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April 10, 2020 30 mins

In his first quarantine report, host Michael Ruhlman checks in with Chef Suzanne Cupps. They discuss the closure of her brand new restaurant 232 Bleecker. Cupps outlines the decision making involved in such a major turn of events and what's she's doing to keep busy during quarantine.

Also, Ruhlman speaks with farmer Zaid Kurdieh about the difficult decisions that small farmers are having to make when restaurants aren't purchasing from them.

To support chef Suzanne Cupp's Staff at 232 Bleecker, visit their GoFundMe Campaign here:

To purchase vegetables for home delivery in the NYC area, visit Norwich Meadows Farm's Instagram Account here:

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:15):
Welcome to a special edition of From Scratch, a podcast
about that most human of actions, the cooking of food.
In season one, we spoke with a series of chefs,
the invaluable experts, every one of whom has had to
close their restaurant or restaurants in the face of the
global pandemic. I wanted to check in with some of

them to find out how they're doing, Are they okay,
what does the future look like for them, and of course,
what are they cooking today. We'll be talking with Suzanne Cupps,
who was on the show last talking about cooking over
wood as she was on the brink of opening two
three two Bleaker in New York City's West Village. It
was an immediate hit with its vegetable forward menu and

gorgeous flaming hearth, until it was forced to shut down
after just three months. We spoke with Chef Cups from
our home in Brooklyn, New York. First, it's really good
to talk to you during this time, um, and thank
you so much for being on the phone here. Yeah,
it's nice to connect with people. I think that has
been an important part of the past few weeks, is

making sure that we're talking and that it's not actual isolation. Yeah,
it's not actual isolation. There's a lovely shows looking at
your at the Instagram feed for for your restaurant to
three Too Bleaker, and there's a sweet shot of the
staff up front on March sixt which is about when
you guys had to close. Is that right? That was
our That was the last day our managers were there

and um we cleaned out the kitchens and gave all
the food away and it was exactly three months when
we had to close the doors ont And you know,
I was in that kind of tunnel vision of opening
a restaurant where you know, I might have had one
day off in those three months, and you know, was

really just trying to build a team, trying to build
a great menu, trying to get people excited about the restaurant.
And there wasn't a lot of time to think about
yourself for life outside of work or anything else. And
it was even hard, you know, to know what current events,
you know, what was happening outside and so to be
switching from that, you know, one goal in mind of

opening a restaurant too, not being able to do it
based on you know, outside factors was pretty crazy. And
then going from working you know, every single day to
this downtime has been you know, it's an abrupt switch.
How is your staff living? How how's it already making money?

Are they living off savings? Are they getting any assistance?
You know, I've been keeping up with the team really well,
and I think everybody's doing okay. Um. We've been having
some group chats and I've been texting my cooks directly,
you know, checking into you have food, Are you okay?
Because it was such an abrupt change for everyone, I think,
you know, everybody felt like something was shifting, and especially

the couple of days before we all had to close,
but it was still every day was like a huge
bomb dropped on you know, everybody, you know, whether it
was for us. We were planning an opening lunch and brunch,
and so we one day made the decision, okay, let's
just do brunch. The next day we said, okay, let's
not do brunch at all, let's just keep doing dinner.

The next day we said, let's try and take out
the next day like takeouts not working. And then the
next day, okay, I think we have to close. You know,
it was like kind of major decisions every day and
where is the restaurant stand. We are awaiting and ready
to jump in and open as soon as we can
UM because we're part of a larger company DIG. It's

been a good thing to see how DIGS reacted and
the leadership in the company has been really outstanding and
they are. They had as of last week, given away
sixty thousand meals to hospitals, farmers, markets, um, schools, anybody
that is in need of meals. UM they've been donating,
which has been awesome. So it's been inspiring to watch

and I trying to help out where I can with
with what they're doing too. Is there a possibility that
you wouldn't reopen, Well, I think it's I think everybody
has to think of that possibility across the board. But
that's nothing we're talking about now. But you know, it
depends on legislation, and you know how long its legislation

and how all is that lasts, and you know, what's
the money actually given to restaurants. The legislation she's talking
about is assistance from the government and banks in the
form of forgivable loans and paycheck assistance. Restaurants have been
shut down for more than three weeks now, and no
small business, especially restaurants, know when they'll be seeing any
of at cash. So for now, their chief concern is

their staff. You've set up a Go fund Me relief
fund for your staff. Yeah, so we we started doing
something at the beginning called dining Bonds, and we had
an idea through some other restaurants to do this where
people could buy like basically gift certificates for seventy five
dollars and they could redeem them for a hundred dollars
in the restaurant. You know, we're such a new restaurant

that there are a lot of people that haven't been
able to come yet, and so I think it was
nice for people to support us in that way and
also still be excited to come afterwards. And we did
that up into a certain goal, and then you know,
there's a point when we you know, we wanted to
actually give all that money to the staff anyway, so
there's a point when, um, we had to stop that
in transition into a Go fund Me account. But yeah,

we've seen lots of support, and especially again we're such
a only three months old. We had a number of
regulars already and yeah, every time I walked by there.
Every time I walked by there was it was packed
and we had a fabulous meal. There have to say
it's great dominion. What was so great about it was
that it was so you know, I'm a big meat guy.

I shouldn't be, but I am. That's who I am.
But this was such a vegetable, heavy meal and it
was so deeply satisfying, which was really impressive. I want
you to reopen. I want your staff to have jobs,
and I want you to have a job. But in
the meantime, you're a chef. You're used to working long hours,
being constantly busy. How are you handling isolation? So I

just I live by myself. I have a studio apartment,
and so I'm taking the guidelines and like everything very seriously.
But I also, um, I'm really trying to see where
the needs are and where I can help. So I've
been One of our biggest farms that we buy from
is Norwich Meadows, which is four hours upstate, and the

guys that farm there when this kind of when I
when I started blowing up even bigger, where all their
families were affected by a back home too. They started
getting nervous and they didn't want to come into the
city for the farmers market. So say the owner asked
if there were volunteers to come and work the market.
So I've been helping out there, you know, about once
a week or so. The Green Market has put in

a lot of great restrictions so that people can feel
safe shopping, which just means it's a little bit more
hands on by the people working in the tent they need.
You know, we needed four or five people to actually
work the tent, you know, two people just to ring
money and you know, at least two people to basically
shop for people's vegetables for them. And so I've been

doing that and even at the end of the day
breaking down the tent and at the Union Square market. Yeah,
I've been curious about the Union Square Market, the Green Market, um,
and that it's still open. And is it bustling at
this time of COVID nineteen spread bustling is not the word. Well,
that's good. I'm glad to hear it. Can you paint
a picture for me? What does it look like? I mean,

I knew it when it was thriving, but I can't
imagine it now. And I've been out of the city
for three weeks. Now, Um, what's the Union Square Market like? Now, Well,
I've been there mostly on Friday or Saturdays, and um,
you know, those are the two busiest days, especially Saturday.
I actually don't like to go on Saturdays. It's crazy usually.
Um there's so many stands and so many people. I

was there last Saturday helping, and you know, a very
very different picture. Many people don't obviously want to take
the subway or cars, and you know, when we talked
to people that are coming by, a lot of them
walked from like the upper West Side down to get
their produce. For me, one of the things to remember
is that this this virus, it's a it's a health scare,

so like people really need to eat healthy. And so
I feel really strongly right now that you know that
people should be buying produce in addition to you know,
whatever else they want to eat. So I like that
the markets to open. It's also an open air market,
so I think of like, I'd rather go to the
green Unit Score Green Market then I would to the

grocery store. But yeah, it's it's definitely not the place
that you remember. But I'm happy that the farmers are
still able to to come in and and sell some
other produce. And our suppliers are so important to me
and that's like the heart of what we do and
why I cook the food that I do. And so too,
we can't support them by buying produced right now because

we have you know, obviously I don't have a restaurant,
so being able to support another way so that they
can keep going, you know, I know there's lots of
cause and effect at this time, but one of the
big things for farmers is this is prime time for planting.
You know, thankfully it's not prime time for harvests, so
like they're they're still sitting on a lot of vegetables
and produce, but it's not it's not as bad as

if it's you know, it gets to be a month
from now, but this is the time with a plant
So you know, if if we're up and running this
summer or whatever it is, um, you know, we will
want to buy produce back from them. But if they
don't have the staff because they've had to layoff their farmers,
um that they won't have the vegetables planted. So it's
kind of a tough moment for them to decide, you know,

how much to plant? And how do they keep their
staff paid? Right now, when we come back, I'll be
asking some of those questions to the farmers Susanne helps
out at the Union Square Market in New York City.

My conversation with Suzanne got me wondering how we're farmers
faring America is not consuming fewer calories, were just consuming
them in different ways. How is the pandemic affecting the
people who owe our food and the farmers who relied
on restaurants for their livelihood, restaurants that no longer place
a single order. Zaide Kerdella of Norwich Meadows Farm is

one of those farmers. He grew for Suzanne, for Dan
Barber at Blue Hill and Corey Chow and Thomas Keller
at per Se. He uses techniques derived from ancient Egypt
and agriculture along the Nile. Here's what Dan Barber had
to say about Zaide in the New York Times quote,
Zaide is like the best kind of chef. He's willing

to take a bet on unknown varieties with no known market,
just to experiment with what he believes will yield better flavor.
His farmer's market stands is like a supermarket of future possibilities. Unquote.
Zaide spoke with us at the end of an exhausting
day of farming and decision making during uncertain times. Thank

you so much for taking the time to talk. This
is an extraordinary time and I'm trying to get a
sense of what's going on out there. And you are
the fundamental piece of the puzzle in the restaurant business.
You're a grower of food, uh, and we need you
and we appreciate you, and I wanted to find out
from you how has COVID nineteen affected your operations the

effect basically, we saw it when they closed down New
York City. We had an immediate drop in anything related
to sales to restaurants. We were in the middle of
negotiating with our restaurant customers. We do see essays with
our restaurant customers, you know, where we get money up front.

We plan out these elaborate schemes of Okay, what are
we gonna plan when are we gonna have it? So
we were in the middle of working on all of
that and all of a sudden that came to a
dead stop. It took us a little while. I mean,
you know, the first week, you know, you're in a daze.
What what do you do about this? What does this mean?
What's the impact? How far out is it gonna last?

And you have no compass, you know, no direction. You've
never seen a situation like this before, so you're kind
of floundering a little bit. Okay, what what's my crop
plan going to look like? How is this going to
affect my c S A S? How's it going to
affect the markets? Interesting? What percentage of your sales went
to restaurants? You know, you have a particular amount of

tractors and trucks and and so on and so forth,
and to run at capacity is a bit tough. And
I had just bought out my partners, so I have
to pay him payments, and you know, so it's so
what do you do? And I brought in a big
portion of our H two A staff early because you know,
I figured, okay, they're gonna close airports, so at least

that was one hindsight or once insight that I kind
of saw coming. So but then when I got them here, okay,
now I got to meet payroll for you know, three
times as many people as I normally have. This early
in the season. Could you define for us? H two
A is an agricultural va A program. It's the only
legal mechanism available to farmers to bring in migrant workers

from other countries to help us on the farm. Um,
we've been doing this for over close to twenty years now,
and so we have people that have been with us
approximately sixteen years. Where are they from? Mainly they are
all from the Phayume area of Egypt. And why from
there because Phayume it's a region in Egypt where organic

production started a long long time ago. So when I
was looking for people to help me on my organic farm,
I really wanted people with organic experience because it is
different than conventional production. And how do you decide what
to grow? Well, we we decide what to grow based
on to some extent, past sales. You know, you look

at what you sold last year and that's the beginning point.
But we also in the case of restaurants in particular,
we sat down with them and they we give them
seed catalogs and we suggest new items to them or
we asked them. In your travels to to various countries
and regions, you know, have you seen anything that you
want to grow? Different. You know, we're on the cutting

edge of trying to find new and exciting things and
working with readers at various universities as well as various
companies to find and actually improve on vegetables and grow
things that we've worked on through our breeding programs. That's
wonderful and I certainly applaud that. I think it's great.
You mentioned that you were looking into more home delivery options.

Now what other ways are you adapting to this pandemic?
Right now? It's day by day. The home delivery is
is right now our focus. The problem with the home
delivery is it involves a different level of packing, a
different level of logistics. So right now that has all
of my attention and time. It seems to me this
is a great opportunity to really jump start this part

of your business, develop a lot of solid characters while
the restaurants aren't open, and when when the restaurants do open,
hopefully you will retain the majority of those customers who
find out how wonderful your vegetables are. We certainly hope.
So that's the idea. I mean, we we already have
a loyal customer based from the farmers markets we are
seeing new customers because everybody now is anxious. I mean

all the people that sell deliveries, the conventional people such
as Fresh Direct and all these guys. It's very difficult
now to get stuff delivered when you want it, Okay,
So we want to make sure that when this all
is a bad memory, that we're still remembered by people
as hopefully providing something above and beyond what's you know,

provided in a conventional box of home delivered stuff. Now,
you've got a lot of fellow farmers out there who
in the same situation you are. How are you working
with other farmers. One of the first things that we
thought of is this time of year is not a
time of abundance for us because it's early spring. So
we started looking at Okay, my neighbor over here at
the farmers market that I buy my milk from, he's

having a hard time with customers. So why don't we
include dairy in the box. This is a work in
progress we have. You know, we're nowhere near where we
need to be. We're still learning how to make this
efficient cost a lot of money to deliver, you know,
how do you aggregate all this stuff from all these
different farmers You've got a farmer in New Jersey, a
farmer in New York, a farmer in Pennsylvania. You know,

how how do you aggregate? So we're working with the
green markets. They're helping us out. You know, I'm working
with all kinds of people trying you know, chefs, customers
of mind, caterers. This is the most amazing thing about
what's happening right now is that at my stand my
normal staff has kind of more or less or afraid
of coming out. So I have I have people from

per Se, people from to thirty two, I have people
volunteering from all kinds of restaurants that we have brain power,
you know, all of us are thinking about how to
streamline things, how to make things work. So it's actually
an opportunity that I'm taking advantage of because I don't
get to work this close to my customers on a
normal basis because everybody's busy. So it's an amazing experience

at the moment, very stressful for a lot of people,
very stressful for us because it's you know, we're doing
something that's not what we're used to as far as
timing goes. Though, you've got a little bit lucky and
I have to say that this didn't come during high
harvest time. You're absolutely correct. Thank god it didn't hit
in July or August. I could have had tons and

tons of stuff. If this would have been then, yeah,
what do you do with it? It's hard to say,
you know, it's you know, hindsight is you know, looking
at things now, could I have pivoted the same way
and and then filled more boxes? I mean, right now
we can't keep up with demand. Maybe we would have
been able to market a bunch of it, because right
now I'm trying to grow stuff as fast as I can,

which is you really can't do that. But they grow
the way they want to grow. But you know, we're
planting things like way more are p shoots that take
fifteen days. Because I'm going to have a gap here. Naturally,
this is a time when you your storage stuff is
waning and your stuff that's planted for the year is
just beginning. So I have I have somewhat of a gap.

I was going to ask you, how are you deciding
what to plant now? This must be a big planting
time in your normal year. What has changed is we
basically throughout a lot of the plans that we were
going to do for restaurants. Because those were precise plans.
I want, you know, a thousand head of this particular
lettuce between this time and this time. So now we're

actually it's a bit more seat of the pants. I
started out by saying, Okay, we're gonna do sixt of
what we did last year, even though we lost six
of our business. Maybe that other will make up in
the markets. The type of crops were growing are gonna
be more of the tried and true crops, more of
the I'm gonna call it bulky crops that um will

fill a box as opposed to say artichokes. Well, artichokes
are hard to grow around here. I love them, but
they're expensive. And you know, in a time like this,
when people, you know, after this is all said and done,
their incomes may have decreased, you know, they're gonna want
more substance and less of the foods that are served
in fine dining. Even the restaurants that I've been talking

to that you know, I'm I'm asking them, well, how
do you see yourself after this comes out? And they say, well,
we're probably not going to be buying you know, the
specialty stuff, and we're probably gonna be buying more of
the staples, So we're looking at doing more staples. We're
still going to do artichokes. We're still going to do
some of that, but not at the you know, not
at the quantities or the acreage that we used to.

So the restaurant chefs are pulling back a little on
the more luxury items, of the items that would cost
them a little more, they'd have to charge a little
more for. Yes, they're wrestling with our our our customers
gonna return like in droves or are they gonna you know,
is there going to be a slow build up? You know,
how are people going to be feeling after all of this?
Are people going to kind of want to not spend

money because they're afraid? You know, so all of these questions,
these are questions not just restaurant people. I'm asking myself
or are my customers going to be feeling that way,
say in July, August, September or not. And obviously we
don't have an answer to that. So you make a
decision and you hope it's the right one. Okay, So
you thank you so so much for your conversation, your time,

I wish you the best. You know, our futures in
your hands, and so we're very grateful for your work.
And we hope this works itself out soon and we
can get back to business as usual, cooking as usual,
restaurants as usual. In the meantime, um, please stay healthy.
I will thank you very much and thank your listeners.
And we've always got to have hope, because you know,

without hope, where where will we be. So I'm very
hopeful in the future. And we'll see you on the
other side of this. We will see on the other
side of this when we come back. We'll find out
how a chef cooks in isolation. Before I finished my

talk with Chef Cups, I wanted to know what she's
cooking at home. I mean, what does a chef who
works in the kitchen fourteen to eighteen hours a day
cook when they suddenly have all day, day after day
to cook. These are, of course tremendously uncertain times. Take

us out of ourselves, Susanne, and tell us what you cook.
I think I bought more food in the past three
weeks than I had in the past year at my house, right, so,
but it's been fun. I actually I didn't have any
like measuring cups or something like keys a week aldg
go without measuring cups and didn't come out so well.

So but I've been now, I've been cooking some some
things that I think are pretty tasty. At the market,
a little spring stuff is popping up, so we had UM.
I got some green garlic and spring onions, and I
pickled some ramps and I made like a spring allium pasta,
which was really tasty. You if you haven't had them,
you should definitely try Raven and Bore, which is also

upstate in New York. They are pig farmers and on
Saturdays at the market they bring racouderie basically, and so
they had UM. I had got some misoscallion sausages, poor sausages.
Oh man, they were good. I've been trying to make
sure I work some meat into my diet. You're cooking,

you're cooking for yourself, cooking for myself. There's this potato
we use at the restaurant, kind of backed potatoes, and
they're really creamy and delicious, just kind of like a
white potato. And the other day, okay, I'm gonna do
something different, So I kind of made like like little
hash browns with them, And I made some loaded hash
browns with like a mole from the restaurant that I
had left, and some sour cream and cilantro, and I

had pickled some red onions and pickled some radishes. So
it was kind of like a fun bowl that was
very different than something I usually cook. So I'm trying
to try to mix it up a bunch nice. So
has this has this isolation got you thinking differently about
cooking and now that you're cooking for yourself in ways
that you haven't before. Yeah, I think it's um. I
think it's important to to know how to take care

of yourself, you know, and to when you're cooking for one,
it can feel very much like, oh should I eat
out of this plastic container that you know, the takeout
came in. But I still put things on a plate
and I make it look nice and I even for myself,
and I think it's good for me. I think it's
good to, you know, not have that that same larder

that you do in a restaurant. You know, all those
stations where you just kind of pluck one thing off
one station and one thing off another to make a
dish for someone it's you know, I'm making everything from
scratch myself, so um it has been good, and I
you know, I'm trying to get back to reading cookbooks
and keep being inspired because I think when you're home,
it's hard to be motivated, and the first thing that

goes when you're not motivated is things like creativity. So
I'm really trying to challenge myself number one, to not
let things in my refrigerator go to waste, because I
think that's hard. When you buy a bunch of produce,
it's it's very easy to let things go bad. So
I'm really trying to freeze. I made like I bought
like way too much of rugle. I'm not sure why

I thought I wasn't eat that much. And um, so
I made like a rugal of pesto and froze it
and so now like I can pull it out any
time that I want to eat it with some meat
or with a pasta. But like, find some simple recipes
because it doesn't have to be an elaborate feast every night.
And I think to like when you're making something like
a condiment like a pesto or tomato sauce or a
soup or pickles or something. Make make a bigger batch,

and that way you're not like having to cook every
single day. You can kind of pull from things you
have in the freezer or in the fridge and kind
of mix and match things. I think it's a lot easier.
It's a little daunting. You know, I'm doing for myself,
which is hard, but you know, if you have two
or three kids, that can be really challenging. And so
I think just being able to bulk up on some

things that you know might go with you know, four
or five different meals, so that it's not just a
constant struggle every day putting food up three times a day.
You know, that's a really good point because even though
we're sort of self isolating, we're not. We're working from home,
we don't have more time. There aren't more hours in
a day. It's cooking still takes time, effort, planning and
all that. So I really appreciate you're saying. I think,

think ahead, make big batches, give yourself a break from
cooking as well. Yeah, uh, Susanne, this is a really
hard time. Um. You know, I adore you, idore your food.
I loved your restaurant and I will love it again
when we're both treading the West Village sidewalks. Um, I
cannot wait for that day. I can't wait for that

day too. UM. I am hoping it is sooner rather
than later, as is everybody. UM. Until then, UM, you know,
keep cooking, stay healthy. You know your advice, stay healthy,
look after yourself. We're going to be back in this.
We just have to wait this one out. Yeah, I agree.
During my conversations with chefs during the pandemic, one of

them said something truly ominous to me. I asked how
many restaurants would reopen when it was safe to go outside.
She said, I don't know, Maybe we'll be left with
just chains. I make no judgment on Chains, Cheesecake Factory
and Olive Garden. I have a lot of fans, and
they too have a lot of cooks, dishwashers and servers
who are also out of work. But I do want

to have a choice to eat at a completely unique
like no other independent restaurant. So I urge everyone wherever
you live, if you care about your local chef, restaurateurs
and their businesses, try to support the now so that
they'll be there when as is inevitable. The country once
again opens up to support Chef Cupp's staff at two

three two Bleaker, Please consider making a donation that their
go fund me campaign. Just google two three two Bleaker
go fund Me, or check our show page or my
site Ulman dot com for the lamb. Also, if you
live in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Historia, or Long Island City, you're
unlock Zaid's team at Norwich Meadow Farms is making deliveries
of their world class vegetables to your neighborhood. Check out

their Instagram account for more information. This episode of From
Scratch was engineered by Suzanne Cupps and Zaide Credilla. It
was produced by Jonathan has Dressler. Our executive producer is
Christopher Hasiotis. The music is by Ryan Scott off his
album A Freak Grows in Brooklyn. From Scratch is a

production of iHeart Radio. For more podcast from iHeart Radio,
visit I Heeart Radio app, Apple Pie Podcasts, or wherever
you listen to your favorite shows. I'm Michael Rohlman and
I'll be back soon with more updates from the front
lines of the food world. Stay healthy, stay distant, but connected,
and never stop cooking. Vo bread, you get you. Let's

go on and plain step up to vain. It's all

Ran Garder
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