For the Greater Good
Portland restaurateur and pastry chef Ilma Lopez says kindness is needed to save the city’s restaurants
Ilma Lopez and her husband, Damian Sansonetti, were part of a wave of restaurateurs who moved from larger cities to Portland over the past decade and, along with local talent, helped cement it as a food destination. Like many restaurant owners in the city, they closed their doors for in-person dining shortly before the lockdown restrictions. When we spoke with Lopez in June, she and Sansonetti were planning to reopen Chaval, which had been offering takeout since closing, sometime in July. They didn’t yet have plans to reopen Piccolo, a cozy restaurant with only 20 seats, but they have since made the difficult decision to close it permanently. During the shutdown, Chaval helped supply meals to hospitals and nonprofits feeding those in need. In June Lopez organized a local effort for Bakers Against Racism, a national movement founded by three Washington, D.C., chefs that sold baked goods to fund organizations helping Black people. She recruited a handful of other restaurants to make cookies, and proceeds went to Black Lives Matter Portland. Lopez, who grew up in Venezuela, plans to launch a nonprofit later this summer called Community Sweet Activism, which will sell boxes of baked goods and other sweets every other month to benefit different nonprofit organizations. Along with baked goods, the boxes will include treats like cake mixes and frozen desserts that people can bake at home.
What are the challenges restaurants are facing as they prepare to reopen?
You’re not opening one restaurant. Here in Portland, we’re opening 400 restaurants at the same time. And that’s something that I don’t think everyone realizes. I’m opening at the same time as all my friends are opening. That’s tricky, opening a brand-new business with all the odds against you. And that’s emotionally super hard to do. Mentally it’s scary as hell, and somehow you have to find the courage to talk to your team and be like, “We’re doing this, it’s going to be great, guys.” But numbers-wise, it’s going to take you at least over a year to get back to where you were before.
What do you think has to happen for restaurants in Portland to survive?
That’s a huge question, and honestly, all of us have to follow the guidelines. We need all the guests to be kind, understanding, and forgiving. I’m not asking someone to forgive me if I give an ice cream that is too melty, if I give you dessert that is too salty or too sweet, or if I cooked your steak wrong. But just don’t complain if I don’t bring you a glass with the perfect ice right away because I’m not doing it out of spite. We’re just literally trying to figure out how to do things correctly. We always encourage our guests to tell us about the food and what they liked, what they didn’t like. When it’s great, please tell me because I want to feel good. I want to make sure that it’s worth the 10, 12 hours I spent in the kitchen. The thing that we’re asking right now more than ever is for kindness. Don’t judge me on things that I’m not able to control because I’m doing my best.
What was it like to close the restaurants?
You work for so many years to learn how to cook, how to make a proper sauce, to learn how to keep your station clean, to learn how to design your menu, to learn how to do food costs. And then you spend months figuring out the right color for the wall, the right color for the ceiling. I designed this whole restaurant. It took me months to find the right type of wood that I wanted. And then you spend years working with this group of people to make them a team and to make sure you’re there for everyone. And then everything is taken away from you, and you are just standing by yourself. It’s hard not to feel sad, it’s hard not to be angry, and it’s hard not to be scared.
How have you coped with that?
I’m super, super selfish. And I said I’m super selfish because I’m putting a ton of weight on my little one. I became over observant of my [seven-year-old] daughter. And it’s awful because I shouldn’t put that much pressure on her. It’s like I’m telling her you have to make me happy. And I feed off her energy, and it’s awesome. But I know that her life changed overnight. Now she has an overbearing mother, 24/7. For Damien, it’s being at work. If he wants to have time away, he comes to work. He comes to work to feel better. It’s weird how we both are coping with the same thing, totally opposite. But it’s trying to be there for each other. And it’s something that a lot of people are not talking about. I hope and I believe that after, people are going to be more empathetic with each other.
“It’s hard not to feel sad, it’s hard not to be angry, and it’s hard not to be scared.”
Have there been any positive developments from all this?
It has been fantastic putting my daughter to bed every night. At the beginning, it was really hard because it made me realize how absent I was with her, because I never put her to bed seven days in a row ever. As a mom, you’re like, “Oh my god, you suck.” And I know that’s not the case, but for a while it was like, “I’m awful because how did I miss this all?” It has been really nice to be able to do that and spend more time with her. The other thing that has been great is we got to develop relationships with all the restaurants that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Not because we don’t like each other. It’s just, you don’t have time. Now I talk to people that I love and respect at least three times a week, which I never have before.
Has the pandemic made you rethink whether you want to continue to run a restaurant?
It has made me rethink not whether I want to continue in restaurants but how I want to change it. Thank god it hasn’t made me think twice whether I want to be in or out. I still want to be in. It’s something that Damien and I promised ourselves. The day we start asking ourselves that question, we’re going to get out. But it hasn’t happened. Honestly, it’s not even a question that we have at home. We are both super in love, and I think we’re masochists. That’s why we still want to be in, despite everything, despite what everyone tells you to do.
As a restaurant owner, what’s your motivation to help all of these nonprofit organizations and social causes?
I have a seven-year-old. I want a better world for her. And I’ve been so lucky. I’m a daughter from a single mom. She had me and was divorced by the time she was 20. And she put herself through school and she put my brother and I through school. She has done everything. I always loved cooking and I always loved baking, but I didn’t know that it was a career for me. I wanted to go to pastry school. I just needed to know for me, being in Venezuela, that was the right move. I wanted to make sure that I did something to make my mom proud and something that will give a better quality of life to her and to us.
You mentioned you were in medical school. Did you ever go into the field?
No, I dropped out in my third year. I told mom, “I want to cook.” And she was like, “OK, cool.” I’d go to the university in the mornings and go to culinary school at night. And my mom was like, “If you can keep up this for a year and have good grades, I will let you drop out.” I did that for a whole year. I got a job at night. My mom would pick me up in her pajamas because we finished work at 11, 12 at night, and I had to be back at school by 7. Then I went to Stratford University, a cooking school in Virginia. When I came here, I had a 4.0 GPA. I made sure that I did every single thing I should. I couldn’t apply for a loan because I’m not American. I couldn’t get all the different benefits because I’m not from here. I didn’t have the same chance that a lot of people do. But my mom wanted to make sure that I have the same chances. She sold our farm back in Venezuela and rented a one-bedroom to make sure that she was able to pay for my school, to make sure that I started my field on the same playing level as everyone else.