On the 17th day of our lockdown, I sat on an empty barstool at my 3-year-old, all-day fine-dining eatery, which had essentially been converted to a fast-food, to-go joint. It was a bitter, cold, miserable, snowy spring night, and I said to myself, “the hell with it.” (Actually, I used stronger words, but can’t use them in a family newspaper.)
And let’s face it: Everyone was already thinking the same thing. Times had changed, and those words seemed harmless compared to COVID-19 and the many lives it had taken. The fragility of life is so apparent right now, more than ever.
I am a chef married to a doctor. My husband and I each approach this pandemic in our own ways. He, more than anything else, is driven by his strong sense of ethics. My husband fast-tracked converting a new dialysis clinic into an isolation facility for sick patients who needed treatment to survive pre-existing, life-threatening conditions.
I had a staff of 30 wonderful employees at my restaurant, and I made a commitment to feed them and as many others as possible. We quickly organized a weekly “Chopped” basket for each staffer: a mystery bag filled with fun ingredients with which they could cook several meals at home. We encouraged them to be creative, and each week we would pick a winner, who would get a bottle of wine. Morale would remain high although paychecks were low.
We became involved with Frontline Foods Denver, a local branch of a national movement to keep restaurants cooking while feeding doctors and nurses who were pulling 12-hour shifts. Next came first-responders: firefighters, paramedics and police. We started taking orders for care packages; you could touch someone with a box of baked goods despite not being able to physically do so.
I had been spending my days creating care packages, family dinners and gourmet pizza kits to keep the restaurant alive and helpful. We kept one person at the counter, and another placed 20 feet away at the door. Each thanked me profusely for staying open. Could croissants, tuna melts and pappardelle possibly be as important as the work of my doctor husband? Clearly not, but for some people it made a difference.
And, oddly enough, with Easter upon us, I realized that I was calmer than I had been in years. Of course, I was scared to death to find a loved one ill or dying, but finally, I was not worried about my restaurant and pleasing everyone. Was it because success or failure had been forcibly removed from my shoulders? Was it because I was no longer working 80 to 100 hours a week? Was it because I had time to spend with my husband and my children?
Or was it because Easter was near, and I so fiercely believed in the idea of rebirth, whatever that meant?
I was raised Catholic and love Easter and all it represents. I wanted to just wake up on Easter morning and find this scourge gone from the planet.
My childhood memories of Easter swept over me like holy water. My family was large, made up of Eastern European immigrants. Between both families, there were no less than 30 aunts and uncles and masses of cousins. The Holy Week and Easter Sunday masses were spiritually special, and traditions around those gatherings defined my family. Beet-pickled eggs, rings of kielbasa, cheese babka, stuffed cabbage, pierogis and horseradish were all on the menu.
Suddenly, I became obsessed with the idea that Easter still had to happen. I began calling purveyors about Berkshire hams, Colorado lambs, Scottish salmon and dark chocolate. Despite the forced isolation, food was still a common thread that brought pleasure every day as it transcended politics and disease. I needed to create Easter no matter what … because it did matter.
And with that I focused on my newfound freedom. In my everyday world, there were so many expectations by so many people (including myself), and suddenly they were gone. I no longer worried if we would be accepted in the neighborhood, if food critics would understand us, if we would be successful, if every detail in every day was absolutely perfect. None of that mattered anymore. I said, “the hell with it,” because there were so many people that needed us and were grateful that we were here and open still baking bread, making coffee, and rolling pasta.
The simple pleasure of food is important. The social aspect of dining with friends and family had been robbed from our plates. Homesickness and melancholy were now our desserts, playfulness and celebration at dinner were overshadowed by fear. Easter could perhaps, for a day, bring some respite to all of this.
So I will approach this day with a new attitude, reborn but nevertheless more myself than ever. My hope for everyone in this time would be the same. Reborn but nevertheless more themselves than ever.
A moment for everyone to pause, reflect and just say, “The hell with it. Amen.”
Linda Hampsten Fox is the chef/owner of The Bindery in Denver.
Updated April 13 at 11:05 a.m. Due to a request from the author, details about the work of Linda Hampsten Fox’s husband have been updated to remove sensitive information.
To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit online or check out our guidelines for how to submit by email or mail.