Three Seattle chefs on the challenges of opening a restaurant in 2020

Kristi Brown, Melissa Miranda and Preeti Agarwal are creating community around food — even when we’re all eating separately.

Melissa Miranda in her restaurant, Musang

Owner Melissa Miranda in her Seattle restaurant, Musang, on Nov. 18, 2020. Musang opened in the beginning of the year. Since the pandemic began, Miranda has been donating 100 meals every Wednesday to the South Park Community Center. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

“Well, this is a déjà vu from nine months ago,” says Jesse Tiamson, as he surveys the plant-filled room. Musang, the Beacon Hill restaurant Tiamson manages, is entirely empty, save for the staff. Chairs are stacked on top of tables legs up, flipped upside down like the restaurant industry. 

Nearby, a delivery person from a local restaurant supply company responds with a sigh, “Yeah. Can’t catch a break.” 

Seattle restaurants were among the first in the nation to completely halt operations during the stay-at-home order this spring. Since then, multiple Seattle-area restaurants have closed — some permanently — while others are barely treading water. After loosening restrictions this summer (permitting indoor dining at 25% capacity) and fast-tracking “streatery” permits to allow for more outdoor dining, last week Gov. Jay Inslee tightened the rules to keep surging coronavirus cases in check.

Despite the restaurant industry’s tectonic upheaval, a few Seattle chefs have refused to let the pandemic dash their dream of opening a restaurant — albeit trimmed down to takeout, delivery and outdoor dining for the time being.

Melissa Miranda opened Musang right before the pandemic hit, and has already adapted the restaurant to the new reality (and has big ideas for how the whole industry should shift). This past summer, Preeti Agarwal took the leap from pop-up to permanent with Meesha 127, and it's still going strong. And after years of anticipation, Chef Kristi Brown of the catering company That Brown Girl Cooks! will launch her new restaurant, Communion, this weekend. For these three chefs, hanging on means fulfilling a promise to create community around food, even when we’re eating separately.

Kristi Brown in her new restaurant Communion, ahead of its opening November 28. The restaurant is located in the Central District and has been four years in the making. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Opening soon: Seattle soul food at Communion

“I coined a new phrase for myself this week,” chef Kristi Brown says cheerfully. “The bone collector.” She laughs. She’s talking about the pork and beef bones simmering in broth in a large pot on the open kitchen’s stove. Later, she’ll add Chinese eggplant, rice noodles, oyster mushrooms and either pork belly or rib tips for what will become her “Ode to Pho.” 

It’s the last recipe Brown is still perfecting ahead of the grand opening of her long-awaited Central District restaurant, Communion, which opens Dec. 5 for delivery, takeout and outdoor dining. 

“Ode to Pho,” she says, encapsulates what Communion is about: Seattle soul food. Her version is the product of a Kansas girl who grew up in Seattle’s Central District in a family of home cooks, eating the food from nearby Ethopian restaurants and the vegetable markets of the Chinatown-International District. 

Like the soup, Communion is meant to feed your soul — and has been simmering for a long time. Brown started her catering company That Brown Girl Cooks! in 1996, and started selling her now-famous black-eyed pea hummus at farmers markets in 2012. Since then the chef has grown a dedicated following — as has her hummus,  which will be on the menu at Communion, too. 

Also cooking: Smokey salmon corn chowder, vegetable root cakes and fried chicken wings, and a homemade watermelon hot sauce. 

Housed in the Central District’s new Liberty Bank Building, Communion has been four years in the making — but in many ways, Brown has spent decades getting ready for this moment. That’s why, while COVID restrictions have made the already daunting process of opening a restaurant tougher, not opening never really crossed her mind.

“This is not something that could have been halted,” she says. Around her, employees bustle, moving heat lamps and chairs intended for outdoor dining and signing papers for liquor deliveries. She's not discouraged by having to make COVID adaptations, including a pivot to recipes that are more takeout-friendly. 

"I feel like superwoman right now,” she says when I ask her how she’s feeling. “What else was I going to do at the end of the day? The bills gotta be paid and folks are working, so they gotta be paid,” she says. “This food has got to be out there right now.”

Dishwasher and prep cook Dre Johnson-Katz, left, and chef Kristi Brown, right, work in the kitchen of the new restaurant Communion in Seattle on Nov. 18, 2020. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Damon Bomar, Brown’s son and business partner, and also Communion’s restaurant manager and bartender, agrees. “One of the biggest things is that we're serving a community that is largely ignored by the restaurant industry,” he chimes in, as he walks through the still-in-progress space, where cardboard boxes of supplies are strewn about the floor. “The excitement that we built and the support within our community gives us the confidence to open,” he says. 

“I know it's a pandemic, but people are still eating,” he adds. “That's one of our sayings: everybody’s got to eat.”

Plus, Brown adds: “It’s a great time to be a Black business.”

“In a time where there's been so much upheaval politically — which has been so detrimental to us in so many ways — the sensitivities that people are now forming… actually leads to more focus on us, more publicity, more attention, more compassion, more interest,” she says. 

But that comes after years of a lack of attention, opportunities, and bank loans, Brown notes. 

“That's the joy of Blackness: We are resilient as fuck,” Brown says. “We do not stop. People that have been through this historically — it just shows you we are resilient. I’m just running with it. ’Cause that's all I can do.” 

Chef-owner Preeti Agarwal opened her brick-and-mortar restaurant Meesha 127 on a busy street in Fremont after gaining popularity with pop-ups. (Shaminder Dulai/Crosscut)

Opened in summer: Northern Indian food at Meesha

Preeti Agarwal lowers her mask just enough to take a small taste of the beige batter. It takes her less than a split second to know: This needs way more salt. It’s the base for lam radoo, or lentil fritters, she explains. “You need salt to ferment it,” she says, “so that it’s light and fluffy.” 

Behind her, three cooks run back and forth in the dimly lit kitchen, sliding plastic takeout containers full of Malwani squash curry and bukhara dal (a slow-cooked lentil and kidney bean dish with fenugreek) across the bar for delivery. 

It’s a far cry from what Agarwal was cooking in this very same spot about a year ago: truffle pommes frites, foie gras, bouillabaisse.

But that’s not what Agarwal was really known for. She had built a reputation as one of Seattle’s up-and-coming star chefs, thanks to the Indian dishes she served at her sold-out “Meesha” pop-up dinners hosted by restaurants across the city.

After years of pop-ups, Agarwal wanted her own spot. In June of last year, she purchased the high-end French fusion restaurant Pomerol in Fremont, with the intention of serving its classic French fare until she felt confident she could run her own restaurant. 

And then came the pandemic. 

Preeti Agarwal purchased the French fusion restaurant Pomerol last year, and transformed the space into her new restaurant Meesha 127 during the pandemic. (Shaminder Dulai/Crosscut)

Pomerol closed for indoor dining in the spring. Agarwal pivoted in June, offering a few of her Meesha-flavored dishes for takeout with the idea that Indian food just traveled better than fancy French. 

“It’s very hard to do Pomerol-style food as takeout,” she says. “A steak and frites at Pomerol were very popular. But how do you do that in different temperatures: rare, medium, well done? I don't think it will taste the same. If you're taking it home, the fries will get soggy.” 

“Indian food is a little more comforting,” Agarwal adds. “The flavors can still stay the same, the experience of the taste when you take it home and heat up.”

Agarwal calls her dishes contemporary cuisine influenced by Uttar Pradesh, the northern Indian state where she grew up, and the ghee favored by her mother — and grandmother, whom she still calls for recipes. Agarwal prides herself on making all her spice blends from scratch, too. 

Her pandemic bet paid off. Takeout orders for Meesha dishes started rolling in. “I got the confidence. OK, this is the perfect time for me to change it completely,” Agarwal remembers, “because people are more excited about Meesha than Pomerol.”

Slowly, Agarwal started renovating the muted, industrial chic interior of Pomerol into the patterned art deco ode to her home country, exemplified by dashes of red and gold found in the paintings on the wall and the vases on the tables. Now, Meesha 127 (so named for its location on N. 36th St.) is open for takeout and outdoor dining on the back patio. She says it’s doing fine — but only considering the circumstances. 

“We are still struggling, and hopefully we get people and takeout orders so that we can survive this pandemic,” Agarwal says. 

“We keep [seeing] so many good and wonderful restaurants shutting down,” she adds. “The restaurant industry needs all the support it can get right now.” 

Owner Melissa Miranda in her restaurant Musang in Seattle on Nov. 18, 2020. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Opened early 2020: Filipino flavor at Musang

On a recent dreary day, three Filipino aunties sat under a heavy-duty carport tent, preparing to dig into tanghalian (lunch in Tagalog), as cars zoomed on the nearby Beacon Avenue South. 

“It's amazing to see that they're here,” says Melissa Miranda, walking from the outdoor patio up the stairs to the entrance of her restaurant Musang, where she cooks up the Filipinx dishes inspired by her childhood memories. 

Take the short rib kare kare. It’s “the ultimate comfort food,” and a Musang bestseller, Miranda says. “All of us kind of have stories of growing up with it.” 

Traditionally made with oxtail, Miranda swapped in short ribs, which she serves with a fermented shrimp paste and peanut butter sauce, bok choy, okra green beans and eggplant. Another example of the nuanced but bold flavors Musang has become known for: adobong pusit pancit, a noodle dish blackened with cuttlefish ink and served with squid hand-caught by Miranda’s father and stewed with soy, vinegar, tomatoes and onions (plus mackerel and fried calamari on top). 

In March, Musang had been open for 2½ months. The restaurant (Miranda prefers to call it a “community space,” which is heightened by the fact that its setting is a former home) was popping. But the chef and her team had been keeping an eye on the rising number of coronavirus cases and quickly realized: “We can't be promoting this kind of social setting. If we are about community, we need to make the decision…. So we shut down,” Miranda recalls. “And then a couple of days later, Inslee followed with the stay-at-home order.”

Owner Melissa Miranda in the kitchen of her restaurant Musang in Seattle on Nov. 18, 2020. Musang opened pre-pandemic earlier this year. Since the pandemic started Miranda has been giving away free meals to the community every week. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Miranda shifted gears and started offering free meals to whoever needed them from Musang’s suddenly empty dining room and, with other like-minded chefs of Seattle’s south end, formed The Seattle Community Kitchen Collective (see sidebar). 

It was nourishing, important work. Still, she says, “We’d be done at 6, and we’d just sit here and be like: ‘What do we do now?’ ” She and her team missed the rush of the dinner service, the homey atmosphere they had created at Musang. “It was this really weird feeling — we were doing good by the community kitchen, but … it took a lot of time to grieve that loss of what it was supposed to be,” she says. 

“Once I acknowledged that, it gave me room to really think outside of the box of what it could be and what we will be,” she says. 

Since then, Miranda has reopened Musang for takeout, delivery and outdoor dining (the Community Kitchen is still happening, twice a week) and made some important changes in the way the restaurant operates, offering health insurance and 401(k) benefits with a 2% match for all employees. The “back of house” staff is now salaried and servers make $25 an hour — nearly unheard of in the industry. (She’s also trying to institute a more intangible but equally rare culture shift of self-care, healthier habits and rest.) 

“I've always wanted to create a more equitable restaurant. I've worked in this industry for a really long time, and I've never been taken care of,” Miranda says. “If I can do that now in the dead of winter and make it work, then I know it can be sustainable for us in the future,” she adds. 

As for the future: She’ll be closing the restaurant for a month in January (staff will get a paycheck) while investing in a more permanent patio structure to make sure outdoor dining can survive inclement weather in spring and next fall. But, she warns, the worst is yet to come for the industry and its workers.

While takeout and delivery might be a lifeline, it’s not enough. “We don't need more loans,” Miranda says. “We don't need more debt to accrue. There has to be either another [federal Paycheck Protection Program] or larger grants — or just someone really advocating for us.”

This comes back to the foundational idea of Musang’s, and the changes she’s trying to implement: There has to be a better way to take care of each other. “This industry…,” she says. “The system isn’t broken; it was built this way.” 

Now, as the industry lives through some of its hardest moments, Miranda is working to rebuild it. 

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