Food & Wine

Cooking in a COVID World: Former Tech Company Chefs Are Serving Up Their Own Food Ventures

By Carolyn Jung

Sandwich photo by NICK MAR and NICHOLAS TERRY.

Arif Mehmood once had what he considered an enviable life as a corporate chef. He earned a $120,000 salary overseeing breakfast, lunch and dinner services for the Bay Area offices of ByteDance and First Republic Bank. He also set up splashy new Silicon Valley tech cafes, and even cooked alongside Wolfgang Puck every year at the celebrity-studded Governors Ball in Los Angeles.

But the pandemic upended all of that. Gone are the comfortable paycheck, paid vacation time and company-provided health care. Now, Mehmood, 48, toils in the kitchen of his Pleasanton home, cooking Turkish stuffed tomatoes and Indian chicken tandoori for his own meal delivery service, Dill Healthy, that’s barely profitable.

Like many other Bay Area food industry professionals, Mehmood, a former manager and cook at Mountain View’s Amber India, had traded the onerous ultracompetitive restaurant world for the allure of a corporate one that dangled higher wages; stock options; nights, weekends and holidays off; and the promise of a better work-life balance for those with families or, in his case, a wife who suffered a stroke while pregnant with their son.

With corporate offices closed, Arif Mehmood launched Dill Healthy, a meal delivery service focused on heart-healthy global cuisine. (MIKE RASMUSSEN)

Yet when Silicon Valley companies sent employees home to work at the start of shelter-in-place, the need for one of the most coveted workplace perks — on-site gourmet cafes with free or subsidized food — vanished just like that. Many tech companies continued to contract out for boxed lunches or dinner kits, often provided by large food service operators such as the Compass Group, where Mehmood was a regional operations manager. But with no date set for the return of workers to offices, that situation grew increasingly untenable. As a result, Mehmood was laid off in October, joining the ranks of other chefs who once found stability in the corporate cafe world, now forced to reinvent themselves with their own precarious startups.

“I’m hoping Dill Healthy will get to the point where it can sustain our family,” says Mehmood, who also supports his mother, a COVID-19 survivor, in India. Because his father passed away from heart disease at a young age, he forgoes butter, cream and red meat in his heat-and-eat meals. Some days, he gets nine customers; other days, four. He considers himself a realist. “If I got a call tomorrow from the Compass Group, and they said, ‘We’re opening up again; can you join?’ I would do it.”

For Vincent Attali, however, there are no illusions about going back. For three years, he was executive pastry chef for LinkedIn in Sunnyvale before getting laid off in July. With pastries considered nonessentials, he knew his job would be among the first to go and the last to return.

Vincent Attali, former executive pastry chef for LinkedIn, created The French Spot — a pastry and bread startup that has been popping up twice a week with delectables like chocolate hazelnut mochi croissants and mango passion tarts — with the help of his wife, Maria Zapata. (Photo by TONY CHUNG)

So, Attali — a veteran of illustrious establishments such as Mourad in San Francisco, Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas and Daniel in New York — launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising nearly $22,000. With that, he started The French Spot, a wholesale bakery and subscription pop-up.

With help from his wife, graphic designer Maria Zapata, and baker Tony Miller, who owns the Belmont commercial kitchen that he utilizes, Attali, 39, now bakes hundreds of chocolate hazelnut mochi croissants, mango passion tarts and pretzel baguettes for two pop-ups weekly as well as retail client Nirvana Soul cafe in San Jose, whose co-owner was a LinkedIn barista.

Attali actually started his pop-ups at LinkedIn. Although meals there were free for employees, he would sell take-home pastries, breads and holiday treats, garnering three dozen customers at a time. Some of them continue to buy from him now.

While his dream is to open a brick-and-mortar bakery on the Peninsula, he has a fallback if need be: His father, also a pastry chef, is opening a restaurant in Utah and would love to have his son do all the baking.

“I’m just putting one foot in front of the next, hoping it will get me somewhere,” Attali says. “The pandemic taught many of us that we all have that drive to get things done.”

His former colleague Martin Nguyen knows that feeling all too well. Nguyen, 41, was also laid off in July from his job as a cafe chef at LinkedIn. Nguyen, who worked previously in hotels and restaurants, now works more hours than ever with the launch of his Kraving Foods meal delivery service.

Each week, for his changing menu of Mexican, Vietnamese and Japanese specialties, he does it all: shopping for ingredients; making a test batch for photos in social media (which he never used before); prepping the actual meals; and then cooking, portioning and packaging it all at a Newark commercial kitchen. He delivers all the food, driving hundreds of miles each week to customers in San Francisco and on the Peninsula on Saturday, and to the East Bay and South Bay on Sunday.

“I’m just breaking even now,” he says. “But it gives me a reason to wake up every morning.”

Then there is Mel Canares, a true rarity. After getting laid off in August, the former corporate chef at Genentech in South San Francisco started a once-a-week fried chicken sandwich pop-up at his home. In one Sunday now, he clears more than he did in two weeks at Genentech.

“I am closed every day except Sunday,” says Canares, 27. “I joke that I am the opposite of Chick-fil-A.”

He started the business on a lark in November, selling not only the fried chicken sandwich but chicken adobo-style tacos and plates of sisig with garlic rice — until he realized that for a one-man operation, it made more sense to simplify.
He went all in on the fried chicken sandwich. Early on, strangers would wait in his South San Francisco living room while he busied himself in the kitchen, frying each seasoned buttermilk-brined chicken thigh, dredged in whole wheat flour, before slathering on homemade adobo aioli sauce and piling on tangy jalapeño-cilantro-cabbage slaw on the brioche bun.

When it took off beyond his wildest dreams, he set up two fryers in his backyard. Every Sunday now, he sells 300 sandwiches at $10 a pop for customers who drive from as far away as Petaluma. They contact him through Instagram to order, then are instructed to call when 30 minutes away to assure they get their sandwiches hot.

“This is not my cash cow; it’s my cash chicken,” he says. “A culinary renaissance is happening. From selling cookies to meal prepping, I respect everyone’s hustle now.”

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