I never expected our family’s knight in shining armor to show up wearing a chef’s jacket and latex gloves, toting plastic bags full of food and drinks. But there was Igor Korpak, sous chef at Convivo, coming up our driveway with Saturday night’s dinner in his prophylactically protected hands.
We were a few weeks deep into the coronavirus shutdown, and my last meal in a restaurant was a spicy Sunday morning scramble at the Cajun Kitchen on March 15. We’d been eating just fine at home, from blue-cheese burgers and ahi tuna lettuce wraps to buttermilk fried chicken, salmon en papillote, and cast-iron tenderloin. I love cooking, but eating at restaurants is probably my favorite hobby, and our family of four is accustomed to dining out multiple times each week. We were craving something made by someone other than myself, and I was ready for a break from this newly steady stove life.
So when Convivo’s owner/chef Peter McNee texted to say he wanted my family to try out his new takeout/delivery menu, called Provisional, I immediately obliged. Frankly, while I’ve urged others to support restaurants in this odd outbreak era and have read repeatedly that COVID-19 can’t be transmitted through food, we’d been reluctant to toss a variable into our successfully sheltered situation. But I’ve come to know McNee through eating at his Cabrillo Boulevard restaurant quite a lot in the last few years, and I trusted him to be extra careful with his procedures.
After the sous chef savior sped off, my wife disinfected every box and moved every item to our own flatware. (In an abundance of caution, she also threw out the fancy bartending ice, to my chagrin.) Minutes later, my daughter was mumbling “Mmmm” over fettuccelle with broccoli shoots and peas, my cocktail fix was quelled via the premixed Negroni (and then boulevardier), and my son — after chowing down on pillow-like focaccia, heirloom carrots, saffron cauliflower, and pancetta-packed bucatini — summed it up on cue: “This is luxury.”
Our dinner was a taste of the good life we seek as residents of this unique place called Santa Barbara, a reminder of the very recent past, and a flash of hope for a future we all hope returns soon.
Obliged to Serve
“We have an obligation as a restaurant in Santa Barbara to stay open and feed people, honestly,” McNee told me a few days later over the phone. “We’re all struggling with the same reality of today together, even though we’re very far apart.”
When the statewide shutdown occurred, McNee tried to sell the regular menu for about a week but quickly found the full-service model made little sense. He closed for nearly a week, and then reopened on March 26 as Provisional, the first time in his long career that delivery and takeout became center stage.
“It’s been recipe development all over again,” said McNee, who experimented by putting new menu items in to-go containers and checking them out 30 minutes later to simulate a delivery. The menu also offers provisions that I used on other meals throughout the week, including kimchi, Japanese pickles, labneh, pickled Fresno chiles, and a variety of dressings and sauces.
He’s also trying to have a tiny bit of fun with the new items. “You don’t put Stir-Crazy Fry on the menu unless you are trying to find humor in a very serious time,” said McNee.
Convivo’s managing partner, Nicholas Nahigian, is selling wine basically at cost — bottles of red and white as cheap as $16! — and plans to start selling discounted wine from the cellar as well. “If you can get a $120 Barolo for $60, why not?” he said. “A Barolo and fried chicken sounds like my dream night.”
Convivo is just one of hundreds of Santa Barbara restaurants that are pivoting to survive the shutdown, whose uncertain timeline carries the scariest weight. My inbox is inundated with the latest curbside and delivery options, and I’ve been sending them and our readers to the Restaurant Guy’s comprehensive listings at SantaBarbara.com/dining.
As for many of you, social media is a constant source of information and entertainment, and I was immediately impressed by the strategy at Black Sheep, the East Ortega Street restaurant run by father and son Robert and Ruben Perez. The family has always been nimble, shifting concepts from seafood to Latin to Asian to the current hybrid, which is popular both with millennial hipsters and old-school foodies.
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“We’ve never been a restaurant to do to-go food,” said Ruben Perez, who actually expanded hours to include lunch during this time. “It’s a little bit of an extra challenge.”
Though a la carte items remain on the menu, most customers are opting for the new family meals, which change every day of the week, from coq au vin to Indonesian fried rice to multi-meat parrillada. The $50 meals, which are announced each Monday for the coming week, are designed as a value for customers, but also to keep his staff enthused.
“We’re artists,” said Perez. “For us, it’s really important to keep cooking food and getting creative so that we don’t get stagnant and end up in a funky head space.”
Business is way down compared to normal, but it’s growing every week, which means most of the Black Sheep staff is still employed. “I feel really fortunate,” he said. “My staff is my family. It’s just worked out.”
Last week, my wife surprised the family with a delivery of oat-milk latte, chai, and chocolate croissants from Dune Coffee Roasters, our second delivery experience. Owners Julia Mayer and Todd Stewart opened their first coffee shop in 2009 (then called The French Press), and our son was born months later.
We then lived downtown on West Valerio Street, so the café became a routine hangout for the three of us during the most memorable time of our lives. Having a familiar sip of that at home last week amid Zoom meetings and virtual elementary school meant a lot.
“It feels like a grounding moment of normalcy to have coffee,” said Mayer, whose mom works in the emergency room. “We can at least provide something that makes people feel good during this deeply uncertain time.”
Over the past weekend, my family found similarly warm familiarity in a pickup and smiling waves from C’est Cheese owners Kathryn and Michael Graham, who developed their Santa Barbara shop when I lived directly across the street in the early 2000s. And takeout of noodles, egg rolls, coconut soup, and pot stickers from Empty Bowl in the Public Market was another much-needed treat this past Saturday, requiring just a phone call and patience amid the Restaurant Connection delivery drivers who huddled in appropriate spacing outside.
Mayer’s three Dune Coffee cafés remain open for pickup, but she is managing about 40 deliveries a day as well, including to one family that’s ordered every single day. “Those kids are going to have this very strange memory of this time, and we’re gonna be part of it,” said Mayer. “We just want to be part of people’s experiences.”
After enduring the month-long Thomas Fire ordeal in 2017, Mayer remains optimistic for the future. “We already know that we can make it through this. That fear is not on me,” said Mayer. “We’re not gonna get through it; we’re getting through it.”
Follow Matt Kettmann’s colorful COVID-19 cooking and eating exploits via his instagram feed @mattkettmann.
Kettmann will also be leading a digital happy hour this afternoon, April 7, at 4 p.m., featuring food from Bettina and drinks from Municipal Winemakers. Bettina’s Rachel Greenspan and Muni’s David Potter will be interviewed live. See facebook.com/sbindependent.
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