Eating & Drinking

Chef Arup Jana on cheffing solo, the takeout burden, and his popular weekend dinners

“It has not been a good couple of years,” says Chef Arup Jana on the challenges of operating Brassica amid the pandemic while also rebuilding longtime Allium, which was destroyed in a fire in 2019.

Brassica currently offers curbside pickup Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of dinners for two ($60-$70) complete with salads, sides, and dessert. See the menu here.

We caught up with the longtime Ottawa restaurateur about timed take-away, and life as a one-person operation.

What factors did you consider when deciding to launch a take-away menu?
We took the 14 days off to self isolate, with no contact with anyone. We considered not opening, but the financial strain on the business would be too great. We decided that I would just do all the cooking and cleaning, and we would attempt contactless pickup.  Friday through Sunday seemed the busiest days from others we had discussed with, as well as Dom and Harjeet, our business partners.   I have not done takeout before, so it was a bit of a learning curve, but I figured out what we would do within the first couple of days. We have set, timed intervals for pickup, and everything is pre-paid by phone or email transfer.  We have the food ready and hot, packed using gloves etc. and put on a table in front of the restaurant.  There is no physical contact at all.  The whole process is to make sure we have something to return to, without a pile of debt that would cripple the business upon returning to “normal”.  

We chose to do three separate menus per week, for several reasons: I get bored cooking the same thing; so we can have customers have multiple dishes each weekend; and to accommodate dietary restrictions.  

One of the biggest things I did not realize was the amount of takeout containers we would use, and the time it takes to close them all.  It is shocking how much they cost, and how long it takes to prep all on that stuff.

Comforting mashed potato casserole coming out of the oven

 

What challenges did you face? What drove you to continue?
The biggest challenge was figuring out what “the right thing to do” was/is.  We felt like to flatten the curve, people should stay home, as we did for three weeks.  I had witnessed people not taking this seriously, so we delayed opening for takeout, as to not draw people out of their homes.  But at a certain point, we decided that we very much want a place to return to, and our staff, many of who had to go through all of this last year with the fire.  It has not been a good couple of years, and we are basically just trying to ease our transition back into full service when this is all over.

Another big challenge is cooking alone. There is so much to do. Sanitizing everything after delivery, washing everything … this part has been taking me about half a day  to accomplish before being able to start cooking.  Everything has to be sanitized — that includes the fridge, all surfaces that were touched, all the door handles, the floors and walls, and all of the product containers.  Then the cooking: we are doing five dishes per day, and about 35-40 Dinners for Two, so that’s about 70-80 people per night, so about 200 people per weekend. There is a lot of cleaning, organizing, and thinking ahead.

Slow-roasted lamb with potato puree, pickled cauliflower, and onion jus (left); kale salad with pickled carrots, pepitas, roasted carrots, and sundried cranberries with a Leon dressing

What inspired the menu?
The menu is based on what we can get and what will travel well, as well as things we already have in-house. But it’s mostly shaped by what I can execute alone.  I am also trying to make it somewhat seasonal.  And cost is affecting what is on the menu; we can’t charge restaurant prices, and also can’t execute as we would in the restaurant. 

Watch for Arup Jana’s famous Banoffee Pie on the Brassica menu

How do you think the current closures will affect the local restaurant industry in the long term?
Hard to say, it is a crazy time for everyone in every industry!  I think some places will close for good.  I think some will be fine. Having to pay off a bunch of deferments and loans will make it impossible for some places to turn a profit, especially with the slim margins we work with already.  It will also be interesting to see how people react when we are allowed to go out again. Will people be scared?  Who knows?