Inside the Times: What It’s Like Embedding in a Restaurant for Three Months

From a Times Insider column by Gary He headlined “Embedding in a Restaurant for Months”:

On a chilly Saturday in early December, I stood on a corner on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, snapping photos of a restaurant across the street. A pack of intoxicated men dressed as Santa Claus, participating in an annual costumed bar crawl, stumbled into my frame. I gave chase with my camera, trying to line them up for a photo.

It was my first day making pictures for a photo essay for The New York Times. The article was not about the drunk Santas, but the restaurant behind them.

Two weeks earlier, a photo editor from The Times, Crista Chapman, reached out to see if I’d be interested in embedding in a restaurant for three months. A new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, had begun to spread overseas, and she wanted to bring the reader inside a restaurant at the very moment a Covid curveball might hit — again.

After two years of covering restaurants in New York during the pandemic, however, I was exhausted — and in denial about Omicron. But despite my hesitations, I had a candidate in mind with a good hook. Saigon Social, a Vietnamese restaurant, opened in March 2020, missing the cutoff to receive federal relief, but had somehow survived to this point. I was familiar with the owner and head chef, Helen Nguyen. She is close friends with Kim Hoang from Di An Di, a Brooklyn restaurant that I documented in a similar fashion for the past two years.

At first, I wasn’t sure there would even be a story. Most Omicron cases were mild, and, although business at the restaurant was slowing down, it was not coming to a standstill.

But less than two weeks later, the positivity rate of Covid tests in the city doubled in just 72 hours. Businesses began to shut down. The streets were empty. The scene was starting to look eerily similar to that of winter 2020.

That’s when I began to see how Ms. Nguyen and Saigon Social would adapt to survive. A visit to document Ms. Nguyen as she prepared meals for seniors turned into something much more: When I arrived, she was on the phone with her business partners, preparing to close her dining room until the Omicron wave subsided.

By the end of the day, Ms. Nguyen had traded shots of Fernet Branca to her neighbors for at-home testing kits. Her entire team tested negative, but she still closed down, to protect their health. Saigon Social reverted to an early pandemic survival tactic: takeout and delivery. It felt like last winter all over again. My editor had been right.

Ms. Nguyen was overwhelmed and became too busy to reply consistently to my messages. So I began visiting the restaurant more regularly, often unannounced — every three days on average over the course of the three-month project. Sometimes, it was for a few minutes just to get an update. Once, I waited outside in a bomb cyclone for an hour for Ms. Nguyen to arrive and open the gates, since I knew that would be a powerful image. I wanted to understand how the restaurant operated in a time of crisis; I wanted to capture moments of both uncertainty and resolve.

To do that, I needed each photo to be authentic. So much of restaurant coverage is micromanaged by a powerful group of public relations firms, so Ms. Nguyen and the rest of the staff had to get used to the idea of not posing for pictures, to just letting me be a fly on the wall. Eventually, the regularity of my visits, and my tactic to sometimes silently stand in a corner for hours and just observe without shooting a single frame, seemed to prove to them that I was serious about capturing the reality of their situation. The running joke among the staff became “Gary doesn’t exist.”

Over the next few weeks, the puzzle pieces of the story began to come together. The Omicron surge exacerbated supply chain problems and staff shortages; these pandemic struggles could now be easily visualized for readers through one restaurant.

The biggest concern, of course, was the threat of people at the restaurant getting sick themselves. Throughout my coverage, I wore a mask and wondered who would be the first person regularly inside Saigon Social to test positive for the coronavirus.

That person ended up being me. (Talk about an embed.) It made me realize that not only have these restaurants adapted to supply shortages and shutdowns, but workers have had to put everything on the line for two years to keep their businesses afloat. The feature, I hope, shows readers their struggles — and their resilience.

Gary He is a photojournalist and writer based in New York City. He has been recognized twice by the James Beard Foundation for his innovative storytelling in food media.


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