Down economy gives rise to underground dining

Nov 16, 2010

In the down economy some people are turning to off-the-books business models. High-priced underground restaurants have been popular with foodies, but some families have begun selling meals from home kitchens just to scrape by.

Inside Lupita’s cramped two-bedroom apartment I’m immediately enveloped in the aroma of strong spices. It’s as hot and moist as a sauna in here.

It all seems to be happening at once:  she’s frying seafood and blending a warm cheese sauce. Then pulling cold lemon-soaked ceviche out of the fridge. Helpers shuttle past with dishes for her final inspection. And each family-sized Peruvian platter looks like something out of a magazine. Lupita speaks through interpreter Melissa Hoyos.

Lupita interpreted by Melissa Hoyos: “When you’re going to eat something, you eat with your eyes first.”

But Lupita’s kitchen is illegal. In fact, Lupita isn’t really her name, it’s just what we’re going to call her here. Lupita used to work as a chef for a prominent Seattle-based company. But she lost that job. Now she's turned to her own tiny kitchen to make money for her family of six.

Lupita interpreted by Melissa Hoyos: “She says you have to put on a good face and just move forward in bad times. Yes it’s hard since she lost her job. She says she’s doing extra jobs, cooking for baptisms and weddings and stuff like that.”

Lupita’s calm and warm. She welcomes dozens of people from noon till 8 p.m. each Sunday. They eat at long tables in her living room as if they were her children. But all of these people are paying customers. Lupita’s husband jots down the orders on a college ruled notebook.

There isn’t much hard data, but these types of under-the-table family businesses multiply in stressful economic times. So says Sudhir Venkatesh who's a professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York.

“So many people don’t have the money to go into a store and purchase goods and services. In the underground you can buy something, but you don’t have to pay for it right away. You can wash someone’s car and they will cook you dinner. So there is all kinds of trading.”

Home-based restaurants aren't unusual in Peru. But that cultural practice becomes a problem here in the states. Chris Skilton is the guy that shuts places like Lupita’s down for the Seattle/King County Public Health Department.

“Ultimately there may be things beyond their control that will cost them in the long run. It’s a little like speeding. You may not get in a wreck. You may do it for years without any consequence. But the day that you kill somebody is a day you can’t take back.”

But Lupita has no shortage of customers. They flock in after church and even take home extra dinners for later. There aren’t many other authentic Peruvian restaurants in the Northwest for them to patron. Lupita’s brother says his sister’s cooking is more than just good eating. It transports him back his mother’s kitchen in Peru.

He says the garlic, cilantro, ginger, and onion come together just right in the perfect taste -- and the perfect memory of home.

What does Lupita want? She just wants to cook. She dreams of her own legitimate restaurant where she can provide a good living for her family; and good food for her community. She says for now, she's just cooking to get by.