At Winslow's Table, Nick Denietolis finds ways to provide hospitality even in a takeout environment.
Nick Denietolis began his food career working at Schnuck's when he was a teenager. Eventually, he moved up to the meat department, gaining valuable food prep experience that helped him transition to a back-of-house position in the restaurant business. From there, he moved to a server position and then became a wine professional, always moving forward in the hospitality industry. For that reason, he can't help but see the irony in what the COVID-19 crisis has done to his career.
"I started in retail, then cooking, then service, then fine-dining and eventually, I did sommelier training and got super into wine," Denietolis says. "Now, because of the pandemic, I've come back full service, because I'm basically working at a grocery store."
Denietolis is half joking since the grocery store he refers to is actually Winslow's Table (7213 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-725-7559)
, the neighborhood eatery owned by Vicia's Michael and Tara Gallina. Unlike a place to pick up grab-and-go Top Ramen and Cheetos, the restaurant has pivoted to a model where guests can grab local produce and goods, housemade hand sanitizer, wine, beer and ready-to-eat food, all served out of a quaint pick-up window. It's as charming a setup as one can get in the midst of a pandemic, but Denietolis cannot help but lament what was lost when dining rooms were forced to shutter.
"What drew me to Vicia and kept me involved in that job is getting the chance to be really knowledgeable about not just what food is and its history, but where it's grown and why it's cooked a certain way," Denietolis explains. "At Vicia, the full tasting menu is an explosion of knowledge you try to drop on everyone in regard to those aspects. We've taken field trips to the farms, met the cows, held the chickens; sharing those things with people in the restaurant has been a huge source of excitement in my job and something we get a lot less of when talking through a window. You don't get to go on a ten-minute diatribe about beets when you are talking through a window."
As difficult as that transition has been, Denietolis is thankful for his job as a sommelier-turned-counter server at Winslow's Table, considering how uncertain things have been for the service industry. He recalls how quickly everything changed: One minute, he and his teammates were getting ready for the beginning of the restaurant's first patio season; the next, they were unemployed — something the Gallinas did to ensure their employees would be able to get unemployment and survive financially amidst the uncertainty.
Denietolis took that time as an opportunity to pause. Like many of his friends, he baked, ate a ton of pasta, experimented with fermentation, watched too much television, biked and spent time outside — a privilege he had thanks to the comfort he had in knowing he'd eventually be called back to service.
Now that he has resumed working at the restaurant, he's thankful for the neighborhood that supports it and, in turn, the small farmers who stock its pantry. And though it happens less often than before the pandemic, Denietolis is also thankful for the opportunity to provide those little bursts of hospitality whenever he can give them.
"We do the best we can to be very gracious and do different things to show that we care about the customer and their experience," Denietolis says. "It's a lot less walking someone through a wine list and more walking them through how to use our website to order and being accommodating with pickup times. It makes it really important to be gracious and over the top in those times we have to give people a good experience because we have less chances to do it."
Denietolis took a moment away from the window to share his thoughts on the way the pandemic has affected his job, how he's kept busy and what gives him hope, even in these challenging times.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I think it is really important to realize that, even if the virus were to go away tomorrow, the service industry will be changed forever. So many restaurants are closing for good, and I think there will be a permanent shift to more detached models of hospitality. Many people who have built their lives on restaurant work might not feel certain about their careers for years to come. This is also threatening to small farmers for whom restaurant sales are a huge part of their model. To the people in the farm-to-table world, who are dedicated to making our food more local and sustainable as well as less corporate and extractive, these times present an immense challenge.
What do you miss most about your job?
A big draw for me at Winslow’s Table and Vicia before [COVID-19] was the chance to learn so much about the food we serve. What impresses me most about Chef Michael’s food is his knowledge of the ingredients and their sourcing. My favorite part of service is getting to talk about food. I think what’s on the menu is far less important than why it’s there, and sharing that is the really fun part of the job. Getting to talk about how the weather has affected the amount of eggs we get or showing someone a picture of the cows we get our dairy from is a real highlight. Winslow’s has pivoted from full-service to something in between a coffee shop and a neighborhood grocery store. We still have our patio, but closing the front door means we do more of our business as to-go and get less chances to interact with the guests.
What do you miss least?
Ask any restaurant person: We all have the same nightmare, some variation of getting quintuple-sat with no busser while the restaurant is somehow 86’ed water. There is a certain measure of pride I take in getting through a crusher of a shift and still being able to think straight, and I think the people who are drawn to restaurant work usually thrive in high-stress, fast-paced environments. That being said, I certainly don’t miss the chaos.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Cycling has always been a big part of my life, so this has been a really great time to fall into that. Even in the height of quarantine, you could still get on a bike without things feeling too different. Biking is a solitary and often meditative experience, made even better by less cars being on the road. At one particularly manic point, I did make all the broken bikes I’ve collected over the years into one Franken-bike.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I certainly don’t think I would have made it through the months of lockdown without my pasta maker. I’m on my second sack of flour at this point. Also vermouth, like a lot of vermouth. I just finished the last of my Cocchi Rosa, but I have to shout out to Dolin Blanc as well. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s just right on the rocks, and I must have gone through at least three bottles this year
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
I’ve been really into making yogurt recently. I think quarantine season turned half of my friends into fermentation experts, and I didn’t miss that boat. Fresh fruit is a must, so I’ve made sure to keep the fridge stocked with grapefruit to supplement stuff foraged or from the garden. I live down the street from Charm Me Sweet. They have all kinds of cool, weird candy there, and because part of me is still six years old, I always have a big bag of treats from there.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
Frankly, I think I ended up doing pretty well with my bubble: My partner, my roommate, and my cat Kiwi.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
I can’t wait until I can get off work and bike to South Grand to drink on the CBGB patio. It certainly doesn’t feel like summer without that place. It’ll be great to see live music again as well. My band recorded an album at the beginning of the year, and we’re hoping we’ll be able to do a release party sometime in 2020, fingers crossed.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
I think we are seeing a huge shift in how people think about and treat service workers. Lockdown and essential businesses painted a pretty stark image of the difference between white collar and service workers. There has been a lot more respect shown to customer service people, and I hope that is something that will stick around. Look at how mainstream the "Karen" meme is now. Especially with the issue of safety, you can complain all you want, but you still have to wear the mask. I think restaurant owners are going to have a lot less patience with people who treat staff poorly. “The customer is always right” doesn’t give people the right to be degrading.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Seeing the progress the BLM movement has made gives me so much hope. Ideas that were fringe before, like defunding the police and putting the money back into communities, are now gaining mainstream traction. That a movement like this can persist not only in the face of hundreds of years of oppression, but also during a global pandemic is truly inspiring.
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