Paul Skulas, former chef at Couvillion, and his wife Franny, in the restaurant's kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Paul Skulas.)

Why leave? Local chef becomes a full-time Dad

By Robin Garr

Just about a year ago, sadly listing about 30 favorite restaurants that had closed forever during the first full year of Covid-19, I wrote, “the arrival of a pandemic that none of us saw coming at this time last year turned 2020 into a swirling black whirlpool that didn’t make anyone happy.”

Would 2021 be better? With a vaccine on the near horizon, a new national administration coming in, we dared to hope so, even while caseloads and positivity levels remained high.

So here we are, almost at the end of 2021. Most of us are doubly vaccinated now, and many are boosted. That’s good, right?

Or not. Even with many of us vaccinated, the pandemic is certainly not over. In face, with the Omicron variant coming up fast, it could be getting worse again. Add in all that we’ve seen about restaurants struggling with supply chain problems and worker shortages, and it’s no surprise that 2021 saw another swath of restaurants knocked out of business.

It’s confusing, frankly. Triply jabbed, I feel fairly comfortable about dining out again at local restaurants. The numbers say I’m unlikely to catch the disease – and even less likely to suffer hospitalization or death – if I take reasonable precautions like masking indoors and washing my hands often.

Covid toll continues

And yet the U.S. just passed 800,000 deaths to Covid and shows no real signs of slowing down. In its most recent report earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control reported that weekly Covid-19-associated hospitalization rates were at their highest since the beginning of the pandemic. And that was before the Omicron variant reached our shores.

It’s good to know that full vaccination dramatically reduces our chances of getting Covid. But it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a breakthrough case, so care is warranted. I’m dining out every week, but I may decide to go based on whether I see the staff properly masked and making an effort to keep tables, chairs, and counters wiped down and sanitized.

And I mourn the restaurants that have left us this year, joining last year’s losses in a growing toll. One spot that I particularly miss is Couvillion, the Cajun-Creole eatery in a sweet little historic building in Schnitzelburg.

Couvillion chef leaves
The namesake catfish couvillion from the now closed Couvillion restaurant in Schnitzelburg.
The namesake catfish couvillion from the now closed Couvillion restaurant in Schnitzelburg.

Couvillion closed Thanksgiving week last year, when the pandemic was gearing up for its winter spike. The owners posted a sad note on the restaurant’s Facebook page: ”We have put up the fight of our lives to try and continue to operate safely and effectively during these trying times,” their post read. “Unfortunately this is no longer a possibility. Our goal is to look at possibly reopening in the future when the world is in a better place.

I got in touch with Couvillion’s chef and co-owner Paul Skulas (pictured above with his wife, Franny) the other day, hoping to gain a little more insight into how the restaurant business grapples with the pandemic. In a thoughtful email interview, he described how Covid was part of the reason for closing, but – from his standpoint as chef and a working partner without financial investment – perhaps not all of the reason.

Essentially, Skulas said, he left the hospitality industry with the birth of his and his wife, Franny’s, first child, Remy. “Working hard, long late hours is extremely taxing on a marriage itself. Factor in kids plus the fears associated with Covid, and it’s pretty hard to keep on track,” he said.

“The other aspect is that I was just getting burnt out on the business. I love cooking for family and friends but the joy of that was bring overshadowed by the business part of the world. I love cooking but the industry for someone with multiple kids and in the back half of his 30s it seems to be less appealing.”

Labor issue likely to continue

Paul Skulas is hardly alone in these feelings. “All of my friends have either gotten out of the business or are being crunched hard by the labor shortages,” he said. “I don’t see the labor issue resolving itself for years to come. Also it seems like the big money people are still focused on opening new restaurants in this city no matter what.”

Does he miss life in the controlled frenzy of the restaurant kitchen? “I do miss it sometimes,” he said. “But getting to tuck my kids into bed each night and see my wife on a Friday and Saturday night greatly outweigh it. As of today I have no plans to return to the hospitality world in the near future.

“Never say never, because the industry is always waiting with open arms. Currently I’m in full blown Dad mode. With the ridiculous prices of daycare lately and a new variant coming out what seems to be monthly, we feel it’s best to keep them under our roof.

“From joining the Marine Corps to opening multiple restaurants, being a Dad and getting to see them grow up is by far the best job I’ve ever had.”

Amen to that.

Restaurants closed in 2021

Here’s a quick and not comprehensive list of restaurants that closed during 2021 and that earned obituaries on the Forum or in my own list of places I’ll miss:

502 Bar and Bistro
Alhambra Halal Buffet
Another Place Sandwich Shop
Atlantic No. 5
Big Momma’s Soul Food Kitchen
Bougie Biscuit
Butchertown Grocery
Cardinal Hall of Fame
Galan’s Meat Market & Grille
Highland Coffee
Hog Father Pizza
Portage House
Shogun Japanese Steak House
Street Grub & Hops
The Hall on Washington Street
Tony Impellizzeri’s

Comfy Cow (Highlands)
Hammerheads (Highlands)
Heine Bros. Coffee (Crescent Hill)
Hiko-a-Mon (Downtown)
Martin’s BBQ (Germantown)
MexA Tacos (Downtown)
Original Impellizzeri’s (Downtown)
Royals Hot Chicken (Jeffersontown)