Podcast host donates time and show to top restaurateurs
By Robin Gibson
Big-time business folks would blow off appointments not because they didn’t respect me, but just because their daily routines had been blown to hell.
Helen Mitternightis a talented writer, host of two podcasts, and a beloved, self-described "adjacent" member of Charleston's food and beverage scene. She's also a member in good standing ofLes Dames d'Escoffier,the esteemed international philanthropic organization open by invitation-only to female leaders of the hospitality industry. When she's not penning articles, interviewing guests, or lending her expertise to the group, she's hostingHidden F&B,a popular culinary podcast forCharleston Grit.
When COVID-19 headlines began to dominate the news cycle in March,Charleston Wine + Foodwas in full swing. What, perhaps, wasn't immediately clear became evident within a matter of days and nothing has been the same since. Helen and I were both in attendance and I don't think either of us then could have predicted what was to come.
In her own words, she describes the moment she knew she needed to act on behalf of her community and colleagues, what she has learned from it, and what she thinks the future holds for our beloved city's restaurants. Read on for her take on the state of food and beverage affairs locally in this eye-opening interview.
Do you recall when and how the idea came about for you to do fundraising episodes?
I do. I was feeling helpless seeing so many of my friends in food and beverage just scrambling to stay in business and help the people around them. I am only food-and-bev adjacent but I knew I there must be some way I could help, even if I only highlighted what they were doing.
Did you immediately know who you wanted to talk to and feature on the show?
There were so many who needed attention, but I decided to focus on the people who ran multiple restaurants, figuring that helping them would help more hospitality folks in need.
For folks who may not be familiar with the premise of Hidden F&B, can you describe what it is and how these guests differed?
What?! There’s someone not familiar?! The regular podcast focuses on people who are not in the spotlight, people who are up and coming. I have a particular bias for women and men and women of color since, too often, those are the ones without the big PR machines behind them to get attention. With the Covid episodes, I went for people who were front and center, not only because they represented so many employees but also because I wanted to use their fame to get attention and donations to their fundraisers.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while doing this?
I was surprised by how many had what I call “Covid-Head.” Big-time business folks would blow off appointments not because they didn’t respect me, but just because their daily routines had been blown to hell. I was also surprised by how gritty and determined they were to survive. No victims here!
I’d be amazed if precious chef ego food survives, especially since it doesn’t hold up well in a takeout box.
When the virus was new, its impact, at least long-term, was unknown. Now that we’re several months in, what do you think the future holds for folks you have featured?
Sadly, I think some of the people I’ve spoken with over the years won’t be in business. But some will, and the ones who survive will be the resilient ones. I heard an expert say that the industry will have to move from service to product, and I think that’s right. It’s going to be the ones who figure out how to capture the experience from their restaurant and box it up — quite literally, in these times of takeout — who make it. And they will also be good at telling their own stories, because otherwise, why would I buy takeout from this person versus another? Hopefully, that’s something the podcast can help with.
Are you optimistic about the city’s ability to stay the course, rebound and recover?
Yes, and no. It will take a massive re-education of what it means to be a guest. When you go to someone’s dinner party, you know you have to try to get along with the others, not make a mess, etc… there’s a responsibility that goes along with it. But when we go out to a restaurant, it’s all about, “make me happy.” We need to help people understand they have a responsibility to wear a mask or do whatever else it takes to be a good guest. Unfortunately, with little to no enforcement help or guidelines from the government, the very people whose livelihoods depend on making guests feel welcome are the ones who end up being the enforcers. No mask should mean no service. So, until we rewrite that unspoken hospitality contract and put more of the burden on the guest to help create a delightful experience, it’s going to get in the way of recovery.
What else should readers know about the podcast, the guests featured, or how they can help?
Food and beverage people are the hardest working people, and they do it for so little money. They just love food, and even more, they love feeding people. We’re all struggling right now, but get takeout, buy your food from places and people that are local, and don’t be a jerk when it takes longer to get a table because the staff is hustling to sanitize.
Is there anything we haven't addressed here that you'd like to mention?
As we see the virus take down whole meat processing plants, it’s even more important to know where your food comes from and, if possible, who is producing it. Buying local isn’t just a slogan, it can save your life when the food supply chain breaks down or gets disrupted by something like COVID-19.
Even when we do get back to restaurants, things will look different. Some places are having customers sit on the same side of a table for two, for instance, so that the server can approach the empty side of the table safely. And I think takeout is here to stay as at least part of any restaurant’s income stream. I’d be amazed if precious chef ego food survives, especially since it doesn’t hold up well in a takeout box.
These are the fundraisers highlighted on the show. Contribute using the links below to secure someone's job or keep your favorite restaurant in Charleston open.
Michael ShemtovHidden F&B Episode 23payitforwardcharleston.org/
John ZuckerHidden F&B Episode 22Crisis Fund for Cru and Purlieu Employees
Mike LataHidden F&B Episode 21Food is Good Restaurant Worker Relief Fund
Steve PalmerHidden F&B Episode 20Indigo Road Gift CardsandBen's Friends