Navigating through a period of emotional turmoil, Victoria Blamey faced disappointment, sadness, fear, and uncertainty, and finally found hope in the opportunity that the pandemic represents. An opportunity to reinvent the flawed restaurant industry into a more virtuous ecosystem.
Photo: courtesy of Victoria Blamey
“Chefs play a big role in the contribution to changing people mindset, society, and shaping the next generation of chefs to think sustainable.”
Chilean native, Victoria Blamey has worked in Michelin starred kitchens all over the world, ranging from Europe to Australia and finally the U.S. The world has always been her playground and she has developed a culinary style that reflects her journey as a global citizen Chef. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was a disappointed and apprehensive Chef, especially right after the announcement of the permanent closure of the emblematic Gotham Bar and Grill, a restaurant she had taken over in 2019. Victoria's daily life is now frequently punctuated by reflections on how to rethink a New York restaurant industry that had been flawed for a long time. She denounces the archaic principles of the prestigious gastronomic institutions which, to her, have missed the boat to fulfill their primary mission of inspiring, showing the way and creating opportunities. As difficult as this period may be, it nevertheless allowed Victoria to have one certainty: she no longer wants to take over a gigantic restaurant. Her dream is to build something that can also provide, while embracing the diversity and multiculturalism of New York City.
Welcome Victoria to Chefs for Impact!
By Victoria Blamey as told to Chefs for Impact
Gotham Bar & Grill was one of the first victims of the coronavirus outbreak in Manhattan. What is your experience navigating these times of uncertainty?
There is always something positive, even in a crisis. I see so much creativity right now with so many great initiatives blossoming.
The pandemic started for me with the announcement on March 14 of Gotham’s permanent closure, the owners realized quickly that it would be tough reopening. Then my boyfriend got sick. Then, even though I am not a black person, I have also had to deal with all this sadness and frustration due to racism in this country, adding to this, the uncertainty of the future. But it’s an interesting moment that we’re living. Things have to change, and it is definitely time for a rethink of a whole industry. For years, the creative people in the kitchen have always been separated from the rest of the restaurant. As a Chef, I don’t think you can isolate yourself with your food any longer, and I don’t think you should.
What do you hope is next for the restaurant industry?
All I want right now it’s for things to not to go back to normal. The restaurant industry has been suffering for a while and was not profitable in New York. It was saturated and overpopulated with too many restaurants. We all knew that things were not working well, we were all working like animals. t was also very tough to pay the cooks a good salary, thus very difficult to find talents. It was sort of a crisis that has been going on for at least the last 5 years. I’m trying to be realistic about the situation. For sure some things will go back to normal, but I also think that new things are going to come up. Some restaurants will remain closed forever. But maybe they shouldn’t be there anyway?
What changes do you envision to create a greater impact?
I want to talk about these big, renowned, and respected institutions, the ones who have set the standards and rules within the entire food industry. We, as Chefs, have always been seeking validation from them. I have been one of these Chefs, but the outbreak made me realize that I couldn’t care less anymore. If I reopen a restaurant and James Beard wants to nominate me or not, I just don’t care anymore. I believe that the essence of what we do is somehow much clearer now, and we appreciate things that are pure. I love my career but there are things that I don’t want to do anymore. I don’t want to take over a gigantic restaurant because I just don’t need that challenge anymore. I’m seeking things that are different, and I think that I’m not going to be the only one to think this way. I want to think about the opportunity to create a different venue and to promote a different way of expressing what I do as a Chef. I don’t care about these institutions anymore, whether it’s Michelin or James Beard, and I do say that with a lot of respect. I’ve been working in those establishments for most of my career, but now I want to give something back to the community. I want to be focusing more on creating something for the neighborhood instead of focusing on whether or not they will nominate me another Best Female Chef award or whatever title that I’m so tired of.
What could these institutions do to be more impactful?
They should carry a heavier weight for what they’re responsible for. They are responsible to lead, to create opportunities, to inspire, and to represent diversity and inclusion with the same tone, whether someone is White, Black, Latino or Asian, and treat men and women equally. But they don’t.
I just got bored as there is nothing interesting in there anymore. I don’t see anything new coming up and I don’t read anything that is inspiring to me. I think they just got behind in the times. Today, I’m inspired by reading this post of Dan Barber creating a community garden in Battery park, I’m inspired by colleagues but not so much by the media that we used to follow. Of course, I’m not going to lie, having a good review from the New York Times was always very precious to me. If I reopen a restaurant one day and I have a good review, that would be great but that’s not all that I’m seeking anymore.
How do you get your message and values across?
It’s all about education and conversation. My most recent experience had this, old school back of house perception, where a cook is just a cook. We were working crazy hours, with no time for employees to hang out nor meetings that were not to talk about the menu development. We have a responsibility and we must take the time to educate and talk. We must spend more quality time as a team. I want to work in an inclusive environment, where I can talk about the news and have a conversation about it with the team. I want them to partake in the development of a restaurant. It must be a place where we can exchange and build together. I want to be able to invite my team to discuss local farming, to introduce the purveyors we are working with, to bring them to the restaurant, and to have a conversation about their products.
You also need to have open communication on who you are as a person. As chefs we have to do a better job. We all got used to going from bad to worse, thinking that there was not much that we could do. But everyone has a role and education that comes from many parts.
How could gastronomy be more sustainable?
It is pretty much impossible to be 100% sustainable in the world we live in. But I do believe that you can be socially responsible in what you do. That means reducing waste as much as possible and supporting good farming practices and small farms. Good farming practices don’t necessarily mean the big farms are not sustainable. Some of these large companies shouldn’t be reprimanded only because of their size. During this pandemic, not only small people are having a hard time. I support people who care about their relationship with their customers, who raise sustainable products and respect good farming practices.
Being sustainable comes at a cost. It is more expensive to buy locally and to use recycled containers etc. Is the consumer ready to pay more? For us, as Chefs, it’s like either you have to be guilty of not supporting the local community - and I mean we should - or you will have to justify why it’s more expensive. It is also a social problem, and food is political. There should be an explanation for where is our money is going.
Any plans for the future?
Short term wise, as we speak, I’m on my way to Connecticut where I got a job offer for the summer. I’m grateful and I see this as a great opportunity. I love to work so much that I couldn’t stay inactive for too long anyway. I’m part excited and part apprehensive because I have tons of things in my head which are prioritized way before cooking. I need to worry about safety for employees, clients, and myself, as well as to follow a protocol. It has to be taken very seriously way before being able to be creative, so this is very stressful.
I will for sure come back to the city because I love NY! In the long term, I’d like to have a local and seasonal restaurant in a neighborhood. I want to cook for people. I would love to create an environment that is safe and that can be creative, educating, and nurturing for people. I want something that is more unique, and that is more about who I am. Especially embracing diversity and multiculturalism. I want to cook and not have to be boxed up in a certain type of cooking. I don’t want to have to think about a denomination to describe my food because my food is a representation of everywhere I have been in the course of my life. I’m tired to have to market my cooking to have a description that fits the media. That is a thing of the past and I can now look forward and think about the opportunities that tomorrow brings.