How 5 leading chefs tackle the industry’s biggest challenges

Five top U.S. chefs reflect on the state of restaurants right now.

Diners can’t get enough of restaurants right now. Demand for restaurant reservations is higher now than before the pandemic—reservations in September and October 2022 were 2% higher than the same time in 2019, according to OpenTable data. The restaurant industry went through more than two and a half years of uncertainty to get to this point, and many establishments shifted the very nature of their business during those years. 

OpenTable sat down with chefs and restaurateurs from across the country to better understand how much operations have changed. We asked how they’ve dealt with staff burnout, if they prioritize sustainability and transparency, and what a restaurant means to them in this changed landscape. 

Read on for highlights from our Q&A’s with this group, which includes James Beard Award winner Iliana de la Vega, Philadelphia superstar Jose Garces, restaurateur Art Smith, State Bird Provisions executive chef Gaby Maeda, and lauded European chef Markus Glocker. 

Answers have been edited for clarity

Q: What are some essential qualities that define a restaurant for you, and how has that changed in recent years?

An image of chef Jose Garces's quote, "Hospitality comes from within, and if you're not taking care of yourself, you can't take care of your guests."

Photo credit: Harrison Brink

At their core, restaurants are about two primary things: food and hospitality. I think there have been a lot of changes to the ways restaurants operate, but the basic elements are still the same. While increases in technology, as well as the pandemic, have caused many restaurants to revise their concepts of service, it still boils down to those two primary items.  — Jose Garces, owner of several acclaimed Philadelphia restaurants including Amada and Volver

Restaurants, beyond being a great experience both visually and tasty, [are] simply to feed people. In challenging times, food comforts us like no other. My hopes are that we focus on why we are in the business; it’s not show business. — Art Smith, chef and restaurateur, including of Chicago’s newly opened Chef Art Smith’s Reunion and former personal chef to Oprah.

I’ve always believed that restaurants were a place of gathering, a place to be nourished physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Food brings people from all walks of life together. It allows us to understand the differences in a culture, a time, and a place. “Come to our home and let us take care of you.” This is something that has been embedded in my mind at a young age while working in kitchens for thoughtful chefs. I believe that this desire to take care of people has been and will always be at the forefront of a restaurant’s purpose. — Gaby Maeda, executive chef at San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions

After so many years of stress and pressure put on kitchen staff, specifically in high-end and gastronomy kitchens, it is time to shift everything and create a creative and diverse team of individuals who bring something different to the table whether it be a menu idea or style of management. — Markus Glocker, executive chef at NYC’s newly opened Koloman.

Q: In the wake of COVID-19, what are some of the most significant ways your own restaurant has evolved?

An image that states chef Art Smith's quote, "In challenging times, food comforts us like no other."

I have a number of restaurants, and unfortunately, not all of them survived COVID-19. Like many other restaurants, we had—and continue to experience—issues with staffing. It’s led us to cut our hours to ensure that while we’re open, we’re able to turn out the level of service and culinary excellence that our guests deserve and expect. In addition, we took a look at our menus and did a lot of streamlining to help weather the worst shocks of supply chain issues. Getting through the worst of the pandemic required a lot of flexibility and resilience and I’m proud of the job that we’ve managed to do. — Jose Garces 

Covid affected us all, but [by] staying focused and watching our expenses we made it through. I did lose a smaller, younger restaurant, Art Bird, in a high-traffic area, but it lives on across America in 18 locations at Live Nation Amphitheaters. — Art Smith

Q: As diners increasingly turn to digital platforms, how has your restaurant revisited its relationship with technology?

Technology is the way forward, even in the hospitality industry. It’s a process of learning and improving. In [back of house] things can not be replaced with platforms. However, old-school values can be showcased on social media platforms. At Koloman, there’s a fine balance between technology and traditional hospitality. We use technology to enhance a guest’s experience while maintaining traditional hospitality.  — Markus Glocker 

We’ve really embraced technology, while maintaining a deep respect for tradition. At Hook & Master, we’ve moved to QR codes at the tables as opposed to paper menus. Aside from sanitation concerns, this allows us to adjust our menu on the fly to accommodate any issues with supply availability. As a group, we are undergoing a technology overhaul. All of our sites are being updated and we have new online ordering partners to order outside of the building for pick up and to order from a table. It allows us to offer guests an elevated experience at a fast casual concept. — Jose Garces

Q: Are transparency and sustainability important to you? How are you emphasizing this at your restaurant?

An image of chef Gaby Maeda's quote, "I believe that this desire to take care of people has been and will always be at the forefront of a restaurant’s purpose."

Photo credit: Kat Kwuan

We have been very transparent with our values at State Bird to our guests and to our team over the past decade. We operate our restaurant with integrity and work with other purveyors who share those same values. We educate our staff frequently on who we choose to work with and why. — Gaby Maeda

As I get older, sustainability has played a huge factor in my life, both personally and in my business endeavors. At Koloman, we try as much as possible to source ingredients locally and materials for our business since we want to be a part of the solution, not the problem. There is a long way to go for all of us, but we have to start somewhere. Restaurants have a big carbon footprint, and we all need to work together to be more respectful of how we source and how we produce. — Markus Glocker

Q: In what concrete ways, if any, do you encourage your team to avoid burnout?

An image of chef Iliana de la Vega's quote, "Having and running a restaurant, I think it’s something like a disease; once it is in your body you can’t get rid of it."

Photo credit: The James Beard Foundation

Restaurant jobs are always stressful, everything is about timing and perfection, so it’s the nature of it, either front of the house or back of the house. But we close the restaurant almost two days a week, so everyone has time to enjoy family, life or rest! Also we have a very friendly working environment; we laugh a lot at work! — Iliana de la Vega, chef and co-owner at Texas’s El Naranjo 

This is something that we, as an industry, have to get better at. We try to make it clear to all of our staff and management that hospitality comes from within, and if you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of our guests. — Jose Garces

We encourage our cooks to take care of themselves in and out of the kitchen. Whether it’s finding healthy hobbies, exercising, reading, or getting a good night’s rest. Thankfully we don’t have a “party kitchen.” We encourage our team to dine out and explore the Bay Area over their weekend and skip the nightcaps during the work week. — Gaby Maeda

Q: What makes you still love this industry?

An image that states chef Markus Glocker's quote, "Restaurants have a big carbon footprint, and we all need to work together to be more respectful of how we source and how we produce."

Photo credit: Nick Johnson

I’m a chef. I love cooking, and I love sharing my food with people. Regardless of the frustrations that happen in the industry, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be. Unless, “retired on a fishing boat” is an option that I was unaware of. — Jose Garces

Having and running a restaurant, I think it’s something like a disease; once it is in your body you can’t get rid of it. I guess it is the people, to make people happy and have a dining and cultural experience with our food. It’s very important to me. — Iliana de la Vega

The people of the industry (new and old) are a resilient bunch. They have the desire to create magical experiences for our guests no matter the circumstances. Witnessing and experiencing this magic at State Bird and at the restaurants I love to frequent is why I love the industry that I have dedicated my life to. — Gaby Maeda

I still romanticize restaurants the same way I started this journey 25 years ago. I always say one thing: the feeling I first had walking into a professional kitchen and seeing the food and the camaraderie is the feeling I still search for today. — Markus Glocker 

Aarti Virani is OpenTable’s blog editor. Tanay Warerkar is a content marketing manager at OpenTable.