Within days of the coronavirus landing in Dallas, Homewood had a plan to help not just itself but its suppliers. The restaurant is serving family-style meals to go in enormous bags, and it’s also selling boxes of produce fresh from local farms, containing fruits, veggies, eggs and slabs of meat.
What’s most impressive about the rapid response is that Homewood’s chef, Matt McCallister, was in Japan the whole time this plan was coming together.
“All this crazy stuff is happening and I’m on the other side of the world,” McCallister says. “Halfway through our vacation, I’m on a call with my business partner saying, 'OK, I guess we have to lay everyone off.'”
McCallister had planned his big family trip last year around a series of bucket-list restaurant reservations and visits to culinary landmarks such as the Tsukiji Fish Market. But in between tourist jaunts, he found himself on a series of conference calls with colleagues back home, planning a family-style takeout menu that is considerably less cheffy than the high-end food he usually serves.
As many restaurants shut down or canceled orders, local farms took a huge hit, watching revenue sail out the door. Cattle ranches slowed down beef processing; Jeff Bednar, of Profound Microfarms, advertised a clearance rate on garnishes on Facebook.
“Some days I’m like, fuck, this is fucking stupid. Some days I’m like, cool, let’s keep this good thing going.” — Matt McCallister
McCallister saw a way to help. He ordered meat from local farmers to cook and sell in big, family-style takeout bags. And he organized big produce boxes of locally farmed goods, available via pre-order and sold retail at the restaurant.
Dinner has been a success, but the farmer’s boxes ($55 each) are an even bigger hit. During the first week, they sold out completely. Now Homewood is ramping up purchasing to sell, eventually, at least 150 of the boxes each week. McCallister is considering augmenting them with an “upgrade” package, for more money, which will include goods from Homewood’s own pantry.
“I’m going to be expanding the farmer’s box,” he says. “We’re going to have an upgrade for it, with a loaf of sourdough or focaccia or [pastry chef Maggie Huff] made some whole wheat Pullman bread. Some chicken stock, a quarter pound of salumi, some of our sauerkraut, freshly extruded pasta, maybe a slab of our house-made bacon, we’re making bratwurst, probably some Italian sausage. It’ll change as we go. You have multiple meals you can prepare out of it over the course of a few days.”
A few hours later, he posted details of the new offering on Instagram.
McCallister sees a silver lining in the popularity of the farmer’s boxes.
“Everybody wants to buy local now,” he says. “It takes a whole pandemic and the whole country to shut down for people to not give a fuck about what they pay for high-quality local produce. Maybe out of this people will gain a little appreciation for that.”
Ordering my chicken was a bit challenging. The menu is on Homewood’s website, but ordering instructions are on Instagram. Here they are: Send the restaurant an email, around lunchtime if possible. For every two people you’re feeding, choose one course and build a four-course, family-style menu. Be aware that, because this feeds two people, the total is going to be $80, not the advertised $40.
Yes, $80 is a lot of money for a roasted chicken and a big bag of side dishes. But, first of all, that chicken is incredible. Second, we stretched Homewood’s bag to at least three meals each for two people, because the chicken comes with a hearty salad, a punch-in-the-face garlicky and vinegary tub of greens, a bread course (choose the rolls over the garlic bread) and a bowl of butter and cheese that has some grits mixed into it.
And, of course, you can pick meat off the chicken carcass for sandwiches as we did, and then use the bones to add flavor to a stock or soup.
The menu is changing soon; McCallister promises a meatloaf with ketchup he made after buying up a local farmer’s extra haul of beets. That kind of Chopped approach to family-style cooking will continue to inform the restaurant’s decisions — as it should inform cooks at home during an age of quarantine and limited supply.
As much as Homewood seems to have figured out a profitable short-term solution — the restaurant recently rehired much of its staff to handle takeout demand and wants to bring back the rest — the business is really still in the same state as everyone else: uncertainty and confusion, looking for answers one day at a time.
McCallister is convinced that answers won’t come from authority figures.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he explains. “I was reading through this $2 trillion shit [stimulus passed by Congress]. Where do we get helped? I see all this bullshit where other people get helped. All we do is pull a loan, which just gives us another thing we’re going to pay interest on. That doesn’t fucking help. I read some of the fine lines, if you keep people on payroll it becomes a grant, if you meet the conditions.
“We already have enough shit going on that I almost would rather figure out how to make do with what we have and not have to deal with applying for a bunch of shit.”
So the restaurant charges forward on its own. McCallister is watching what his industry colleagues are doing; he notes in conversation that Lucia and Macellaio recently closed down temporarily after attempting to make a carryout business work.
Is Homewood’s model the right one? Was Lucia smart to close? Truth is, most chefs don’t know either. They’re debating the same questions themselves.
Or, as McCallister puts it: “Some days I’m like, fuck, this is fucking stupid. Some days I’m like, cool, let’s keep this good thing going. I think I’ve gone through both those moods a couple times already today.”