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Reflections From an Out-of-Work Pizzaiolo

The shutdown may be a time to catch up on sleep, but nothing beats the visceral pleasure of being in the kitchen.

Lee, a pizza maker at Paulie Gee’s in Logan Square   Photo: Davida Marthenze

Like many, my job is in a state of hibernation and I don’t know when it’ll wake back up. 

I’m a pizza maker at Paulie Gee’s Logan Square, part of an industry hit by a tidal wave of uncertainty that’s only growing steeper by the day. While we briefly offered delivery and takeout when the dine-in ban started, we ultimately decided to shut down and ride the current until this is over.

On a normal night, you’d see us in our open kitchen, stretching small round balls of sticky dough and transforming them into discs (which you might see one of my more talented coworkers toss in the air if they’re feeling cheeky). One of us would ladle sauce onto the dough, another would sprinkle cheese and toppings, and yet another would launch the pies off a long metal peel into the cavernous, blazing wood-fired oven. In a separate kitchen, we’d be knocking out crisp, puffy, lacily cheese-crusted Detroit-style pizza.

I don’t consider myself a chef or a maker of fancy food in any way. But there is a specific joy in making pizza, which is why I love my job so much. I get to see people smile the instant that pizza tray lands on a table. 

The thought of being out and about right now during this pandemic seems unfathomably irresponsible, so my fiancée and I have holed up in our small apartment, finding comfort in each other. Other cooks I know feel cooped up, lacking direction and a place to focus their creative and physical energy. 

One thing I’m discovering during shelter-in-place is just how tired I’d been. Even now, after multiple weeks, I feel like I’m still catching up on rest. Thankfully, we’re always finding reasons to laugh, and we’ve got an abundance of video games and movies to stream. Plus, the cats get all the attention they want.

I miss my coworkers more than anything, our stubbornly ragtag group of misfits hunched around a test pizza, giving each other feedback, or commiserating at the restaurant bar over drinks after a hard shift. We’re doing our best by texting each other daily, video calling, and playing online games. But we all share that same unspoken restlessness of needing to be at the restaurant, moving swiftly together.

Maybe I was naïve to think that our restaurant’s steadily rising success would have led to more job security. But this situation is unlike anything we could have ever imagined. A lot of people in the industry live paycheck to paycheck, and with very few definitive answers surrounding unemployment, I can feel panic collectively setting in. There’s been a flood of GoFundMe pages, which have been a boon for the lucky ones, but donations can’t replace a job or career.

As a group, Paulie Gee’s Logan Square has a slightly different approach: We’re making instructional videos so you can see the crew cooking and goofing off, and if you’d like to donate, the link is available below each video. Derrick Tung, the owner of the restaurant, took money from his own salary to distribute it among the entire staff when we decided to lock up until further notice. I can’t remember the last time I had a boss who would have even thought about that kind of sacrifice. 

My personal unemployment insurance finally kicked in, so I’ve received my first payment, which was less than half of my usual paycheck. For me, the application process was relatively painless, probably due to luck and early timing; my fiancée’s unemployment is being held up and has been for weeks now, with no word back from the state. If she doesn’t qualify, I don’t want to think about what may happen.

But beyond the blur that is shelter-in-place (what day is it again?), I’m stubbornly optimistic, even though I know that this is going to be a longer haul than we hoped for. Not everyone is looking on the bright side, and there’ll be businesses that won’t make it. It’s devastating to think about. 

There’ll be pizza again; that’s not a question. The question is when?

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