Complaints about restraurants breaking state and local reopening guidelines have been popping up in recent weeks. Just yesterday the Boston began holding emergency meetings to address large crowds and poor safety enforcement at restaurants across the city. The violations come, however, as restaurants face unprecedented economic challenges because of the pandemic. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Chef Ming Tsai, owner of Blue Dragon in Fort Point, to discuss how the local restaurant community is trying to stay afloat and why he's taking a more cautious approach to protecting his employees and patrons. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: For starters, I know you've not been playing around at Blue Dragon. You're still closed.
Ming Tsai: We are, yeah. Blue Dragon is 80 seats with the bar. But without the bar, because you can have a bar and can't gather, and with the six-foot rule we're like a 30-seat restaurant. You don't need an Excel spreadsheet to figure out not only do you not break even, you lose money.
Mathieu: Well, you told us back in May that this was coming. It's played out essentially the way you thought it would.
Tsai: Yeah, I'm so bummed I was correct. You know, Joe, I don't understand how people are gathering. I was reading the Globe and seeing there's a Chinese restaurant, there's 100 people at this restaurant, there's a secret underground bar. I just don't understand what these people are doing, because if we can't stop this virus, 80 [to] 85 percent of independent restaurants are going to be gone forever. And that's a big deal, Joe. We're talking about tens of millions of people without a job, without another job to go to. I remember we talked about 9/11. 9/11 was horrible, but if you moved out of New York, you could get a job somewhere else. There are no restaurant jobs, and the selfishness of people gathering because they want to have fun is unconscionable, in my opinion. Just unconscionable.
Mathieu: How about the operators? We're talking about your colleagues in some cases, even in your neighborhood. They say, we need to make a living. We need to get our workers to work. And man, that's a tough scenario.
Tsai: It is an incredibly tough scenario. I have 30 employees at Blue Dragon and half of them are under the radar, so they never got an unemployment check or never got a bailout. They have children, they have parents and it's a horrific situation to be in. Plus, they live five to an apartment in East Boston. So many people are so worse off than you are, and I do feel for these operators because if you don't operate, you lose your business. But that's where the government has to jump in and say, "OK, this is a real, real problem of people losing their livelihood and then eventually losing their lives." And it's just unbelievable we don't have leadership that sees this issue. We're waiting for September now potentially for another bailout? There are not going to be restaurants around by September.
Mathieu: The senators went home. You're right, there's no stimulus. And, Ming, you've been pushing for for something more direct: direct aid for restaurants. What are you hearing from politicians when you ask for this?
Tsai: We have an independent restaurant coalition, and it's just stuck in politics. This whole thing is just, if you boil it down, it became a political issue. This is a pandemic. When did a pandemic become a political issue? Pandemic usually is something that the world rallies around and reacts as a country. That didn't happen in the U.S., right? We had so much partisanship, and the mask became a political statement, which is just so absurd. The mask is there to protect not yourself, it's to protect everyone around you. And that's where politics should be put aside.
If you are that selfish and you don't want to make sure everyone around you stays healthy, you need to look in the mirror. It's not a political thing. This is, are you a human being that wants to keep the human race on this planet or not? Period. I don't care who you vote for. This is just about lives. And this is absurdity that we're going to send kids back to school [and] college kids back to college campuses. There's 2,000-plus students and professors in three days in this country that are already tested positive. In three days. And that's high school. Wait until we get to college. We cannot ignore the science. It's like ignoring gravity — Oh, I don't believe in gravity today. You have to. It's there and never will disappear. Just like this virus. You can't put your head in the sand; it just will not disappear. And herd immunity, millions will die before we reach herd immunity. That's not really a solution in my book.
Mathieu: When it comes to the restaurant business, it hit home for a lot of people this week with Thomas Keller closing a restaurant in New York City. This is big money. This is somebody with, I'm assuming, a major amount of backing. What does that say about the mom and pops?
Tsai: Exactly. I mean, T.K. is one of the best, if not the best, chef in this country. So if he can't hack it, that tells you that all those mom and pops can't hack it either. And you are so right, Joe. He has backing. And even with the backing and they said this doesn't make sense because we're hemorrhaging money. And that's the problem.
So it is such a challenge because I so feel it — I'm one of them — we need to open and get our people back. Otherwise, we go out of business. But there's a bigger issue. It's called [COVID-19]. That virus will kill more and more and more people. We just have to shut down this country for four to six weeks. That's what all the science says. Can we just please look at every other country in the world that had it worse off in the beginning and [have] now flattened the curve? We just tried to reopen too soon. We were premature. So admit that mistake [and] shut it down again. It'd be the most painful thing to shut down the country for four to six weeks, I get it, but then we can start bringing it back slowly, brick by brick. But if we just continue at this pace, we're just going to get bricks knocked down until there's no bricks left, and that's just so scary for so many people.
Mathieu: I want to do something a little bit different before you go away, Chef, this morning. I follow you on Twitter, I follow you on Instagram and everywhere else.
Tsai: I follow you too, Joe.
Mathieu: Well, that's awfully nice of you. You've been helping people cook at home. Look, we're all still largely stuck at home, even though some people are going out and misbehaving. How to cook proper rice. It confounds everyone. It sounds simple, but you have been pointing people to the promised land with what you call the Mount Fuji method. Can you take a minute and tell our listeners how to make good rice this weekend?
Mathieu: This is definitely a lighter subject. Ironically, I'm Chinese, but my grandfather taught me the Mount Fuji technique and, of course, he was Chinese. But it's this simple. It doesn't matter how large your pot or pan is because there's big pans or smaller pans, there's rice cookers. They're all the same. You wash your rice a couple times. I used to wash it five times and now it's just a couple of times. You fill the water to Mount Fuji, which is you place your hand lightly on top of the rice and the top of your middle knuckle is what Mount Fuji is. And you fill the [water] to that knuckle, and that's the amount of [water] you need. So if you have a bigger pan or a smaller pan, it doesn't matter. If you cannot get your entire hand in the pan because it's a really small pan and you can't lay flat, then use the first knuckle of your index finger and the water should go up to that first line. That's how much water you need, period. It takes about 20 minutes to bring it to a boil, so for 20 minutes you get a nice little boil going. You turn it down for about 15 to low and then you let it rest for 10. The resting part is key because rice is done after 25 to 30 [minutes], but let it rest and then you have perfect rice.