Home cooking becomes business for out-of-work chefs

From the kitchen of his San Francisco apartment laid-off chef, Victor Aguilera is preparing about a dozen authentic Venezuelan arepas and other specialties. It is lunch for his list of customers for this day.

Aquilera is also, in a way, making lemonade out of lemons.

A year ago he was a chef at Brixton, a restaurant on Union Street in San Francisco. Then the pandemic and the lockdown struck.

"We had to lay everyone off. Including myself," Aguilera said.

Running out of money with no job prospects, Aguilera had an idea. Why not take his grandmother's Venezuelan recipes, put his own twist on them, post a small menu on Instagram and have people place orders. Then he would deliver them on his bicycle. He calls his business Arepas en Bici.

Word quickly spread. He was written up in a dining guide.  Business took off.

"I had 70 messages with orders. It was two weeks of nonstop deliveries. My legs were destroyed," he said.

"Venezuelan food delivered to my home. I just contacted him and ordered right away. And never stopped," said customer Yoselin Gonzalez.

The number of restaurant workers laid off because of COVID-19 is estimated to be in the tens of thousands in San Francisco alone.

But more and more chefs and cooks are striking out on their own.

There are even websites that list them, including Hungry Hungry Hooker.

Among those who found a new way through the pandemic are these two chefs. They were catering huge corporate events until COVID put a stop to that.

But their business, called Comestible, shifted. They now cater to individuals and families. They sell four meals for less than $75.

"Our thought was to try to give people a restaurant experience. Try to give people value for the dollar," said Michael Goldfarb. "And just let them feel like something special is coming to them."

The two chefs cook in a rented kitchen in Oakland using fresh meats and produce.

"I am surprised at the traction we've been getting...The food quality is there. We can do seasonal and have restaurant-quality food delivered to your home," said co-chef William Hughins.

Like Aguilera, the chefs donate meals to those in need, from the unemployed to women staying in shelters.

"We found a little niche that makes us happy. And helps the community. We have a smile on our face," said Goldfarb.

The coronavirus has been devastating in so many ways and has changed so many lives. But for a very few, those changes have been for the better and will continue when the pandemic ends.

"I would really like to go around and keep spreading what I like to make," said Aguilera.