Chefs adapt to challenging era for restaurants

Story & Photography by Jack Murphy

One of Liliana’s chefs compiles ingredients for a pasta entree.

A generous cut of pineapple rests on top of a light mound, and steam curls out of the steaming, porous upside-down cake. If you were to cut into it with a spoon, it would glide straight through, revealing deliciously sticky cake inside. Served amid a halo of sprinkled sugar, the Tornado Room’s signature dessert looks like its usual delectable self. 

This time, however, pastry chef Natalia Chehade baked it out of her home and not the industrial kitchen where it’s usually made. 

The pandemic put the heart of a restaurant, its staff, in situations that tested their every resolve. In the summer of 2020, the Wisconsin restaurant industry lost 20% of its workers. For those who remained, chefs banded together to innovate and deliver the same experience customers expected, one dinner service at a time.

On the edge of Madison’s Capitol Square, the staff of Tornado Room was already stretched thin in the summer of 2020. Instead of a team of five, only two chefs now operated every station in the kitchen. Chehade added salad chef and delivery driver to her role as a pastry chef. A mother of two who only spends one night a week on the line, Chehade dedicated herself so the team was at its best.

“I love this, this is my job. This [the Tornado Room] is my second home,” she says. 

Every industry is facing unique challenges as we emerge from the pandemic, and for the restaurant industry, those go far beyond the menu. When COVID-19 hit, the lights went out and businesses lost their staff as sales spiraled without a visible solution to guide the way. But in a time when everyone is feeling the strain of this new reality, hard work and innovation behind the scenes are bringing restaurants into a post COVID-19 world.

Chefs push through dinner service as a braised short rib waits to be served to expectant diners.

Lilianas signature jambalaya might not look as presentable in a takeout box, but it tastes just as delicious.

Even as restrictions persist, restaurants face other problems. Prices for food and necessities have shot through the roof, and a recent survey by the Wisconsin Restaurant Association found that 63% of restaurants reported lower earnings than 2019. Coupled with a widespread staffing shortage, almost half of restaurants think it could be another year before business returns to normal.

With the second wave of the pandemic ongoing, other hurdles are creeping in to hinder restaurants’ progress. Wisconsin restaurants reported 91% are paying higher prices for food and 75% of restaurants changed their menus because of supply chain complications.

Yet restaurants continue to pivot amid this shifting landscape. 

Connie Fedor of the Wisconsin Restaurant Education Foundation says one word describes the industry’s response: innovation. 

“Our restaurants have had to be innovative on how to deliver the customer experience, how to keep customers safe during a pandemic, and how to creatively manage a labor shortage,” she says.

But you might not see the difference if you visited Ardent, a restaurant tucked into Milwaukee’s east side. While the gale of a pandemic raged outside, the staff pivoted to offer one service per night and a prepaid, fixed-cost menu. With expectations set between the restaurant and their visitors before dinner, both parties could focus on the joy of a safe experience.

Justin Carlisle, owner of Ardent, fosters an environment which is a fresh take on the industry’s cemented hierarchical structure. He built a working philosophy around his employees: the walls of the restaurant were not just his, but instead, they belong to every single person in the staff.

“We completely took every business we own and restructured the whole thing,” he says, “We’re going to build the business around the 60% of the people that stayed.” 

The roadblocks raised by the pandemic tested but never broke Ardent’s resolve because of the baseline of respect that focuses on team well-being rather than individual survival. When COVID-19 took away any certainty of stability, the camaraderie of the staff kept the engine running.

When COVID-19 took away any certainty of stability, the camaraderie of the staff kept the engine running.

Like Chehade, the concept of family courses through Ardent. Carlisle’s mother weaves the soft, textured shawls that adorn each seat. Its creamy beef tartare rests on a hand-like bowl, made by the same potter who has been with them since the restaurant first opened.

Respecting the pressures imposed by COVID-19, Carlisle emphasizes quality of life by ensuring health benefits for every employee. He abolished the hidden divisions of job titles and made everyone an employee with the same base wage and percentage of tips, based on how many hours they work.

“I can’t imagine life without the individuals that are here, we pivoted every day that we showed up,” he says.

Each of these hidden details — the large ideas of staff camaraderie down to the tiny ones like the placemats — combine into a cohesive dining experience. With the staff revitalized from the initial shock of the pandemic, they focused on the consistency that made them a James Beard Midwest semifinalist.

“When you bring love into something, what better way to continuously push the idea of love than having it named after your family?” asks chef Dave Heide of Liliana’s Restaurant.

Inside of Liliana’s, hues of purple, green and gold radiate. In the dining room, wrought iron curves along the walls form musical notes that transform into beautiful leaves and flowers that linger over photographs of iconic New Orleans landmarks, taken by Heide’s father, Parry. Located in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, Heide works with his team to bring the soul of New Orleans to the Midwest.

Heide, bubbling with energy, effuses knowledge on Louisiana’s cuisine and loves the role his food can play in people’s life. Unchanged by the pandemic, his focus is the well-being of his community and the passion of his chefs.

“Staying close to the community, being there for people in need. That’s what a family-named restaurant is about,” he says, “and that’s 100% who I am.” 

The restaurant reopened in May 2021 with an expanded outside seating area and the disposable menus that are now the hallmark of COVID-19 era dining. While the setting location of the dining experience changed, Heidie made sure to keep the classic feel that diners have grown to love since the opening of Liliana’s 14 years ago. 

Even with supply chains in havoc, the staff continued its tradition of a special weekday offering. Every Tuesday, the chefs will brainstorm a one-off, three-course meal, and in 13 years; they are yet to offer a repeated menu item.

Fostering creativity within the kitchen gets the team thinking like a cohesive unit. If passion begins to evaporate, the result is what Heide calls “reproduction food.” Chefs remake a dish constantly and menu changes are what keep the soul of Liliana’s alive. 

The avalanche of logistical issues precipitated by COVID-19 demanded immediate attention. While new problems will arise, every innovation is unearthing the passion which led these chefs to their profession. Slowly that leading light which drives chefs to find a way through this difficult time is apparent again. 

“For me, it’s all about making sure that the people who are in the kitchen continuously stay in love with food,” Heide says.