There’s no kitchen hood, and instead of a gas range there are four electric burners. There are no plates to delicately wipe down, no colleagues on the line to joke around with, no customers to please — or to disappoint.
For many restaurant chefs, cooking at home is a novelty. It’s also an unexpected perk right now: increased time spent in the family kitchen during COVID-19-related business closures.
We spoke with four chefs about what they’re cooking at home during the shutdown. For some, the time off is a welcome respite, a chance to almost (but never, really) forget about cooking professionally. For others, it’s an opportunity to rediscover long-forgotten recipes or work on polishing some of the classics.
For most of them, it’s simply a time to reconnect over a home-cooked meal.
In the weeks right before the coronavirus shutdown, Rob Reinsmith left his long-running gig as the executive chef at Noble Crust.
He left to open a place of his own — a neighborhood restaurant and cocktail bar he planned to open this June in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District. Within days, Reinsmith suddenly found himself with a lot of extra time on his hands.
Though the chef still hopes to open that new restaurant this summer, his guess about when his plans will actually come to fruition is as good as anyone’s right now. But there’s no time to get down about it.
“The silver lining in all of this is that it’s really nice to be able to have dinner again with my family,” Reinsmith said.
While waiting out the pandemic, the chef has been able to spend extra time with his family, tinkering at home with different dishes and experimenting with new recipes. It’s the first time in Reinsmith’s career that he’s been able to spend every dinner at home with his wife, Heidi, and their two sons, Jackson, 5, and Dylan, who is about to turn 3.
“We never really had family dinners before, except for the one or two days I’d have off a week,” Reinsmith, 36, said. “Now I get to have breakfast every day with the kids, and dinners as well.”
Every morning now, the chef and his wife make breakfast for their children. The kids enjoy Cheerios and breakfast sandwiches, and sometimes Heidi will make paleo pancakes or Pop-Tarts. Other days the couple enjoys brunch bowls topped with eggs, kale, kimchi, bacon, mushrooms and avocado.
For lunch, it’s mostly leftovers.
“Dinners are my chance to really get to cook, and I’ve never really cooked at home this much before in my life,” Reinsmith said.
The chef has been experimenting with different themes each week. One week there was a Southeast Asian theme, which meant Vietnamese chicken pho, made with plenty of ginger and topped with jalapenos, cilantro and sprouts. Then there was gumbo night, when Reinsmith dusted off an old recipe from the legendary Cajun and Creole chef Paul Prudhomme.
“I pretty much followed the recipe verbatim — I love doing that,” he said. “Some of those old classic chefs have the best recipes out there.”
Trying to get the kids to eat their veggies hasn’t been easy, but Reinsmith tries his best, sometimes sneaking in roasted cauliflower and broccoli alongside a seared pork chop.
Either way, the most important part of the meal is sitting down together at the dinner table.
“We all say one thing about our day that we did,” Reinsmith said. “It’s really silly — but just to get them engaged it helps. And it’s not sitting in front of the TV, so that’s great.”
Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken, cut into smaller pieces
Salt, to taste
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1 ¼ teaspoons finely ground white pepper
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
1 ½ teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 ½ teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon file powder (optional)
1 ½ cups flour
2 ½ cups corn, peanut or vegetable oil
¾ cup finely chopped onion
¾ cup finely chopped celery
¾ cup finely chopped green pepper
9 cups chicken broth
1 ¾ cups chopped or thinly sliced smoked sausage, such as andouille or kielbasa
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh garlic
2 cups cooked rice
Remove excess fat from chicken pieces and place in a bowl. Blend salt, peppers, mustard, cayenne pepper, paprika, granulated garlic and file powder, if using. Rub 4 teaspoons of the mixture over the chicken. Set rest of spice mixture aside.
Put the flour in a bowl and add 2 teaspoons of the reserved spice mixture. Blend well.
Heat a 10-inch skillet and add the oil. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour mixture to coat well, shaking off excess. Reserve the leftover flour.
When the oil is hot and almost smoking, add the chicken pieces skin side down. Cook about 2 minutes on one side until golden brown. Turn chicken and cook about 3 minutes on the second side until browned. Do this in batches so as to not crowd the pan. Drain thoroughly on paper towels.
Pour off all but 1 cup of fat from the skillet. Heat this fat over high heat until it is almost smoking and add the reserved seasoned flour. Stir rapidly and constantly with a wire whisk until the mixture is golden brown. Do not burn.
Add the chopped onion, celery and green pepper and stir to blend well. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, bring the broth to a boil in a large saucepan.
Add about half a cup of the flour mixture to the broth, stirring rapidly with whisk. Continue adding the mixture, half a cup at a time, always stirring rapidly and constantly.
Add the smoked sausage and stir. Cook over high heat, stirring often from the bottom, about 15 minutes.
Add the chicken pieces, bay leaf and finely minced fresh garlic. Cook about 40 minutes on medium-low, stirring occasionally.
Remove the chicken pieces. Cut the meat from the bones and discard the bones. Cut the chicken into cubes or shred it and add it back to the pot. Serve with white rice or potato salad spooned on top of the gumbo.
Suzanne Crouch, the executive chef at Cass Street Deli, has found a new employee: Her name is Frankie. She’s 3.
“Now that we have every night together, she has become my sous chef,” Crouch, 37, said of her daughter. “I have her tending the herb garden and picking the herbs for our salads or our sauce.”
Though the popular Tampa delicatessen where Crouch works has remained open for limited takeout, the chef’s hours have been cut in half, meaning she now spends more time at home ― and more time with Frankie.
Every night now, they make an appetizer, a salad and an entree together. There have been homemade pizzas using fresh basil and thyme from the garden. There was a vegetarian Thai curry one night. And there have been a lot of breakfasts — biscuits, croissants, scones and waffles — all made from scratch.
“Instead of buying macaroni and showing her how to make a marinara, we have the time to actually make pasta from scratch,” Crouch said, adding that she has so far taught her daughter how to make the so-called “mother sauces,” like espagnole and hollandaise.
“My daughter loves to whisk eggs,” she said.
Evenings at home have also served as the beginning of what Crouch hopes will be an ongoing project in preservation: passing down recipes to her daughter for future generations.
“We keep a journal next to our stove and write down recipes as we go — the ones we love,” Crouch said. “We’ll want to hand that book over to her, someday.”
Michael Buttacavoli didn’t really do the live-stream thing before all this, and certainly never from his own kitchen.
The executive chef of Tampa’s Cena spent most of his evenings at the restaurant, putting the finishing touches on carefully composed plates of veal chop marsala and braised short rib risotto. But when the state-mandated shutdown forced the restaurant to close, Buttacavoil, 45, found himself with some spare time.
So he decided to launch Butta TV.
Part home video, part cooking tutorial, the twice-weekly webcasts are broadcast live over Instagram and Facebook, and are more for entertainment than education.
The outfits are a big part of Buttacavoli’s shtick. One time he wore a yellow tracksuit with a Kangol bucket hat and wide-rimmed glasses. And on Easter he wore a cobalt blue sequined jacket with a white bandanna.
“What’s up, what’s up?" Buttacavoli shouts at the camera in one of the scenes.
Then, some dancing. In the background, a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes skips across the room while house music pumps from a boombox nearby — very basement disco circa 1994.
“We’re making bolognese tonight everybody! That’s right. Bolognese, baby!”
From time to time, Buttacavoli’s 11-year-old daughter, Daniella, pops into the picture, but most of the time she’s the one filming, keeping a tight frame on her dad as he bounces across the screen of her iPad.
Buttacavoli calls himself a “home chef, cooking like everybody else does.” The dishes he prepares are simple and classic: spaghetti carbonara, risotto, fried eggplant and spaghetti squash lasagna.
Buttacavoli, or “chef Butta,” as most people know him, started the dinners both as a distraction and for the amusement of his peers — as well as a way to get dinner on the table.
His family of seven includes his wife, three daughters and his in-laws. A few weeks ago, his wife, a pharmacist, temporarily moved out of the home as a precaution. While they can’t share dinners anymore, they’ve gotten used to frequent porch visits, where everyone sits six feet apart from one another.
“I miss feeding the public,” Buttacavoli said. “There’s something very satisfying about feeding people that makes you feel good. But I’m keeping myself busy and definitely enjoying being home and being with my kids.”
Spaghetti Squash Lasagna
2 spaghetti squash
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces ricotta cheese
3 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
3 ounces mozzarella cheese
8 ounces tomato sauce, store-bought or homemade
Handful of chopped fresh basil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Sprinkle each half with olive oil and salt and pepper. Place squash on a sheet pan and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
When the squash is done, let it cool for 10 minutes and then scoop out the flesh, reserving the skins. Use a fork to pull the stands of squash into spaghetti-like strings and place in a bowl.
To the bowl with the squash, add the cheeses, tomato sauce and basil. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Layer the squash mixture back into the squash shells and top with more cheese. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and golden brown.
Source: Michael Buttacavoli
Having time off from her full-time job helming the restaurant at the Library in St. Petersburg hasn’t been all that bad, said Rachel Bennett.
Though the restaurant closed, Bennett, who is the executive chef, was able to stay on the payroll.
“I realized, ‘You’re never going to get a 35-day vacation from your job ever again in your life.’ The first few weeks I was sleeping in till 10 or 11 a.m. and staying up till whenever,” she said.
Like many other restaurants that were forced to suddenly shut down, there was a lot of perishable food to get rid of, too.
“My fridge was stacked with proteins and aioli and fresh vegetables," Bennett said. “I was having, like, three-course meals every day.”
But eventually the food ran out. And so did the novelty of staying home all day.
The chef, who is also a fitness instructor, started doing some online classes for students. She decided to pick up inline skating. And she started to bake: pound cakes, pies and more.
Recently, the chef, who is Greek, got her hands on a roasted leg of lamb for Greek Easter. It lasted several days.
“It’s weird when you don’t have a dinnertime,” she said. “I’m eating a huge lunch but for dinner I might just have a protein bar. I wish I could say that I’m roasting lamb on a spit in my backyard.”
Bennett said her rhythm is still a little off, and she welcomes a return to routine.
She won’t have to wait long: The restaurant is reopening soon to offer takeout. And when it does, her vacation is over.
Roasted Lamb Shoulder
1 (6- to 7-pound) bone-in lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons sea salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
5 garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Lightly score the fat on lamb in a crisscross pattern at 1-inch intervals. Place lamb in a large roasting pan and season generously with salt and pepper, coating evenly on all sides. Sprinkle garlic and rosemary all over lamb and drizzle with oil and lemon juice.
Using your hands, rub marinade into meat, making sure it’s completely coated. Arrange fat side up in pan. Cover very tightly with foil and chill for at least 2 hours or, preferably, overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Roast lamb, basting occasionally and adding water by ¼ cupfuls if pan is dry, until meat is completely tender and pulling easily away from the bones, 4 to 4 ½ hours.
Remove lamb from oven and uncover. Preheat broiler. Broil lamb, basting occasionally, until fat is golden brown and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes.
Transfer lamb to a serving platter. Spoon fat from surface of juices in pan and discard fat. Pour the juices into a pitcher and serve alongside lamb.