and everyone who works in the industry survive the pandemic, and rebuild in a stronger and more sustainable way. Lakshmi has worked with the campaign since the early days of the pandemic, and she recently partnered with the beer brand Stella Artois to further support the campaign through projects like the New York City-based Seaport Artois, a series of culinary events (more info on that below), and the 14-ounce “Open For Good” Stella bottle. When you order it in participating restaurants and bars, a portion of the proceeds will go directly to the James Beard Foundation’s Open For Good campaign.
It’s clear that the cause is close to Lakshmi’s heart, and, below, she explains why she finds restaurants so important, how they’ve helped her find her footing post-pandemic, and where she hopes the industry will learn and grow as it enters recovery period.
Refinery29: Besides it just being nice to eat out and not having to cook for yourself, what do you think restaurants really bring to cities and to people?
Padma Lakshmi: “I can speak about my city, which is New York City. There's no other city — perhaps Paris or London as well — but no other city where it's really possible to travel with your fork without ever leaving the city. What restaurants offer us is a window into each other's culture.
“And if you think about our society, so much of how we celebrate and how we socialize is over food, and a lot of that is done at our favorite restaurant, whether it's a business lunch, a power breakfast, a first date. It's a place for your girlfriends to hang out, or it's a place to celebrate anniversaries or birthdays. So much of our socializing rituals happen in restaurants and cafes and bars, and it is integral to our ability to connect with others. They take us from just thinking ‘I’ to ‘we’ or ‘us.’ And that's really important for a society, especially when we're trying to come together.”
Have you had yet that first meal or moment out where you really felt like, ‘Okay, we're finally coming out of this’?
“Oh yes. Once I was vaccinated and it was okay to be out, in the last few weeks, I went to my favorite local spot here in New York. And there are a couple of places... There's a place in the East Village that I've gone to, a little Italian trattoria that’s a mom-and-pop place owned by this wonderful couple. She's Italian from Rome, and he’s from the Dominican Republic. And I’ll go there alone — you know, even without my daughter or a friend or whatever, just to see all the regulars that go there. I’ve also gone to a French restaurant in Soho that I love. It's exciting for me just to see, like, okay, I have to get dressed now. I want to wear a nice pair of heels. I want to make sure I have some mascara on and just, you know, have a nice walk in the neighborhood, go there, sit outside, watch people go by all of that. These simple pleasures are what make living in a city joyful.”
A lot of people in different ways are looking at this re-emergence period as a chance to be intentional about what they can do differently. Is there anything you hope that restaurants or the restaurant industry would do differently as they begin to reopen and focus on recovery?
“Yes, there are a couple of things. I think the most important thing is to build a more equitable system that everybody can partake in. You know, working in restaurants is a really arduous job, and the margins aren't as high as people think. I know that in America we just want to pay as little as we can for a single portion because we're always trying to get as much value [as possible]. But I personally think that going out should be a special event and a luxury — that we enjoy regularly, but we understand that it's a treat. I would rather pay a couple dollars more for my pizza and make sure that the person making that pizza and the person serving me that pizza and the person washing the dishes are paid an equitable wage.
“The restaurant industry is male-dominated like every other industry. But I also think that the hours need to be shared more equitably because it allows for more people to have families while having a career in the restaurant business. So it's not just the job you do while you're trying to get your acting career or whatever — it's the actual career. And you get better service if you pay [people] a living wage, because they don't feel like they're slogging at work; they're being compensated.
“And you have to think about everybody in the supply chain. Not just who we see in the restaurant, but also the people driving the trucks that bring the meat and produce, the people bringing that Stella Artois case to the restaurant and supplying the bar, the farmers that are growing our food that we're literally putting in our bodies. I think we as a society have to understand that everybody plays a role and everybody's role is important and no person's effort is less valuable than another. And I think if we're more conscious about that, the restaurant industry will be more resilient to the idea that if we have another downturn, for whatever reason, we can weather it better — that's what I would like to see.”
In New York City, Seaport Artois is holding three more culinary events at Pier 15 at the South Street Seaport: “Street Culture” on July 22 will center around NYC street food; “Comeback” on August 5 will bring back a restaurant that closed its doors over the last year for one last night; and “New” on August 19 will feature dishes from a new restaurant. You can book a seat at OpenTable.