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A loaf of sourdough from chef Johanna Hellrigl, who has been leaving free, sanitized jars of starter outside her house for people who request them on Instagram.
A loaf of sourdough from chef Johanna Hellrigl, who has been leaving free, sanitized jars of starter outside her house for people who request them on Instagram.
Courtesy of Johanna Hellrigl

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The Little Things Helping People in D.C.’s Restaurant Industry Manage Their Anxiety

Gifting sourdough starter, leading exercise classes, and teaching kids to cook are helping chefs and restaurateurs stay sane

As the deputy CEO of Sunnyside Restaurant Group, Micheline Mendelsohn is known for maintaining a cheerful disposition despite the stress of a demanding work and home life. But while she typically finds joy in juggling all her duties, from overseeing more than 90 employees to corralling three kids under the age of 12, the challenges posed by the new coronavirus pandemic have brought her world to a screeching halt. She’s had insomnia for the past two weeks, lying awake at night worrying about her employees and franchisees, and whether any of her family’s restaurants — Good Stuff Eatery, We the Pizza, Santa Rosa Taqueria — will be able to come back from the devastating financial damage incurred while people are advised to isolate in their homes.

“This new normal doesn’t feel right at all,” says Mendelsohn, who helps lead a business with eight franchise locations, including two in Egypt, and three restaurants on Capitol Hill. “I’ve worked my entire life and am a people person. Being confined, unable to see family or friends feels restrictive and depressing.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified pressure on an industry already wracked with sleep deprivation, depression, and substance abuse. Food service professionals across the area are doing what they can to cope. While feelings of uncertainty, helplessness, and existential dread are pervasive across the hospitality business, people are looking to comfort themselves with elaborate home cooking projects, new exercise routines, and virtual meetings.

Micheline Mendelsohn is leading cooking projects for her three kids while managing Sunnyside Restaurant Group from home
Micheline Mendelsohn is leading cooking projects for her three kids while managing Sunnyside Restaurant Group from home
Sunnyside Restaurant Group [official]

Mendelsohn is taking solace in the cooking classes she’s conducting for her children as part of a daily schedule she’s implemented while working mostly from home. During these classes, she acts as chef with her two daughters, ages 10 and 8, as her helpers. Her 3-year-old son plays the role of enthusiastic taste tester. They mainly explore desserts, with a focus on their Greek heritage.

“Under these new circumstances, we’re all connected, dancing in the kitchen and building beautiful memories during a really difficult time,” Mendelsohn says. And with fewer urgent emails to answer and no events to rush off to, she is trying to enjoy a change of pace. “We live so fast sometimes,” she says. “My wellness during this time has been to slow down [and] enjoy it — even the spills or the wrong ingredients in the wrong bowl.”

But not everyone can lean on family for support. That’s one reason that Todd Hunt, the D.C. chapter leader for Ben’s Friends, wants to provide a sense of community by hosting virtual meetings for the nonprofit, which aids restaurant workers who struggle with substance abuse.

“One of the most important aspects of recovery is that you no longer feel alone,” Hunt says. “Hosting Ben’s Friends meetings on Zoom has really helped. It’s not ideal but, under the circumstances, it’s extremely helpful.”

Hunt’s biggest fear is for those who are tackling sobriety for the first time. It’s an apprehension shared by Derek Brown, the owner of the nationally recognized cocktail bar Columbia Room.

“I’m scared for the people dealing with sobriety,” Brown says. “Stress and anxiety were triggers for me. I committed to not drinking during the quarantine to avoid self-medicating. I hope others are too. This is no time to test one’s resolve.”

Some hospitality workers, like Santa Rosa general manager Will Nixon, are finding relief by prioritizing exercise. Nixon is at home with his wife tending to their baby, and the couple have used the time together to finally commit to trying out yoga.

Some fitness pros are making it part of their mission to help out restaurant workers: Jen Jackson, an instructor at VIDA, has set up free Zoom one-on-one training calls for anyone in the industry — in addition to hosting popular free classes on Facebook each morning that are archived on her page after the class is over.

As the former the director of sales for DC Brau, Jackson is still deeply connected to the restaurant community. “I [don’t] have any extra money to give,” she says, “but what I [do] have is the ability to give emotional and physical relief through fitness.”

Chris Morgan is leading a trail-running group while practicing social distancing
Chris Morgan is leading a trail-running group while practicing social distancing
[Cristian Zuñiga]

Those who are more interested in exercising outdoors can look to chef Chris Morgan. After helping the Middle Eastern hot spot Maydan earn a Michelin star, Morgan was preparing to open a new restaurant in the Navy Yard when the virus started spreading in D.C. So he started a trail-running group in Rock Creek Park to get people outside and “away from the madness.” Every morning, Morgan has arrived at Pierce Mill at 8:30 a.m. to run anywhere between 3 to 12 miles with a few other people.

“We are keeping groups to four and below, keeping our distance from one another in accordance with CDC recommendations,” he says.

Other industry workers are taking advantage of down time to teach themselves skills that will help whenever they can return to work. Zaria Poynter, a server and barista at Black Coffee in the Palisades, is keeping busy by setting physical and artistic goals for herself. She’s spent time studying ASL, something she’s always wanted to do to help her communicate better with guests. Still, the reality of the situation weighs on her.

“I want all my coworkers to be happy and healthy, like the last time I saw them,” she says. “I want my job to be there. I try not to worry about it and [am focusing] on going back with a positive state of mind.”

Johanna Hellrigl is also trying to focus on the positives. The former executive chef at Southeast Asian standby Doi Moi was weeks away from leading one of the most anticipated openings of the spring: Mercy Me, a South American-themed hotel cafe that’s part of a collaboration with the owners at Call Your Mother deli and Timber Pizza.

“I’m definitely worried [about] what the future of our industry holds,” Hellrigl says. “But I am optimistic with such a caring community and industry that we have in D.C. that has banded together.”

Hellrigl is hoping to uplift her community by setting out free jars of sourdough starter for anyone who wants to claim one on Instagram, then offering baking instructions. In the past week, she has given away 75 portions of starter by leaving sanitized, labeled jars on her porch for anyone who wants to claim one in an Instagram message. Her Instagram stories are full of photos that show off baked goods her starter started.

“People keep coming!” she says with a laugh. “I love being tagged or sent pictures of what they are making. Someone made their Grandma’s famous sourdough pancakes with it. A couple worked together to make their first loaf.”

People have begun offering to pay for the starter, but Hellrigl is instead pointing them to donation pages for restaurant employees or initiatives like the Power of 10. While she can’t cook for customers, the starter project has helped give her a purpose.

“To be able to find another way to nurture, share, and give — albeit a very small gesture — is definitely comforting,” she says.

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