On March 25, days after the pandemic dine-in shutdown, Pok Pok's Andy Ricker, a force in the food world, warned that restaurants were ill-prepared to ensure the safety of workers and diners, telling Portland Monthly: “We have to stop fucking around making TikToks and get serious.” The interview was one of the magazine's best-shared pieces to date, drawing readers from around the country. Three months later, Ricker, a white guy famously cooking Thai food, wondered out loud: "Does the world still need Pok Pok?” Ultimately, Ricker made the decision to permanently shutter one of the country's best-known restaurants in late October.
Gregory Gourdet's disjointed year included a “star-chef” return to Top Chef, where he emerged as a fan favorite as the industry crumbled around him. But as protests roiled Portland and the nation, the acclaimed Haitian-American chef turned his attention to race relations in America and the broken food industry.
In late October, local legend Vitaly Paley reflected, emotionally, on the death of his three downtown hotel restaurants and returning to his original Northwest Portland kitchen in a do-or-die world.
And I'll never forget the haunting words of DarSalam's Ghaith Sahib, who detailed his struggles as an Iraqi restaurant owner trying to keep 20 family members afloat while sorting out truth from fiction in the early months of the shutdown. At the piece's most tender moment, Sahib recalls his father imploring him to reopen the downtown restaurant during the early months of the pandemic. “I said, 'Baba, I don’t know how to do it. Maybe some business owners are smarter than me.'"
The upshot: as of December 2020, downtown's DarSalam remains temporarily shut after three window smashings and a break-in. Take-out income from the family's original Alberta spot was not enough to support the multi-generational clan that worked at the two restaurants. So Sahib, who is 37, tapped his credit cards to launch small DarSalam satellites in the Pearl District and on SE Hawthorne. “It's very tricky, very scary,” he tells me. “All my savings are gone. My friends say, 'You're crazy. Everybody is closing.' I tell them, 'I'm not opening because life is good. I'm doing this because I have to save my family. We have some income now. We're struggling, but we made it to this day. We made it. Thank God.” As we talk, Sahib never forgets to laugh or dream of the future. And lest I forget, he also makes a mean falafel.