Erin Norris is one of those great and genuine New Yorkers, whose story is woven decisively into the cultural fabric of the city. Indeed, around the turning of the Millennium, she was a publicist extraordinaire on the downtown music scene, representing such eternal Gotham buzz bands as NY Loose and Jonathan Fire*Eater. For the last decade, her beloved Red Hook restaurant Grindhaus was one of Brooklyn’s most inimitable dining destinations, legendarily surviving and rising up from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.
But as great drama would have it, as she was in the process of selling the restaurant and leaving for Europe, perhaps for good, the pandemic lockdown went into effect. Left stranded in Switzerland, she sought some way that she could help out back home, while stuck nearly 4000 miles away—and she eventually found it.
For our Corona Stories – Gone Viral series, she explains just how it was all accomplished.
Feeding the Frontline from 4000 Miles Away
2020 was shaping up to be pretty good for me. I had designs on selling my restaurant Grindhaus in Red Hook (Brooklyn), thereby eradicating a few lingering debts and shoving off to Northern Italy for the foreseeable future. I held my last events to close out February and the plan was to massage a few potential buyers who could plunk in a chef and enjoy the neighborhood’s high traffic season with little effort. But first, I would be rewarding myself with a quick mental douching in Italy and Switzerland, to see my Europosse and get inspired for my impending permanent return.
As I slept in luxurious comfort aboard an Emirates A380 bound for Milan, Italy declared a lockdown so severe it would leave me barely ahead of it. The polizia at the Chiasso border had me fill out all sorts of paperwork, not noticing my pen which reads “Department of Fuckery.” So, narrowly escaping to Switzerland, arriving painfully early to a goodbye party which never happened because of COVID-19 restrictions, I have been living with my friend, a medical doctor here in Luzern, since March 10.
I am not going to lie, it’s been easy here. The local population of 80,000 adapted to sanitizer and social distancing, as they saw what was happening in Ticino, a Swiss canton abutting the coronavirus ravaged Lombardy region of Italy, and took precaution without incident. This healthy and privileged demographic has made it feel like I have escaped horror at home…and I have.
Despite my freedom to hike and roam, it was impossible for an empath to disregard feelings about how NYC had been hit; the helplessness of being unexpectedly sequestered abroad, not physically being a part of my community of two decades, was a soul destroyer and a mindfuck.
As the situation became more dire in the Big Apple, knowing I had a perfectly operational turnkey restaurant back home, I set about routinely draining my battery and begging for WiFi, chasing any lead who would want to utilize the restaurant for the good of the people in my absence. I could offer it up, gratis, as long as I incurred no expense (my situation renders me destitute, as I max out credit cards here in ‘Kostspielig Kanton.’)
But even those who would normally jump at the chance out of sheer boredom, were too afraid to figure out the safety aspect, since no blueprint for pandemic dining exists, still. So Grindhaus sat dormant as I watched the restaurants of my peers getting into action, packing up bags of culinary comfort for the frontline workers and feeling good doing it…while the lingering taste in my mouth was deep flavored guilt.
I squealed when I received an email from our local art, science and culture compound, Pioneer Works, asking if Grindhaus would be interested in providing 50 lunches to frontline workers at a local hospital. With a small stipend to work with, we would come up with a wholesome lunch, executed in my showroom clean kitchen, then package it for safe pick up and distribution via Pioneer Works.
“Yes, Yes! I am on the next plane. . .!” No, you are still grounded, Missy.
I wanted to and needed to do this. But who could I get to work with this budget? Who other than my previous chefs “got the Grindhaus flavor?”
My usual suspects had either fled town, were figuring out their role in their own restaurants, or were too scared. Who?
There had been one chef over six years of Grindhaus’ operation who had come to its aid for more than a few culinary emergencies. Most recently we both agreed he would be Executive Chef de Swan Song, a“Pay What You Feel, Last Ever Meal” this past Valentine’s Day—and that was Ben Smallman.
I knew Ben had not missed a beat of work, overseeing all of the cooking at Eataly, which, as an essential marketplace, remained open. But would he have time? Well, Ben is the kind of guy who not only will make time, but he’ll make it more bountiful, more beautiful than expected. I am a lucky woman to have people like him in my life.
After filing forms, contracts and other paperwork necessities, we were given our date and our target medical center: the NYU Langone facility in nearby Cobble Hill—a hospital drastically downsized for luxury condos to arise, its remaining building now more essential than ever. With chef Ben on board, the minor inconvenience of time zones faded away, as Ben was able to take charge and put attention to detail on the ground.
We would run menu ideas, edit items, I would make sure my dormant vendor accounts could be roused from sleep, whose product would transform into a delicious and nourishing Grindhaus caliber meal. We recruited my old pal Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie to include—it being one of Brooklyn’s essential foods. Big hearted Steve refused to accept payment in lieu of a donation elsewhere; as we are all animal lovers, the ASPCA and Waggytail Rescue were recipients of this beautiful pay-it-forward moment.
On the morning of this special international catering gig, the first video I saw was chef making beautiful, fresh mozzarella balls to be dunked, still warm, into vibrant ramp pesto. I imagined the smell of the wild mushrooms cooking down by hearing their sizzle over the phone, and the sharp notes of the gently folded goat cheese polenta wafting through WhatsApp. With military precision, all of these “do gooder” bags were filled and handed off for delivery well before noon. It felt so good, so fulfilling to let the light shine in Grindhaus one last time by pulling this off, being able to contribute. Chef Ben felt the same.
In the middle of all of this, I got the news he is leaving New York for a golden culinary opportunity in Dallas late June, making this collaboration bittersweet. I will not be back in time to see him off, but that sure tastes better than guilt.
Valentine’s Day it turned out, was just a practice run; this was our real swan song. Only this time sung in the key of COVID-19.