The New York Times ran this beautiful lament by the owner of the legendary Prune in New York. “My restaurant was my life for 20 years,” she says. “but does the world need it anymore?” The Michelin Guide says “Prune delivers the whole package. Both Hamilton and wife/co-chef Ashley Merriman create soulful and unpretentious dishes.” The 14-table bistro in the East Village has unpretentious prices as well – $25-50 per head for dinner. But that was before the virus. Now its closed and she does not think she will reopen. “This prolonged isolation has made me find the tiny 24-square-inch tables that I’ve been cramming my food and my customers into for 20 years suddenly repellent,” she writes.
She describes how her takings dwindled; and the free food sent over to distribute to her staff of 30, from suppliers of the last 20 years who knew she had “30 days of unpaid invoices piling up on my desk.”
Like thousands of other chefs around the world,Gabrielle is now starting to question what the catering industry is really for.
“Everyone says: “You should do to-go! You should sell gift cards! You should offer delivery! You need a social media presence! You should pivot to groceries! You should raise your prices..”
I have thought for many long minutes, days, weeks of confinement and quarantine, should I? Is that what Prune should do and what Prune should become?
I cannot see myself excitedly daydreaming about the third-party delivery-ticket screen I will read orders from all evening. I cannot see myself sketching doodles of the to-go boxes I will pack my food into so that I can send it out into the night, anonymously, hoping the poor delivery guy does a good job and stays safe. I don’t think I can sit around dreaming up menus and cocktails and fantasizing about what would be on my playlist just to create something that people will order and receive and consume via an app.”
Its been her life, and her family for two decades but the author is not sure she wants to go back. She could go back – she would have the staff, the customers, the suppliers and no doubt the restaurant location – nobody is likely to want to take that over just at the moment. But she is not sure she has the stomach for it.
“It would be nigh impossible for me, in the context of a pandemic, to argue for the necessity of my existence. Do my sweetbreads and my Parmesan omelet count as essential at this time? In economic terms, I don’t think I could even argue that Prune matters anymore.
“The restaurant as we know it is no longer viable on its own. You can’t have tipped employees making $45 an hour while line cooks make $15. You can’t buy a $3 can of cheap beer at a dive bar in the East Village if the “dive bar” is actually paying $18,000 a month in rent, $30,000 a month in payroll; it would have to cost $10. I can’t keep hosing down the sauté corner myself just to have enough money to repair the ripped awning. Prune is in the East Village because I’ve lived in the East Village for more than 30 years. I moved here because it was where you could get an apartment for $450 a month.”
We hope Gabrielle finds a way to turn things around – and she reopens better than ever in a few months. There are many forgettable restaurants in the world that will not be missed, but New York still needs Prune.