T he global spread of the coronavirus changed the way many companies, government institutions and other organizations do business overnight.
The virus’ impact has been especially felt by restaurants, which were forced to shutter and move to a take-out-only platform early on in the pandemic.
In Arizona, restaurants have been permitted to reopen, though an order by Gov. Doug Ducey has limited their occupancy to 50%.
And, as with many restaurants, the pandemic has altered some things at the Robson Ranch Grill in Eloy.
Jay Ganzhorn is the executive chef at Robson Ranch Grill. A Certified Executive Chef through the American Culinary Federation, Ganzhorn previously served as the executive sous chef at Quail Creek in Green Valley — one of several Robson Communities around Arizona.
Though he studied music education with the hopes of making it big in the music industry, Ganzhorn discovered at the age of 27 that he had another talent — working in kitchens.
“I saw things like Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network and that there was more to food than what I was doing at the time,” Ganzhorn said. “That’s kind of what inspired me to go to culinary school and to really dive into what I’m doing now.”
Now, he is the head chef at the grill during a trying time for many restaurants.
From the perspective of a chef, the most difficult thing about the pandemic has been adapting to the rapid changes inspired by national and statewide efforts to curb the spread of the virus, Ganzhorn said.
Additional challenges also presented themselves, especially in the early stages. The Robson Ranch Grill was among the restaurants that continued to provide take-out to customers when restaurants were asked to close their dining rooms in March.
Presentation, Ganzhorn noted, is an important component to his dishes. Maintaining the same quality in plating for take-out orders, however, proved difficult.
“When we plate (food), we plate it because we want you to be able to see it visually, because you eat with your eyes first,” he said. “Obviously when food goes out for take-out, it kind of gets bounced around and it doesn’t always look as nice.”
Within in the kitchen, however, not as much has changed.
“Our industry is kind of unique in the first place,” Ganzhorn said. “We’re not like a store where you go in to buy a T-shirt — what we produce is actually going in people’s bodies. So we’ve always had to take that second (step) of making sure what we’re doing is done properly and safe.”
Under normal circumstances, he noted, the nature of the job has always required chefs to take measures to ensure proper food safety, which has traditionally included wearing gloves and making sure food is cooked to the proper temperature.
“We may tend to sanitize a little more often than before, but it’s always been (about) making sure that you’re sanitizing everything, that you’re keeping everything clean (and) making sure your temperatures are all correct,” he said.
But some measures are completely new to the kitchen.
“One of the biggest differences is wearing the masks, and that’s something that you get used to,” he said. “We understand the use and the need for it, so we’re happy to do it, but that’s probably our biggest thing.”
Efforts to keep customers safe are being made at the front of the house as well. Many restaurants like the Robson Grill are doing their part to encourage customers to social distance and regularly sanitize commonly touched areas such as tables, chairs and silverware.
But even with those efforts, Ganzhorn noted that when it comes to customers determining whether or not to dine out, what it comes down to is comfort level.
“We want people to come back — we really do,” he said. “But you have to take that personal comfort level (into consideration). If you’re not comfortable, please by all means, order take-out.”
The idea, he noted, is less about where customers enjoy their meal and more about supporting the businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic.
“Just do your best to support the local business,” he said. “We will constantly continue to do everything in our power to make sure that everything that comes out of our kitchens is safe, is flavorful, is tempting to your eye — the whole bit.”
Looking ahead, even after COVID-19 becomes a thing of the past, some of the changes made by restaurants and other industries may live on.
COVID-19 has brought a heightened sense of awareness to his kitchen, Ganzhorn noted, which will continue even when the spread of the virus is stemmed.
“We have to always be aware — making sure that things are done properly,” he said.
The responsibility, Ganzhorn said, falls to head chefs specifically — something he has become reacquainted with as he has spent more time in the kitchen during the pandemic.
When restaurants were asked to move to a take-out-only platform early on in the pandemic, Ganzhorn said he found himself having to spend more time in the kitchen in light of a reduced workforce.
The change may have proved to be one of the better results that arose from a less than ideal situation.
“I think that was one of the best things in my opinion that it did — if there can be a ‘best thing’ in this situation,” he said. “It required us to get behind the stove again — and that was a good thing.” PW