Carlos Salgado always seems ready to offer his strong opinions on Twitter. The chef of Costa Mesa’s Michelin-starred Taco Maria, one of Orange County’s most acclaimed restaurants, hasn’t been holding back with the timing of dining room reopenings amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Orange County announced restaurant dining rooms could reopen in late May in a surprise announcement despite increasing COVID-19 cases and deaths, and Salgado says that’s way too fast. “Taco Maria will be part of the solution, not the problem” he said on Twitter the day of the reopening announcement.
County officials cited a 7.95 percent infection rate, just below the state’s mandated 8 percent threshold, as well as a slow 0.91 percent increase in hospitalizations as evidence that the area was ready to allow businesses to open to the public again. Though some restaurants jumped at the opportunity to reopen their dining rooms, other operators weren’t as willing. In this interview, Salgado discusses why he’s choosing to keep his Costa Mesa restaurant closed for dine-in service, and when he thinks it’ll be the right time to finally bring back a more refined dinner experience.
On when Taco Maria might be ready to open its dining room: In my view it’s premature to set any dates beyond being purely speculative. Orange County is a bit more dispersed, not quite as dense as LA or other major food cities. Even still, what I see is an alarming and frankly discouraging rush to reopen. Political divide may be the reason why. For my part, the priority is the staff, their livelihoods, and the safety of their families.
On why he’s taking such a strong stance: I want to influence our peers and remain leaders. It’s my personal, strongly-held view that restaurant dining rooms should not open until we see the following things happen. Short of a vaccine, which would accelerate things, I won’t open until I see widespread, accessible testing as well as effective therapeutic treatments to reduce mortality and suffering. If not, we’ll either have lost lives or lost sales.
On the experience Salgado and his staff have had with COVID-19: I’ve seen it second-hand in our communities. Thankfully it hasn’t touched us yet, though we had some scares within our larger circles. I know how debilitating and frightening that can be for families. We’re not willing to risk it.
On how Taco Maria has managed during the pandemic closures: We’ve had the privilege to keep it closed because the restaurant had been in a financially successful place for a period. Despite hurdles and a poorly managed roll out, we were able to get PPP money. My instinct tells me I’m doing the right thing by not succumbing to community pressures.
On the difficulties of operating as a takeout restaurant: I see people without PPE trying to open our doors. They see us in masks and gloves, but they’re frustrated that we don’t have any hot food on site. I want to be part of the solution. I’ll continue to do no-contact, prepared food to eat at home until those markers (mentioned above) are met.
On preparing for a months-long lockdown scenario: We kept many people employed, did some deep cleaning, repairs, and remodeling. We continued to develop recipes and overhauled our entire model. None of the food we were doing before the lockdown was appropriate for taking home. We were preparing for the long play. I consider myself a man of science. All the indicators suggest that with relaxing preventative measures, we’re going to see a larger outbreak after the summer. I trust the scientists and doctors.
I want to be fully prepared financially but also for the job security of the staff and myself. Many of us have members of our households that are compromised. Every day I wake up with the conversation, are we doing the right thing? I’m firm in my believe that unless we see a number of systemic improvements in testing, treatment, therapy, and/or a vaccine, then I will continue to protect my circle.
On the plight of fine dining in a post-coronavirus world: There are things that make fine dining luxurious, evocative, and satisfying. I think ingredients, care of preparation, cultural relevance of the dishes you choose to make — those things don’t change. The quality of the food and ingredients is the same. My goal is to get more emails from people who said it was really nice to have Taco Maria in our home again. The presentation and food is well-suited to eat at home. We have a number of items that evoke the luxury and excitement of a place they’re fond of, like a jar of Mexican-inspired pickles.
I think that ‘fine dining’ or ‘fine hospitality’ doesn’t need to go away. As a ‘fine dining’ restaurant, I still see it as being a part of my work, my responsibility, to create an uplifting and memorable experience. The traditional model of swarming people with fine details and service while exposing ourselves — I don’t think that’s appropriate right now.
In terms of what place fine dining has in the medium-to-long term, a lot of stuff you see playing out as a result of the virus, the massive income and class disparities. Restaurants are a place, a lens to project those disparities. The virus is focusing that even further. I don’t want to be the kind of place where — after middle class incomes are ravaged and the rich are getting richer, and working class people are putting themselves at risk and getting poorer — my food is inaccessible to people who look like me or come from similar backgrounds. As much as I value the accolades and notoriety, I think socially and politically, we’re a ways off from being able to indulge in that kind of cultural extravagance.