By Mike Gioscia.
Like everyone in the food service industry, local super chef Stephen Coe had to pivot quickly as the landscape of dining changed overnight when Covid-19 hit. Whether it was your local pizza joint, a high-volume city restaurant, or a banquet facility, every venue everywhere had to learn, on the fly, how to make ends meet in the dreaded “new normal.” Not everyone could just shoot tacos out of a food cannon— but I’m getting ahead of myself. Stephen Coe is always busy. Could it be he was even busier during the pandemic!? How? Well, I caught up with him for an update.
What was happening for you right when Covid hit?
I had just taken over as Executive Chef at Marshfield Country Club, outfitted both of my food trucks (SWAT Culinary Assault and Lobsta Love), and just pulled off a win on Chopped (on The Food Network), literally the week before Covid hit. Everything had fallen into place, I was looking to have a strong summer, and crushing it as a private chef as well as doing ocean dinners. There were chef competitions booked, food truck festivals…it was going to be a good year.
So then Covid hits, and the industry doesn’t even understand the full weight of the impact of what’s to come. How did you adjust?
The event business collapsed completely. Eighty-two events for us, canceled just like that. But my team is awesome, so we round-tabled quickly, and we set up a curbside system overnight. I launched Scuba Eats, which was originally supposed to be for a boat-side delivery service starting last summer. I turned that into a delivery system to people’s homes. We launched on Easter. No one knew what to do exactly, everyone was afraid to go out. Our food trucks were delivering, our team was delivering. Then I started taking over restaurants that were closing down and taking on their staff. I also worked with some restaurants to help showcase their menu items along with ours. So, I kept people working, and we had a good time doing it.
You pivoted quickly and mostly seamlessly. Do you think it was easier for you because you’re someone who always has a lot going on? You’re used to spinning many plates?
I didn’t want to give up that easily. I’m always looking for new opportunities. That’s where the TV show Dangerous Eats came from. Might as well go wrestle alligators in the bayou! We’re filming that cause there’s nothing else going on! The show concept started with ocean dinners on Brown’s Bank Beach in Plymouth and local oyster farms. People were blown away by the experience, so somebody thought it would be a good idea to follow us with a camera crew. We captured start to finish, starting on the lobster boat, then we went to the oyster farm, then brought them both together for a beach dinner on Brown’s Bank. That turned out well, so sure, let’s make a TV show out of this! “Dangerous Eats” was a good title—for instance just for the oyster bed you have two hours to harvest, timed to the minute (you could drown if you mistime it), there was a shark sighting, lightning. Then one of our partners’ families has acreage in New Orleans; it’s an alligator farm, so we went there and shot, turned out very well. Next thing we were hunting wild boar out of a helicopter. It went from a one-off for fun to a TV pilot (Edible: Dangerous Eats is currently still finishing production and looking for a media home).
While there were certainly challenges in the business because of Covid, there seem to be opportunities to look at how things work, not just in the culinary sense, and to make things better, maybe more efficient even, utilizing different ideas.
Absolutely! We took advantage of the virtual. We did cooking classes, we used the Chopped concept where we shipped a mystery basket of ingredients out to clients, then we Zoomed together for a team-building competition, good for neighborhood get-togethers too, or couples competing against each other. It was fun.
You’re always helping out in the community as well. What did you have going on with Mayflower Brewery in Plymouth?
We had a great four-course beer dinner, where each course had a beer pairing. We had a dinner with other local chefs and restaurants, like The Speedwell Tavern in Plymouth, Union Straw in Foxborough—they all did a course with a Mayflower pairing, and we all Zoomed in. Each course, the chef got to talk about their restaurant, Mayflower could talk about their beer, then people plated their own food and we ate together. It brought everybody a touch of community.
With the economy opening up, what advice do you have for restaurants to get people back?
You really have to hustle hard. Use social media, marketing, anything you can do to keep open and going. I don’t have a brick-and-mortar restaurant of my own, but I keep things fresh. We did a “Taco Tuesday” where we shot tacos to people at their homes, socially distanced from 60 feet! My kids (ages 8, 10, 12) loved that! I mean, what kid wouldn’t want to help with that? And we gave back by feeding the frontline employees, going to police and fire departments on the South Shore and South Coast. We worked with local Chambers of Commerce and local businesses to feed the first responders in Dartmouth, New Bedford, Swansea, Fall River, Plymouth. And we’ll keep on doing that. We paid it forward with local hospitals as well, taking the food trucks out and giving out meals.
What can people do who haven’t maybe been out in a while? What can the public do to support local eateries?
Every meal matters. take-out, curbside, delivery. And when you do go into an establishment, remember there are different systems in place, so please be patient. Don’t fly off the handle if things take a bit longer. Less capacity means less staff. Understand that and be positive. People are working so hard just to stay open. Owners were at 20% capacity but with 100% bills.
So, 2021 is already quite busy for you. What else do you have coming up?
I have two cookbooks coming out, each named after my food trucks: one is Lobsta Love and the other is S.W.A.T. Culinary Assault, look for those this year. And I’m retrofitting the site where my wife Katie and I got married, on 22 acres in Plymouth, into an outdoor “dining under the stars” experience. We’ll break ground soon.
If you needed any further proof that not only are things in the restaurant community opening up, but there are new, exciting opportunities for those who are ready to dream big and take some chances, just picture Stephen Coe—when he’s not at Marshfield Country Club—cooking for a private beach party, or on TV, or shooting tacos out of a “taco launcher.” Smile, and realize the sky is the limit in this new culinary world.
Chef Coe shared an original recipe with us: Shaved Melon Summer Salad. He makes the best of luscious summer produce in this sumptuous salad.
Mike Gioscia is Vice President of The Soule Homestead farm in Middleboro and Executive Director of nonprofit Plymouth Rocks Events, and he can be heard on his Americanarama radio show Thursdays at 10 pm on 95.9 WATD.