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The Way We Eat

“This Crisis Has Spotlighted a Lot of the Issues That Have Long Plagued Our Industry.” A Restaurant Worker on COVID, Life in Minneapolis, and What’s Next.

updated Jul 7, 2020
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Name: Vicki Tran
Location: Minneapolis, MN
How many people regularly eat together in your home? 2, Vicki and her roommate.

Vicki Tran is just one of an estimated 5.9 million restaurant employees in the U.S. who have been out of work due to the uncertainties caused by the global coronavirus pandemic. She also happens to live in Minneapolis, one of the epicenters of our country’s racial reckoning.

While Vicki is disheartened and processing all of this at once, she says she’s hopeful that things will change for the better. We recently spoke with her on the state of her city, if she ever wants to get back to being a server at the Italian restaurant she used to work at, and how baking is helping her feel optimistic right now.

What is living in Minneapolis like right now? 
The situation is constantly changing. It’s scary and surreal. There is so much hurt and pain consuming the city, which is exhausting and re-traumatizing. My own parents came here as refugees in the 1970s, fleeing the war in Vietnam. I grew up watching them struggle to deal with discrimination and being denied opportunities. I grew up having my own firsthand experiences with racism ingrained in the system. This rage didn’t come out of nowhere; it’s been building up for generations. I’m also finding beauty in the midst of the chaos. People are coming together. We’re all helping each other, learning, and rebuilding. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to translate this moment of intense grief into substantive social change.

What’s the latest update on the restaurant you used to work at?
It was an Italian restaurant in Minneapolis. We closed on March 15, a day before it was mandated. As far as I know, our restaurant plans on reopening eventually, but details with the timeline are still being worked out. I appreciate and respect the care that is being put into that decision.

In addition to the restaurant, I also work at a local wine shop, Henry & Son, one day a week, which I am still able to do. We are not allowing customers into the store, so we’re just doing online orders and curbside pickup. (They value our safety, which is really nice.) Working there breaks things up and gives me a marker of days. I feel really fortunate that I can still pay my bills and buy groceries — but it’s still a difficult time and I’ve been using it to reset and think about the future.

I’m so sorry to hear about the restaurant. What was your role?
I have been serving at the restaurant five to six days a week for about five years. It’s a lot of late nights. Even though I’m a server, I definitely have more of a back-of-house personality. I miss the rhythm and the bustle a lot.

Has this changed your future career plans?
I don’t know what my future looks like. Do any of us? I’ve taken this time to reflect about this unique point in history, my community, and my role in it. I still view food as a language of community, and the pleasure of eating and drinking as universal — a lens to view history and culture through. Restaurants occupy such an important space for people to gather, foster connections, and celebrate. Obviously the pandemic has changed the way that gatherings take place, and restaurants will have to be creative in the way that they manage space. I’m excited to see the changes and shifts that come with that.

Do you want to go back?
I definitely miss aspects of my job. I miss my coworkers and the community that we’ve built together. This crisis has spotlighted a lot of the issues regarding sustainability that have long plagued our industry. Our entire food system is collapsing right now and I don’t think restaurants will ever go back to the way that things were. For now, I want to be there to help find creative solutions. There’s so much work to be done and I really hope that independent restaurants will come out of this stronger than before. That being said, I don’t know that I’ll always work in restaurants, but food and wine will always be the center of my world.

Has working in restaurants changed the way you cook at home?
I think I’m a pretty solid cook. I go on a lot of different kicks: I had a bagel kick, a pizza kick, a gluten-free kick. I make my own yogurt and kombucha, and I’ve had a sourdough starter for eight years. Before it was cool! I’ve also been a very avid home baker, so this has sent me into overdrive. I have, like, 30 different kinds of flour and make two loaves of bread a week. I’ve been giving away my starter to so many different people, leaving it on porches. I also love finding ways to use my discard.

Our entire food system is collapsing right now and I don’t think restaurants will ever go back to the way that things were. For now, I want to be there to help find creative solutions.

Sounds like you cook a lot then!
Before all of this, I cooked at home 90 percent of the time. Now I cook 100 percent of the time. I have a roommate who works at a nonprofit and is now working from home. Normally we’d be in the apartment at completely different hours, so we’re reconfiguring our relationship and our space. I’m also cooking for her, which is a role I naturally took over. She’s still working, so I’m happy to do it. The only hard part is that she’s a little pickier than I am, so we have to play around with recipes and make compromises to find common ground.

What are some meals you compromised on?
I like to make French snacks, like gougères and little meatballs. I made a great lentil and cauliflower salad with lots of scallions (I’ve been regrowing them!) We found some frozen scallops in the freezer so I poached them in coconut milk with turmeric and coriander, and served it over rice. Last night we made spice drawer wings. My roommate brought home some Chinese broccoli and I stir-fried it with carrots and celery and served with a cucumber salad with grated garlic, ginger, and Fresno chilies.

Wow, that all sounds restaurant-worthy to me! Do you split groceries?
Pretty much. We use a little of my stuff and a little of her stuff, and it evens out in the end. During the first few weeks after the restaurant shut down, the owners were providing employees with basic things like carrots, onions, potatoes, bacon, eggs, bread — free of charge — which was really nice. We also have a super well-stocked pantry and a ton of stuff in our freezer. It’s like I’ve been preparing for this my entire life.

What has the shopping situation been like?
I have been so good about not going out. I’ve only gone shopping twice in the last month to pick up a few things. We live by a co-op; it’s only four blocks away. I’ll go when it’s not busy, put on my mask, try to be safe. They have plexiglass up now, which is really wild. For the most part, people are taking this really seriously. At least where I am.

What has been the hardest part of all of this?
What’s going on in this city is so much bigger than myself. I’m trying to find the light and to use my time and energy productively towards healing our community and re-envisioning the future. I think that everyone has their own role to play during this time, whether it’s protesting; documenting what’s happening on the ground; organizing community efforts; donating time, money, or resources; or just educating yourself. It’s heartening to see our community band together and the outpouring of support that we’ve generated. It gives me hope that we’re moving forward in a positive way to ensure that future generations won’t have to fight so hard for basic human rights. There’s still so much work to be done. This is just the beginning.

Thanks for sharing, Vicki! 

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. How do you overcome challenges to feed yourself? If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.