When the COVID-19 crisis hit New Orleans, star chef Michael Gulotta decided to simply shut down his spots.
The four-time James Beard Award nominee wanted to protect the health of his staff and avoid the uncertainty of trusting to perform and deliver at his restaurants, Maypop in the Central Business District of New Orleans and MoPho, which is located near City Park. .
Louisiana is now allowing restaurants to reopen, with a variety of restrictions, including limits on the number of guests who can serve at one time, and requires personal protective equipment for household and kitchen staff.
However, Gulotta says Maypop will remain closed for now, despite being a Beard Award finalist for Best Southern Chef for his exclusive Asian fusion menu.
Instead, he’s reopening MoPho just for the take-out, and will be serving additional items from a window at Rum & the Lash, which is attached to a nearby Irish pub.
His MoPho outpost at New Orleans International Airport, which opened last fall, is likely to remain closed for at least another six to eight months, he believes.
For Gulotta, seen frequently on the Today Show, the moves reflect the same agonizing decisions chefs face across the United States and around the world in dealing with the aftermath of COVID-19.
“It is going to affect a lot of chefs,” says Gulotta.
Gulotta says she can restart because she received a loan from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.
Landlords can use the money to pay rent and outstanding utilities. After that, the fund is intended to help supplement employee salaries, until the companies are up and running.
“We feel like we have to move,” says Gulotta.
MoPho, a casual place with a moderately priced menu, opens first “because that’s the one that will bring us money,” he says.
It will sell a limited menu that includes chicken wings, available with a variety of sauces, three variations of pho (beef, chicken, and vegetarian), and options of poboy and a few other dishes.
Gulotta says that focusing on carrying out will be relatively easy, with between 15 and 20 percent of his orders before COVID-19 withdrew.
Previously, MoPho served about 350 people on a busy day, with an average check of around $ 21, while Maypop served about 200, with checks at $ 45 per diner.
The biggest issues as it restarts, says Gulotta, are how many customers will order food and how many people will it need to have on staff.
He calculates that he could have 100 orders per night, although he wouldn’t be surprised if it’s twice as many as during the first week that MoPho is open.
Between his two restaurants, Gulotta previously employed 110 people, and doubts he needs more than 33 to restart MoPho.
Many employees have been in restaurants from the beginning, making layoffs even more difficult. “I sit here, and some of our employees are like family,” he says.
Gulotta opened MoPho in 2014, aiming to be locals of all ages, who could enjoy a relaxed atmosphere and a variety of comforting Asian-style food.
Maypop followed in 2016, when Gulotta was named “Best New Chef” by Food & Wine magazine.
Gulotta planned Maypop as a way to show his love for the most sophisticated Asian dishes, in a more glamorous setting.
“Maypop was always about really putting pressure on him,” he says. “The team was behind it, everyone had something to say on the menu, we wanted people to suggest new dishes.”
That approach earned him rave reviews and made it to the final of the Best Chef – South category. He admits that it is “heartbreaking” that his restaurant is not yet open when the awards are presented in September.
But Gulotta says, “All the prizes in the world don’t matter” if the economy can’t support restaurants.
While MoPho’s clientele is mostly local, Maypop has always relied on business travelers, conventioners, and tourists. It is especially popular with cardiologists, says Gulotta.
That business has largely evaporated, and Gulotta says he can’t risk reopening just yet, only to have Maypop close once again this summer, when business in New Orleans is traditionally slow.
He believes that the COVID-19 crisis will affect a large number of chefs, who are already beginning to consolidate and close businesses. “We had a bubble to come, regardless,” says Gulotta.
The restaurant industry could end where it was when it started 22 years ago, “before there were rock star chefs,” says Gulotta.
“If you worked in a kitchen, it was because you were obsessed or because you couldn’t get a job anywhere else,” he says.
The COVID-19 situation could eliminate people who view culinary careers as glamorous and use restaurants as stepping stones to commercial fame, he theorizes.
Gulotta says: “It may only be for people who really want to cook.”