New state-wide limitations restricting people from going out to eat at restaurants in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus are having an impact on local businesses. WGBH News' Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Chef Ming Tsai about how the pandemic, and the actions from the government, are affecting the food industry. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: These are wild times we're in. Obviously, you are being directly impacted with regard to your restaurant by what's happening here on the state level. Are you serving takeout now?
Ming Tsai: We are. We closed Blue Dragon last week and it was just, honestly, Friday night we were busy, which normally is a great thing. But as I was looking around Blue Dragon, I'm like, people are completely ignoring everything the CDC's saying. People are gathering, people are toasting. I believe it or not I heard a toast: "Cheers to coronavirus!" And they were toasting coronavirus. I'm like, "okay, that's it. I am pulling this plug."
And then, as you know, the government's pulled the plug now for everyone, so I was just two days in advance. But just first and foremost, I got to tell everyone: anyone can get this; do not gather, period. This government should have jumped in a while ago and just done what they did in Wuhan. They sequestered people for 70 days — locked down 70 days — and we're slowly getting to that.
Thank God we have some great governors between Baker and de Blasio. They're trying to take over. It's just a complete nightmare. I mean, literally, I had to tell my staff, "you guys, I'm sorry, we have to close." I gave them each $1,000. That's the best I could do, which is almost a full paycheck. They're so scared. I've never seen so many scared people because they, as you know, most restaurant people live paycheck to paycheck and do not have $400, $4,000 or $40,000 in their bank account. They have a paycheck. And unfortunately, there [are] a lot that are below what the government sees, meaning people that don't have any other family or resources to go to.
If you're born and raised in America, ideally you still have your parents you can go to and whatnot. A lot of the restaurant employees — hundreds of thousands in this country, millions in this country — really have no idea what to do, and we are all hoping and praying that the government's going to come in and bail out. We're very good for bailing out big businesses, [but] we have to bail out the small businesses this time. Otherwise, it's so much beyond just a pandemic and the health issue, it is a financial crisis.
And I'm not even started with the hospital; that's a whole different angle.
So to answer the question — sorry that's taken five minutes to say that — yes, we are starting today food to go [with] full no contact. So if you call Blue Dragon, we will get your credit card, we'll put the bag outside of our door [and] we will not let anyone walk into Blue Dragon to keep my chefs safe, obviously. All no contact. We're going to put it out there and will just grab it.
And that's a great Band-Aid. There's no way we're going to do 80 to 90 percent of regular revenue with to go. It's fool's gold. David Chang said that in an interview. And it's true, because it's a Band-aid. We're just trying to keep some people busy [and] trying to keep the lights on, but that's going to end. I'm very hopeful, I'm a very positive guy [and] I hope we can do tons and tons of to go. But the reality is, I'm not so sure that's there.
Mathieu: How difficult is it to transition to a take out operation? I'm assuming it's very difficult.
Tsai: [Blue] Dragon already had a decent to-go, so we are actually set. But to your point, think about the fine dining restaurants in Boston and New York. They have to adjust. But you're going to make five or 10 percent of your regular revenue, so it's almost just prolonging the fact that you have to close. And some of the best restaurants I know of in New York — Gotham Bar and Grill, a 37 year old restaurant, one of the best mainstays in New York, closed permanently. They're closed. Ken Oringer, who we all know and love in Boston, has a Toro in New York City. Closed. Permanently. I think the financial world is going to be just as [bad] as the health, if not even worse, and that's why it's not a two week, two month thing. I'm an optimist, but people say, "oh, we'll be back in two weeks." We will not be back in two weeks.
Mathieu: 5 to 10 percent, chef? That's it from going to takeout?
Tsai: That's optimistic. I mean, again, we just don't know.
Mathieu: Chef Ming, I saw your friend — everyone's friend, the world's friend — José Andrés, with a video on Twitter standing in front of his iconic tapas restaurant in Washington, Jaleo. He was talking about the emotions and you could see him feeling the emotions, chef. Is it like that for you, when you consider what's going on at your restaurant?
Tsai: I literally, in my call, for five minutes, I was crying. I'm tearing up now. It's so hard. I'm sorry, Joe. We are family. When you can't help your family...
Mathieu: It's a scary feeling.
Tsai: You just feel hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. All the 150 million Americans that are already poor, what is going to happen to them? We have some savings, but they don't. And there's already hundreds and hundreds of thousands homeless in Boston, in New York, in San Francisco. What are they going to do? They can't sequester, they're homeless. All the shelters are packed. The food banks are gonna be overrun. It's so scary because none of us know. We have no direction. Almost zero. Until a week ago, this government did nothing. Nothing. And now we're here. It's crazy.
Thank God for state governors. Thank God for Marty Walsh and Baker. They're trying to make a difference. But we're so behind the eight ball. We let this thing be here for six to eight weeks and did nothing. I am not a doomsday guy, but I am a science guy. I believe science and I believe math, and if we come close to what happened in Italy or China, it's millions of people sick.
Mathieu: This is what we're all waking up to here. We're all realizing this now. Chef, what do you want your employees to know this morning?
Tsai: We're hoping the governments will step in. Back when Ken Oringer and I did that event after the Marathon Bombing, 9/11, all the chefs always get together when there's tragedy. We come, we group together, we hug, we support and we get through it. This time we can't do any of that. We can't hug, we can't support, we can't gather and have a tequila. That's not possible. So that whole social fabric, that camaraderie, that fraternity... we're isolated. And I can't say it's going to be fine because I don't know that. I really don't. It's the first time in my life I just don't know it's going to be fine. And that's so scary. And I'm in a great position honestly, Joe. I'm so scared for every restaurant employee, especially the Blue Dragon family who are one paycheck away. I have a cook [who] just had a new baby. What is he going to do? I would love to support everyone, of course, but I can't give up $50,000 to every one of my cooks. I don't have the means to do that. And it's just, you have to keep the faith, you have to meditate and you have to try to forget the bad. And honestly, turn off the TV because that just gets worse and worse every day. And when you can, if you're safe with their family, just hug your family. It's just horrific.
Mathieu: Chef Ming Tsai, I want to thank you for sharing your humanity with us.
Tsai: This is the only maybe light at the end of this tunnel: we just have to be kinder. We have to be kinder. We were so divisive; this country was going so bad. And now this may be the glue that'll bring this country — this world — back together. We are human beings. That's it. We are human beings, and we have to be kinder to everyone, our neighbors, at all times. If we do that, believe it or not, that actually may be a better world. We may have a better world two or three years from now. People need to realize that all you have is love, and love only comes from other people. You can love yourself, [but] that doesn't help. You have to love everyone else and hopefully that kindness will start.