The Pivot: How Chef Tyler Akin Is Shifting Gears During the Pandemic

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Neal Santos

In February, Philadelphia-based chef and restaurateur Tyler Akin had three successful establishments under his belt—two locations of his pho bar, Stock, and Res Ipsa, a daytime café that transforms into a destination for pastas at night—and a fourth on the way, the reimagining of the historic Green Room at the tony Hotel DuPont in Akin’s hometown of Wilmington, DE.

“It was relatively smooth sailing, with systems and staff that really cares in place to afford me the opportunity to explore other projects [like] the DuPont,” says Akin. “This was by far my biggest project to date—I’ve been working on it for two years now.” Then the pandemic hit, and everything screeched to a halt like a car in need of new brakes.

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The Pivot:

Akin went against the take-out trends and immediately closed his Philly restaurants. “My immediate concerns were my employees’ welfare, my ability to pay bills, imagining bankruptcy scenarios. To be honest, it was a really vulnerable time.” Meanwhile in Delaware, an eight-week training schedule for Le Cavalier (the new name for the Green Room) was canceled, and the Hotel DuPont closed for the first time since 1913.

“I charted the steps of grief, denial—is this really happening?—then I was massively depressed, and from weeks two to five, I jumped into advocacy to distract from the fact that I felt like I’d lost limbs.”

Akin was active in Democratic politics in high school, college, and during his time at law school, but after dropping out of the latter and transitioning to a culinary career, the demands of the restaurant industry sidelined his political fervor. “It’s hard to have hobbies and activism when you’re a line cook who’s constantly exhausted working six days a week. I was in that tunnel for seven or eight years.” If the success of his restaurants allowed Akin to get reacquainted with his activist side, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it to the forefront and helped him climb out of that initial depression.

Akin worked with other independent chefs and restaurateurs around the country to coordinate effective social media campaigns, which caught the attention of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, the advocacy arm headed by Tom Colicchio, José Andrés, former White House chef and Obama nutrition policy advisor Sam Kass, and others.

As momentum grew for national legislation to protect restaurants, the IRC brought the scrappy cohort into the fold, and Akin was given a seat on the Advisory Committee.

He’s spent his time working with legislators on fixes to the PPP (revised last week in the Roy-Phillips PPP Flexibility Act) and promoting the $120-billion Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund, which Democratic sponsor and Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer announced as the RESTAURANTS Act.

I charted the steps of grief, denial—is this really happening?—then I was massively depressed, and from weeks two to five, I jumped into advocacy to distract from the fact that I felt like I’d lost limbs.

The Future:

Things in Congress are fluid, and Akin maintains his advocacy position with the IRC. Meanwhile at home, he reopened both his locations of Stock for take-out and delivery, while Res Ipsa remains closed. As for Le Cavalier at the Green Room, in late May Akin wondered, “The question is, if Delaware opens at 30 to 50 percent capacity, do we want to reintroduce this landmark restaurant under those circumstances?” The answer is now yes, as the restaurant is eyeing mid-August for limited indoor and outdoor dining in accordance with the state’s Phase 2 guidelines. Akin is eager to realize the dream of reinventing this hometown institution, but acknowledges, “This opening isn’t going to look anything like we imagined.”

tyler-akin-recipe
Courtesy image

Shakshouka
Recipe Courtesy Tyler Akin

Serves 4

1 large yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
5 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 tbsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp harissa paste
1 (28)-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
10 mild green olives, such as Castelvetrano, halved
1 tsp honey
6 eggs
Handful of cilantro (leaves and stems), coarsely chopped
1 red or green finger chili, thinly sliced on a bias
Zest of ½ lemon, plus wedges for serving
½ baguette, brushed with olive oil and toasted

Sweat onion and peppers with salt in large cast iron skillet or sauté pan over medium heat in 3 tbsp of the olive oil for 3-4 minutes, until halfway softened. Add garlic and continue to cook, occasionally stirring, until onions are translucent. Stir in the spices and harissa and cook for 2 minutes until aromatic.

Drain tomatoes from the can. Puree half, large dice the remaining half, and add them to the onion-pepper mixture along with the olives and honey. Cook over high heat until tomato puree is reduced by half but remains a bit watery. If you overshoot, add a little water to loosen and incorporate.

Dimple the stew in 6 places and crack an egg into each. Cover with a lid or a larger pan, return to medium-high heat, and cook until eggs are set, about 5-6 minutes. Puncture one egg to check the yolk, which should be over-medium texture. If ready, puncture the remaining eggs and drag some of their yolks into the stew. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over top and garnish with cilantro, chilis, and lemon zest. Serve with toasted baguette.

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