Dell Leandro, 40, came to the United States from Brazil at 19 and soon got his start as a cook at Friendly’s in Stoneham. In 2002, a friend told him that The Summer Shack near the Alewife MBTA stop needed a grill cook, and he landed the gig. Now 40, he’s culinary director at the seafood staple, which has a brand-new pop-up restaurant in Harvard Square through the fall, as well as locations in Boston and at Mohegan Sun.
How has your business changed since COVID-19? What’s been hardest on you?
There’s so many hard things that it’s really hard to point out. When COVID-19 hit and we had to shut down the restaurants, it was actually my birthday, March 16. It’s a dark joke, but I used to say my birthday gift was having to lay off employees. I turned 40 on that day. It was just one of the worst birthdays I ever had.
Since then, it’s been a roller coaster. We decided to start doing takeout in Cambridge, because it’s more of a neighborhood restaurant. And we literally had no budget, and we didn’t know what to expect. So it was just me as a cook on the line. We’ve been there for 20 years. We didn’t know what to expect, but we actually did very well in takeout. And we managed to bring back around five employees and then the next week a couple more. . . . We all became a part of the whole group, back and front of the house, working together to make the take-out work.
But the tough thing is trying to bring someone back to work and trying to explain to them that even though we tell them this is going to be secure, and we are going to wear a mask, you have to look him in the face and tell them the truth: We don’t know how it’s going to affect them — if some people are older than others and some people have underlying diseases.
There’s the joy of bringing someone back to work, and there is the doubt of what that’s going to cause to them and how they truly feel about coming back.
What do you think is going to happen next?
I really hope that people start feeling more secure, and people just continue wearing the mask, right? And I really hope that people just want to have fun and go out and enjoy a nice meal with friends. The [Shack] in Cambridge has done well. The one in Boston hasn’t been that good because in Cambridge, we have a little patio. People are too afraid of being in close spaces with people they don’t actually know.
We hope that people can see us at Harvard Square, a very open space where tables are spaced out. And I still believe that people can have a good time out here. But it’s going to be a tough one, there’s no doubt about that.
What do you think would make people more comfortable about indoor dining?
Make sure that all tables are following the guidelines — the tables are spaced out, the staff is properly trained, and that they sanitize and disinfect the tables. Know that if you walk into a restaurant and you see someone who is supposed to be a cook or something without a mask, don’t feel comfortable eating there.
But other than that, I don’t know what else we can do besides following the guidelines to make people more comfortable. I think eventually people are going to get — I don’t know if this is the right word — but a little homesick of being home all the time, and we’re going to want to have some sort of social life.
I hope that helps us. I hope to be there to be that part of social life that people are looking for and hope people go out and still have a good time. I hope they come inside to warm up and have some lobster pumpkin bisque with us. I just hope people want to do that.
What could be done to help the restaurant industry? What kind of support do you need?
The restaurant industry needs incentives with people to come out to eat. I think there’s always [fear] out there. See, I live in Somerville, for example, and Somerville just allowed inside dining last week. That is not making anything easier for the restaurants. If the city would come out, or the state, and they just — instead of spreading fears, they spread the word that it’s OK to go out, if you follow the guidelines. I think the restaurant industry would be better right now.
It’s just my goal, my personal thought. I don’t want anyone trying to risk their life because they want to go out and have a nice meal, but it’s truly secure to go out, if you follow the guidelines. . . . I think people are really afraid of the unknown. That’s my personal opinion.
What is your go-to snack in quarantine? What have you been eating?
I’m eating a lot of things in quarantine. I always thought that we should never serve fried clams to go, right? And I really love fried clams. A friend of mine called me up and was like, “Hey, I don’t want to go out, but can you bring some fried clams when you come home for me?” I was going to hang up! I was like, “Yeah, but fried clams to go?” Incredibly, I was super-surprised how delicious they taste even to-go. A little taste of the summer.
When I’m not working? I’m Brazilian, so my snacks are different. I love some pork belly. Some food like that, I do at home. At home, my wife is the one [who] cooks most. So her babies get rice and beans with a nice steak and all her different flavors.
What made you want to become a chef?
Growing up, my mom always used to make lunch for us. But at dinner, from a young age, she was like, “You guys are going to cook from here, and I’ll help you out, whatever you guys need.” So from a young age, she taught me and my brother and my sister how to cook for ourselves. And I guess I always liked to cook growing up. It was good to see the smile on a face. And the day it was my day to cook the food at home, there was that satisfaction.
At Friendly’s, I was a little afraid at the beginning, because I didn’t speak English at the time and I had stuff to learn. I feel like working in the kitchen is kind of like an institution. You learn a lot. I learned a lot working in the kitchens with different people from different ethnicities, and different backgrounds and the value of friendship.
When did you come to the United States, and why?
I came to this country because I just wanted to find new opportunities. I left Brazil when I was 19, and I came here with a dream for a better life. ... then I ended up getting married, having a kid, building a family. And here we are, 20, 21 years later. My kid is 12, and I’ve been married with my wife for 16 years.
If you could tell the future, where do you think we’ll be in a year with COVID-19?
I don’t want to sound harsh, but I think 2021 won’t be any easier. I think to get back to some sort of normalcy, we’re standing in a lot of variables, right? I think 2022, we’re looking for a better chance of having more people outside, more people traveling. I think it’s going to take a good year and a half for the restaurant business, the restaurant industry, to rebuild from this. Restaurant and tourism, they all will go along together . . .
So you know there’s a lot of talk, a lot of thinking to be done. Hopefully we’ll survive. I think The Summer Shack will, because we’ve been there for 20 years and we had great memories that were built on that building at Alewife. And we have many regulars still that I did see throughout the summer. This winter, we’re going to have to really think outside the box to make sure that we can survive.
Interview has been edited and condensed.