The Pivot: How Chef Timon Balloo Is Shifting Gears During the Pandemic

Timon Balloo
Michael Pissari Photography

In late February, Timon Balloo was running Miami’s hottest restaurant, Balloo, an idiosyncratic Caribbean hideaway at the end of an empty hallway on the ground floor of a downtown tower.

“We had great momentum and national accolades,” says the chef. (Disclosure: I reviewed the restaurant favorably for Fortune). “We were very high-spirited, a lot of enthusiasm. Building this restaurant was very sentimental and emotional.”

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Balloo had spent the bulk of his career in more of a corporate dining environment, and this new restaurant represented a return to and embrace of his Trinidadian roots. In other words, it was personal, “and to see it well received and genuinely portrayed was really fulfilling.”

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Balloo closed the restaurant on March 7 for what he thought would be a week. “We were all thinking it would blow over quickly,” he says, “and since we were firing on all cylinders while short-staffed and always in the shit, it was an opportunity to chill for a second. But we slowly started to see snowballs, and soon the effect was, What the fuck just happened to my life?

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The Pivot: It took Balloo two weeks to get all the logistics of pick-up and delivery sorted out. He was hesitant: “I operated these big businesses and I could go the corporate route, but Balloo is so pure, I didn’t want to subject it to that. The room and the hallway, the shock factor is 50 percent of the story of eating here, and if take that out, it’s just food on a plate. I had to digest turning it into a delivery model.”

He’s currently running a limited menu of the restaurant’s iconic dishes like aloo chana, jerk plantains, and charred pumpkin with labneh at lower prices. “The goal is to get food into peoples’ hands for less than 17 bucks.”

It went well at first. “You get a ton of support in weeks one and two, but then reality kicks in, and everyone gets into survival mode. A percentage of society is going through a financial tornado right now, and you can’t just keep going out to eat no matter how much you want to support local business.”

On the supply end, Balloo’s goal is less about making money than breaking even and keeping his mind occupied, “so I don’t become manically fucking depressed.”

A lifeline recently came via Jose Andres, World Central Kitchen, and Frontline Foods. Funded by private donations, the chef and organizations are linking up with local restaurants to purchase meals for hospital workers in Miami. “That’s helping us stay afloat, and keeps our delivery staff employed another week,” Balloo says.

The Future: “I have no plan B or plan C that doesn’t revolve around this industry,” Balloo says. “We applied for every SBA loan, filed for unemployment, deferred all our mortgage and car payments, and nothing yet. It’s sheer uncertainty.” (The Paycheck Protection Act that many restaurants saw as a potential life-saver has already run out of money, with chains like Ruth’s Chris reaping multimillion-dollar forgivable loans and independents left out in the cold.) Florida’s governor has been one of the more cavalier voices in reopening his state’s economy, but Balloo argues, “Even in slow rebound, where occupancy [is staggered] at 25 percent, then 50 percent, we have such a small dining room,” whose seats would be cut from 21 to 11, at best.

Balloo is all about inviting you into our home. How can you come to my house if I can’t even shake your hand?

For Balloo the quandry is existential as well as logistical. “Miami is a Latino culture—our common salutation is a kiss—and the government is telling us we can’t interact. Balloo is all about inviting you into our home. How can you come to my house if I can’t even shake your hand?”

Timon Balloo chickpea
Timon Balloo

Timon Balloo’s Spiced Chicken with Aloo Chana

For the aloo chana:
1 small yellow onion, sliced
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 large Yukon Gold potato, peeled and large diced
1 (15)-ounce can cooked chickpeas
1 tablespoon madras curry powder
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Combine onion, garlic, and potatoes in a pot with enough water to cover, about 3 to 4 cups. Cook covered over medium heat until potatoes are tender but not falling apart, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Uncover and stir in the chickpeas and curry powder. Cook an additional 10 minutes. When ready to serve, lightly smash some of the potatoes and chickpeas to thicken stew to desired consistency and re-season as needed.

For the spiced chicken:
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground black cardamom
1 pound chicken pieces of choice
3 tablespoons full-fat plain yogurt
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Whisk the spices together in a small bowl to make garam masala. Measure out 3 tablespoons and reserve the rest for a future use. Stir together the garam masala, yogurt, salt, and pepper in a medium mixing bowl. Add the chicken and turn to evenly coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the fridge to marinate for at least 2 and up to 12 hours. When ready to cook, heat the oven to 375F and roast the chicken on a foil-lined sheet pan until the meat reaches 165F on an instant-read thermometer. Serve over aloo chana.

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