How Chef Jack Moore of Watershed Kitchen & Bar Spent the Pandemic
Before Watershed Kitchen & Bar reopened in June, we asked Moore to reflect on a year away from the restaurant rush.
When Gov. Mike DeWine announced he was shutting down dine-in operations at restaurants on March 15, 2020, Watershed Kitchen & Bar executive chef Jack Moore was at home. It was a Sunday, the day when Moore would let his sous-chefs run things. Hearing the news, he immediately got dressed for work, knowing there was going to be confusion and a lot of details to sort out.
“I went in, and we didn’t really know what to do,” Moore said during an interview this April. “We opened an expensive bottle of bourbon and sat around.”
Sitting around didn’t last long. Watershed Distillery lost a bunch of wholesale business off the bat as restaurants and bars stopped placing orders. Moore, who has run the Watershed kitchen since it opened in January 2017, tried to figure out how to keep operating as carryout-only or at half its seating capacity.
“We didn’t have any systems in place to do takeout food. We didn’t even have the appropriate to-go boxes to do takeout food. It would have been a massive overhaul for us,” Moore says. “And in the restaurant world, it’s hard to make money. It’s very easy to lose money.”
The decision was made to put the restaurant on the back burner and focus on the distillery until it was safe to reopen. “Because if that doesn’t exist, then the restaurant doesn’t exist,” Moore says.
With a walk-in cooler full of products in danger of going to waste, Moore did what he’s good at—he began feeding people. “As soon as I knew that we didn’t need that product and that I now had about 30 folks that were jobless, I opened our walk-in … like a farmer’s market to our staff. ‘Come in this day, everything’s free. Take as much as you can.’”
When the walk-in was finally bare, the community pitched in its support. Watershed set up a crowdfunding campaign, with the money being used to continue feeding laid-off staff members. Moore kept a few of his sous-chefs busy making big pans of lasagna, pizzas and other family-style meals that could be reheated at home.
“We rolled with it for about 15 weeks. We came in every week and made the equivalent [of] one meal a day for a week,”
Jack’s Produce Stand
Once Watershed ran out of donations, the kitchen shut down and Moore was officially out of work. With the extra time, he started visiting his parents in Jeffersonville more often. They live on 5 acres near Tanger Outlets.
“Over my past 10 years of cooking, I’ve missed out on a lot of time with them. That was definitely the most positive side of not having a job,” Moore says. “I don’t remember the last time that I was home when everyone was actually eating Easter dinner.”
Every year, Moore’s parents plant a big garden “just to watch it grow,” he says. “They don’t eat half the stuff that comes out of it. They can some green beans and can beets and stuff like that.”
During one of his visits, the chef decided he would drive down to help his dad with the garden, something he hadn’t done since he was a kid. He went down every day, Monday through Friday, all summer long. He and his dad would hang out all day, growing as much as they could—corn, tomatoes, squash, radishes, green beans. They even set up a little produce stand.
“So, as you were driving down, you’d see our produce sign out by the road. Yeah, it was fun,” he says. “It reminded me how we need to do a better job in our industry to make those things happen. It’s valuable to have those moments with your family, your friends, whatever it is.”
All the Kitchen’s a Stage
Moore compares restaurant life to theater, or in his words, “a curtain-drawn business.” There’s an intensity right before the curtain goes up and throughout dinner service. The diners are entertained, unaware of the stress and drama going on backstage.
“And that is the reason I like this industry. I love that. … Those moments, those rushes, that five hours of being busy in service was what I lived for,” he says.
But last year, after six months away from the kitchen, he was blindsided when the stress and anxiety that he associated with the restaurant hadn’t gone away; now he just had nowhere to put it. “I realized that I needed to go talk to somebody,” Moore says.
“It made me realize that some of the things that I was dealing with had nothing to do with the pandemic. It had everything to do with how I interact for 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week as a chef,” he says.
“Cooking has always been my grounding, my outlet. I have no shame in saying that I probably lost sight of the things that got me here, because I let that industry consume me so much,” he says. “Our industry will chew you up and spit you out if you’re not careful, and I want to pay more attention to it.”
After more than a year, Watershed is ready to raise the curtain again in June, though the industry’s hiring crisis is presenting a significant challenge.
Instead of expending energy on crafting new dishes and drinks (and training a potentially lean staff on new menus), Moore says Watershed is going to start where it left off.
“People want to get back to normal. … They want to come back to the restaurants that they knew and loved. So, let’s give them what they remember and what they loved.”
Preserving a Culture
More often than not, chef Jack Moore is wearing a black baseball cap turned backward. And when it came time to ask friends to participate in a blind taste test of the hot sauce he’d been working on as a pet project, he made two batches: one with a white cap and one with a black cap. You can guess which batch won out.
While Watershed Kitchen & Bar was shut down because of COVID-19, Moore used its kitchen as home base for officially launching Black Cap Hot Sauce, one of Moore’s silver linings during a year of unemployment.
The fermented hot sauce has a simple, all-natural list of ingredients: red Fresno chiles, garlic, ginger, lime zest, salt and chia seeds.
He combines everything but the chia seeds in saltwater brine, “just like you would make sauerkraut,” and brines it for 30 days. Then he purées everything and adds the chia seeds. As Moore pulverizes the chia seeds into the hot sauce mixture, they create a gel-like consistency and prevent the sauce from separating.
Black Cap is just the first of what Moore hopes will be a line of condiments under the brand Ruffle Feather Ferments, aimed at celebrating and preserving Old World techniques like fermenting and pickling. His tagline is “Preserving a Culture.”
“I want to preserve the culture of people that these types of techniques came from, whether it was a recipe, their method, the ingredients, whatever it was,” Moore says.
You can find 8-ounce bottles of Black Cap Hot Sauce at Watershed Distillery’s bottle shop (1145 Chesapeake Ave.), Coastal Local Seafood in the North Market (59 Spruce St.) and The Bottle Shop (237 King Ave.).