Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Our lives are all changing in ways that were unimaginable just a week ago,” read the beginning of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s statement to the public, released on the evening of March 15. With the city marked as the epicenter for COVID-19 in the United States, de Blasio announced that he would be signing an Executive Order the next day, which would limit the operations of dining establishments to takeout and delivery services exclusively, effective March 17.
To say that this declaration sent the city’s food and beverage industry into a state of unrest is an understatement. Restaurants make up New York City’s DNA, and a change as big, and as drastic, as this meant immediately dismantling well-fueled supply chains. With a little more than a day to come up with a plan of action, establishments had to make the difficult decision of either remaining open and operating with no dine-in options, or shuttering their shops indefinitely (in some cases, permanently).
One of the restaurants quick to react to this sudden change was Junzi Kitchen, a vegetable-forward fast casual Chinese restaurant (with four shops around the city, and one in Connecticut), whose kitchen is headed by Hong Kong-raised Lucas Sin. Their Instagram post, which came up on the eve of the city-wide closure, listed what could be expected from Junzi in the days to follow: family-sized meals, and a condensed menu to assure freshness and minimize food waste in the process.
LJ Almendras, Junzi’s Filipino food designer — whose work involves scaling the restaurant’s recipes to be top quality and cost-efficient across all shops — shares that one of the things they wanted to address was how to stay connected, all while apart from each other. “Making sure diners are nourished is top priority, of course,” says Almendras, which is why they offered family- and solo-sized meals to begin with. “But our support team also wanted to create something that could allow the Junzi experience to go beyond the store, and right into the homes of our diners.”
A little more than a week after implementing takeout-only orders, Junzi introduced the Distance Dining series: a once-a-week tasting menu whose themes changes on a weekly basis, designed to be assembled and eaten safely at home. Almendras shares a thought imparted by Sin to his team about this dining experience, "Just because there’s a crisis, doesn’t mean we can’t be creative." Junzi refers to this as their crisis pop-up.
When news of the COVID-19 virus broke, and the world got wind of its origins being at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, Chinese restaurants became the major target as far as the virus’s initial impact on the food and beverage industry was concerned. An Eater article details that in the month of February in New York, “Chinese restaurants’ share of daily restaurant ‘connections’ — things like phone calls, website clicks, delivery orders, and reviews — dropped about 20 percent.”
There was, and still remains to be, a sinophobic paranoia that has surged over many individuals. Chinese restaurants have been suffering because of fears over the outbreak, from New York, to Manila, Australia, Canada, and beyond. This is something that Junzi isn’t exempt from, having experienced this even before the start of New York’s lockdown, albeit quietly, seen through the sudden change in their number of daily diners.
In the creation of the Distance Dining series, Almendras shares that, as a restaurant, their assumed responsibility is to feed and provide a semblance of comfort. Diners can book a ticket on the Junzi website, meals arrive that Friday along with a printed menu, note from the team, and reheating instructions. To further the experience, Sin and his team take to Instagram Live in order to show plating instructions and talk a little bit more about the menu.
As a restaurant built on a cuisine with such rich heritage, which is now being threatened, there was also a sense of duty to educate their diners. The inaugural Distance Dining menu was entitled, “Chinese Food Is Good For You.” On Junzi’s Instagram post about it, Sin wrote that the meal is something that his dad would probably have put together: Healing Chicken Broth to soothe the lungs, a traditional Shanghainese meatball called the Red-Cooked Lion’s Head Meatball to tonify the stomach, and a Yam and Osmanthus dessert to calm the spirit. This would set the tone for the menus in the weeks to follow. “We always go back to figuring out how we want Chinese food to be seen,” says Almendras, of the three-person team that assembles these weekly tastings.
At its most basic, cuisines can be classified based on their countries of origin. The Philippines has Filipino food, Italy has Italian food, China has Chinese food, and so on. But bigger curiosities allow for deeper extensions: though French in origin, haute cuisine refers to luxurious dishes with extravagant presentations; molecular gastronomy is a cuisine of science, with a technical backbone to understand the build and varied ways ingredients can be manipulated. Then there is crossroads cooking, which involves identifying particular aspects of general cuisines, and finding the traits they share with the cookery of other countries.
Arguably, the impact that Chinese food innovations have had on other countries is second to none. This is what Junzi’s Distance Dining series reflects on: how Chinese cuisine has an undeniable influence over major culinary identities. The second volume — a collaboration between Almendras and Sin — puts Filipino-Chinese food in the spotlight, with their own versions of pancit, arroz caldo, and bilo-bilo. Chinese-Puerto Rican formed the third volume, Chinese-Japanese the next, and Chinese-Thai in the week after. As of writing this, a New American-Chinese menu is scheduled for the week. To commemorate Asian American Heritage month in the U.S. this May, a Chinese-Malaysian tasting menu is in the works. Think of each collaboration as a cross-cultural discussion, made edible.
On top of this, Junzi gives diners the chance to buy a meal for those at the frontline of their partner hospitals. Almost 4,000 rice bowls have been shared with healthcare workers, first responders, and hospital staff that are themselves getting through COVID-19.
Restaurants remaining open during this turmoil, and finding solutions through city closures, is already commendable. It takes a certain kind of courage and creativity, however, to think up a way to not only stay open and create meals, but also to challenge misconceptions brought about by this pandemic.
It’s difficult to see what restaurant culture will be like beyond this time, especially since no one can say for sure how long this will go on. Even in this time of COVID-19, food has a role to play. It is there for sustenance — but it can also dispel fears, create normalcy, and bring people together. It still can very much be a social endeavor, in a time where social distancing is becoming the standard.