Furloughed chef keeps skills sharp by serving his kids fine-dining menus at home


SAN DIEGO — Nine months ago, Aron Schwartz was supervising 60 culinary workers and more than $15 million in annual food and beverage sales at a downtown San Diego hotel.

Nowadays, the 45-year-old father of two is the self-described “lunch man,” preparing multicourse fine-dining menus each day for his children, who are distance-learning from home due to the pandemic.

After 14 years at the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina Hotel, executive chef Schwartz was furloughed at the end of March and he hasn’t worked since. To keep his cooking skills sharp and avoid going “stir crazy,” the Carmel Valley resident has been filling in as Mr. Mom all year while his wife, Pam, works full time as manager of Ranch 45, a fast-casual restaurant and beef market in Solana Beach.

“As a chef who oversaw multiple things, it is a very weird experience not having something on your plate,” he said. “Making meals at home for the children has helped that. Their lunch is very gourmet. They dine.”

Although the pandemic has been a curse, Aron Schwartz said it’s been a blessing having so much time with their children, 14-year-old son Max and 12-year-old daughter Rhyan. Chef jobs are notorious for their long hours. Before his furlough, Schwartz said he only saw his children for about 30 minutes a day or on FaceTime. But going so long without seeing his “work family” of employees has been tough.

As a San Diego native, Schwartz said his pressure release valve has always been surfing. But when he was furloughed, local beaches were closed, so he didn’t have an outlet for processing his stress and grief.

Pam Schwartz said it has been extremely difficult watching her husband and his colleagues go through such a long period away from the jobs they love.

“They were so used to working with their hands, so pulling the plug and telling them they can’t do anything anymore was really, really hard,” she said.

The Schwartzes met in culinary school in the mid-1990s. After graduating, they worked for restaurants in the Northeast, then in Las Vegas and finally in 2001 they moved to San Diego. For five years, he was a chef at Bernard’O restaurant in Rancho Bernardo before he joined the Marriott Marquis in 2006 as a sous chef and worked his way into management.

Even before the pandemic arrived in San Diego, Schwartz said there were ominous signs of trouble. Business started slowing down in February and then conference bookings were canceled one after another. At first, his hours were cut from five days a week to four, then all operations abruptly shut down in late March.

In the months since, Schwartz said he’s been receiving unemployment, but it’s a fraction of the money he earned at the hotel. Fortunately, he had banked a lot of paid time off in recent years, which has supplemented his income. In early December, he got a letter from Marriott extending his furlough through the end of April. Recently, he has started helping out at Ranch 45, cooking a few evenings a week during dinner service.

In the early days of the pandemic, Schwartz did the grocery runs buying necessities as well as gourmet foods like truffles, risotto and saffron. Eating well is a family passion, even for the children, so he wanted to snap a few luxury goods before they became scarce.

The “school lunches” at home started as a way to pass the time, but Schwartz said his children have come to cherish that part of their day, which begins around 11:30 a.m. when Max usually has his one-hour lunch break from online school. Rhyan’s lunch break comes an hour later, so she gets her own solo meal service.

Because both kids love Japanese food, some of their favorite homemade dishes during the three- to four-course meals are miso soup, fresh ramen, sautéed broccoli with steamed rice and salmon teriyaki. He also makes beef stews, homemade chicken tenders and desserts. The children enjoy the meals so much they don’t want cold lunches anymore.

Nonetheless, Schwartz said he is looking forward to the day when everyone can return to their former routines. Yet despite the hardship, he wouldn’t trade the time he’s had this year with his children.

“It’s become this opportunity I’d never have had in a million years,” he said. “So I’m grateful for that.”

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