I’ve been cooking in a Hamilton restaurant for most of the pandemic. I love my work, but sometimes it feels like a game of dodge-the-virus

I’ve been cooking in a Hamilton restaurant for most of the pandemic. I love my work, but sometimes it feels like a game of dodge-the-virus

For the past year and a half, I’ve been a cook at a Hamilton restaurant. When I drive home after a long shift, I feel a light pressure on my cheeks, a gentle tug behind my ears and the onset of a dull headache. Although I remove my mask upon entering my car, the phantom face mask lingers. At work, I am constantly surrounded by co-workers, strangers and, potentially, the virus that’s devastating our society. Wearing a mask is non-negotiable, and I’m more than happy to oblige. My discomfort is nothing compared to the suffering people have experienced after contracting Covid-19.

I’d been working at the restaurant for just under a year in March when Covid hit Canada. Over a few weeks, the number of diners gradually dwindled, then slowed to a trickle. Rumours began to circulate among staff about a mandate to close down non-essential businesses. It seemed like only a matter of time. I’m an anxious person by nature and I was fearful in the days leading up to our restaurant closing. At work, I was exposed to others, and even when case numbers were low, being inside an enclosed space with them felt risky. Our management team eased our stress by shortening shifts and limiting the number of staff members working at a time.

On the morning of March 15, I received a text from my manager. “Allegra, would you like tonight off?” she wrote, followed by, “Actually, just stay home.” I was relieved to be cut. The next day, the government order to close finally came, and our staff worked hard to clean out the fridges and freezer, preserving what they could and using what remained to make meals for the dozens of staff members who were temporarily laid off. From that point on, we were thrown into lockdown.

Despite the circumstances, my leave from work was a relief. I quickly applied for CERB and quarantined with my parents and siblings just outside of the city. I developed some semblance of routine, scheduling Zoom calls with friends, helping out on our family farm and spending too much time watching the news. All the while, the restaurant was open for takeout, and the owners generously provided staff with bi-weekly meals. I drove into the city to pick them up, contact-free—a welcome excuse to leave the house.

Three months later, when the government moved into Phase 2 and gave Hamilton restaurants the green light to reopen, a handful of staff members were asked to return and navigate the foreign territory of pandemic-era restaurant operations. Case numbers were shrinking and dining was limited to our outdoor patio, so I felt comfortable going back. We worked hard and took every precaution: mandatory masks for all employees, contact tracing, frequently sanitizing all surfaces, limiting guest numbers and group sizes. Throughout the summer and early fall, our BIA set up “pandemic patios” on the closed street to provide us with additional tables. The new measures came easily for the most part: as cooks, we were already trained in food safety and had high standards long before the pandemic arrived.

Working as a cook is an endless learning experience, and this was especially true after reopening. Our kitchen team shrank from five to three—sometimes two—to allow us to maintain distance. This meant that we were often picking up jobs that were previously performed by other employees. The concept of working a single station evaporated. I was rapidly trained by the saucier to learn how to cook meat. Our pastry cook began to work line, and pastry duties were dispersed among everyone. We began making buns and crème brûlées each day, leading to inconsistent results initially, though we quickly caught on. Dishwashers were no longer scheduled on weekdays, so we learned the art of carefully arranging dishes in trays to be sent through the industrial dishwasher. We spent two hours during and after service carrying bus bins full of dirty dishes immersed in sanitizer down two flights of stairs to our basement dish pit. I’ll never take a dishwasher for granted again.

We’ve mastered hyper-efficiency, grouping tasks together to minimize wasted time, reducing unnecessary trips up or down the stairs, using any spare time to complete small tasks. These seemingly minimal changes help our days flow smoothly despite the additional workload.

A few weeks after reopening, Phase 3 went into effect, and indoor dining restrictions were lifted. I wasn’t eager to be in such close proximity to strangers, but in an industry notorious for its gaunt margins, keeping the dining room closed would prevent the restaurant from recouping some of its desperately needed revenue. In preparation, we designated certain tables as spacers that would remain empty, stopped seating guests at the bar and mandated that guests wear masks whenever they were not seated. However, we’ve received considerable resistance from some guests, which makes enforcing these measures feel like wading through waist-deep water. Our front-of-house staff will remind guests to wear a mask if they honestly forget, but our frustrated, over-burdened manager has had to ask individuals to leave when they’ve continued to disregard our policy after being reminded multiple times.

Over the past few months, it’s been critical that we take any potential Covid-19 symptoms seriously. About a week after returning to work, I had a cough and called my manager, who asked me to stay home and get tested. After a few days of quarantining and trying to remain calm, I received a negative result. Later on, another staff member had serious enough symptoms—including a fever and breathing trouble—to require a visit to the hospital. It turned out to be a severe case of pneumonia. A few weeks into Phase 3, an email from our general manager popped into my inbox, informing me that we had served a guest who tested positive for Covid-19 shortly after dining with us. The public health department reported that they had not been showing symptoms at the time, so we were asked to self-monitor and continue to diligently follow our safety protocols. This incident was especially scary: for the first time we knew the virus had hit close to come.

From the moment I returned to work, I knew my chances of interacting with Covid-19 were heightened, but that didn’t prepare me for the fear I experienced when that possibility became a reality. Or for the unease I felt about returning home to my family, wondering if, despite the precautions in place and my lack of symptoms, I should get tested.

At times, my experience working during this pandemic has felt like a game of dodge-the-virus, but I’m still happy to be back at work and contributing in my small way to keeping the restaurant open. Above all else, this challenge has proven to be a learning experience. Our team has grown stronger as we’ve adapted to the changes, and watching guests safely share a meal and enjoy each other’s company reminds me why I adore cooking. We’re supporting others in our community, from the farmer up the road who grew a crop of tomatoes and desperately wants to see them enjoyed to the dry goods suppliers, landlords and linen companies who depend on restaurants. For a while, Covid stripped us of these connections, and as we help them slowly trickle back in, it’s almost enough to forget that we’re living in a pandemic. Until I catch a guest heading toward the bathrooms without a face mask, that is.