Metro Detroit Food Entrepreneurs Turn to Video During the Pandemic

What’s a food entrepreneur to do when the kitchen’s closed for business? Prop a camera on the counter and hit record.

Wait, are you a TV personality now? I looked down from a perch in my dining room to find this text from a friend in early May. At that moment, I was waiting in the virtual greenroom for a morning segment on WXYZ-TV live via Zoom. Otherwise a social media hermit, that week, I had shared photos of four new recipes I’d developed on Instagram, hosted two segments of Happy Hour, Hour Detroit’s weekly virtual cocktail-making series, and made two television appearances to promote the series. I laughed at the message quietly and placed my phone on silent just in time for producers to test my audio.

Pre-pandemic, my role as the magazine’s dining editor required less face time with the outside world. Each month, I critiqued meals at restaurants under a cloak of anonymity. But with dine-in services temporarily suspended, my role has taken a new shape, catapulting me into a spotlight I didn’t see coming — though I can’t say I mind much. Happy Hour has dualed as a way to engage with Hour Detroit followers and to encourage viewers to support a bar scene struggling to weather the toll of the crisis. It has also given me something to look forward to during an otherwise monotonous period. Pretty quickly, swiping on red lipstick before our 5 p.m. streams eased me out of the doldrums of stretchy pants and ponytails.

The crisis has pushed us all to create virtual adaptations of our former lives. More specifically, our gravitation to video formats underscores the human need for visual connection and interaction. Phone calls have become FaceTimes and conference calls have turned to Google video chats.

Video has become an especially useful crutch in the food and beverage space. An industry that centers on togetherness has struggled to coexist with social distancing regulations, but video platforms have become great unifiers. “Because we’re a retail store, we’re technically labeled as an essential business,” says Regina Gaines, owner of House of Pure Vin. Throughout the duration of the lockdown, the downtown Detroit wine shop opened with limited business hours thrice weekly. “But we’re an experiential space, so we’re not able to do a lot of the things we’d typically do in order to sell wine.” Among those things is the shop’s Wine Tastings On-Demand, an event series that guides guests through different wine varietals. In the interim, Gaines turned to Zoom to host weekly virtual wine tastings led by sommelier Shelley Bynum. “It was about giving people an opportunity to understand the basics of wine tastings,” Gaines says. Even if they can’t come to us, our customers can go to the grocery store during this time and know how to select a great bottle of wine.”

For some, like Gaines, the transition to video is hardly motivated by financial gain. All virtual events at House of Pure Vin are gratis for participants. “My customers have been loyal to me. I wanted to create something, even just for one hour, that could take their mind off of what we’re going through.”

Mabel Gray Chef James Rigato leads a lesson on making the most of a whole duck for nearly 90 viewers in early May.

In other cases, revenue from virtual events has helped sustain businesses during this time. At Mabel Gray, Executive Chef James Rigato has adapted traditional in-person cooking lessons to virtual lessons hosted live on Zoom. “Typically, when I would do cooking lessons in the past, it was like a side hustle,” he says. In previous years, Rigato has taught classes at Schoolcraft College as well as private residences. “Now, the cooking lessons are 100 percent to the business’ bottom line. I plan on them being a substantial part of the business model moving forward.”

For $150, participants are enrolling in an interactive experience with Rigato, an award-winning, James Beard-nominated, Top Chef-approved chef whose core motivation is to offer an education on the food system. “As we’re hearing about food shortages, I’ve been pushing people to entertain the idea of different proteins that they wouldn’t cook at home,” he says, touting an upcoming class on whole duck butchery. “With all of the restaurants shut down, the production of duck is very strong, and farmers are practically begging people to buy them. So, I have the ability to teach people how to cook duck as well as support my vendors and farmers in the food system.”

A day before the lesson, guests will arrange contactless, curbside pickup of a full meal kit at Mabel Gray. The day of the lesson, they’re provided a Zoom link, where Rigato shares a step-by-step live tutorial for preparing the meal, plus information on where to find a corresponding playlist for the event, curated by the chef himself. “It’s as much Mabel Gray as we can pack into a virtual home experience,” he says.

LenaSarehini video pandemic selden standard
Pastry Chef Lena Sareini broadcasts her bubly personality and easy-to-follow recipes in a new YouTube series.

For Lena Sareini, pastry chef at Selden Standard, it was simply a years-long desire that inspired the launch of Cooking at Home with Lena Sareini, a YouTube channel where she broadcasts lessons on cooking like a pro from the comfort of your own kitchen. “I always wanted to start a YouTube channel but never really had the time,” she says, now racking up more than 1,000 views per video. “The pandemic gave me nothing but time.”

With Selden Standard temporarily closed in compliance with social distancing mandates (at press time, it was preparing for a late-June reopening), Sareini says her channel allows her to remain connected with diners who’ve grown fond of her fresh breads and rotating desserts. “Even though I’m not doing anything in the kitchen right now, I don’t want people to forget about the stuff that goes on in my life,” she says. “I’m still trying to keep current and fresh.”

Video ventures can consume hours between filming, editing, and posting, and often require an extra set of hands. Behind the scenes, the stars of the show rely on a supporting cast of siblings and spouses, children, and partners. For Gaines, it’s her college-aged daughter, whom she considers her glam squad. Sam, Rigato’s girlfriend and sous chef, films each lesson and helps facilitate the Q&A portion of the live recordings. Sareini leans on her fiancé for editing support.

And Zingerman’s Cornman Farms Executive Chef Kieron Hales welcomes a heartwarming sous chef to his Instagram Live series, Kieron’s Kitchen — his 7-year-old son, Henry, the inspiration behind the series.

“One of the things I got a little obsessive about over the years was cooking with kids,” Hales says. “We were so busy in our business, we didn’t have any bandwidth to do it, but now we do.”

In keeping with the familial thread, Hales, an English native, showcases recipes passed down from his mother in his “British Classics” series. “I’m trying to do things I really love and share with people the things that my mom did to make our family happy.” Ironically, even in socially distant times, Detroit’s culinary industry is nothing if not collaborative.