The Austin Chronicle

A Kinder, Gentler Restaurant Industry

By Evan Rodriguez, March 13, 2023, 4:39pm, SXSW

Post-pandemic, a new consciousness has been mobilized by some chefs and restaurateurs in an attempt to shift the labor paradigm in hospitality.

Three chefs – Marcelle Afram, Christian Irabien, Melissa Miranda – and an educator who specializes in antiracist and antibias practices, moderator Liz Kleinrock, composed this March 12 SXSW panel, aware, passionate, and determined to construct a new model for the hospitality industry.

The main topics of conversation included the need to create restaurants as community-driven spaces, advocacy for a type of co-op structured ownership, and an overall better quality of life for everyone in the industry.

The trio of chefs all stated that the pandemic was a major catalyst in allowing them to take a step back, reevaluate, restructure, and truly innovate a more sustainable ecosystem than the one that has been lurching along for more than two centuries.

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. [You] have to take care of yourself so you can take care of others,” Irabien said.

Through his Washington, D.C. pop-up, Shababi Chicken, which serves Palestinian-inspired food, Afram brings awareness to political and social justice issues, placing focus on the transgender community and advocacy for Palestine in particular, he said.

Irabien is focused on advancement, professional development, and mobility through his culinary and humanitarian efforts. Through ¡Muchas Gracias!, his Mexican-inspired restaurant in D.C., the chef aided immigrant workers through the pandemic. Through Hospitality Humans, a consulting firm, the chef and his cohorts educate restaurants and bars on how to become more diverse, inclusive, and equitable through career training.

Miranda is a strong advocate and practitioner of a type of cooperative business model, pushing for a better quality of life, and an inclusive workplace where everyone has a voice. “For us, by us,” is the mantra for her Filipino-inspired Seattle restaurant, Musang.

The restaurant and bar industry is still a mostly brutal, unforgiving, yet beautifully chaotic place. Unfortunately, the skeleton of the hospitality industry has remained frighteningly similar to the back-breaking experiences George Orwell immortalized in his 1933 memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London. But thanks to the efforts of restaurateurs like these to alter the narrative, perhaps soon it will be time to add a new memoir to the restaurant-worker canon, maybe one a little less destitute and downtrodden.

Reimagining Restaurants: Shaping a Scarce Industry

Food Track

Sun 12, 4pm, Austin Marriott Downtown

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