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Star Pastry Chef Emerges From Surprise Cancer Surgery to Find a City Shut Down by Coronavirus

Now recovering, 20th Century Cafe chef-owner Michelle Polzine is getting ready to start serving customers again

Michelle Polzine prepping a dessert at 20th Century Cafe
Pastry chef Michelle Polzine at 20th Century Cafe
Aya Brackett

It has been a hell of a couple of weeks for Michelle Polzine. On March 12, the chef-owner of 20th Century Cafe, a charming slice of Eastern European cafe culture in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, temporarily closed her restaurant for what was supposed to be routine surgery to remove a large cyst. Following a couple of weeks of recovery, the cafe would be open again in no time, Polzine figured. She set the reopening date for April 1.

That isn’t exactly how things turned out: During surgery, Polzine’s doctors discovered that she had a rare form of cancer called clear cell carcinoma. While she was still under anesthesia, they had to remove all of her reproductive organs in order to get rid of the cancer. Polzine didn’t find out what had happened until later that evening, when she woke up and groggily overheard nurses talking about her condition. “It’s pretty surreal to wake up and have this totally different outcome than you had expected,” she says.

Of course all this happened just four days before San Francisco issued the shelter-in-place order that shut down every restaurant dining room in the city. And so while the James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef stayed home in bed recovering from surgery, the local restaurant industry went into full-on crisis mode. “The news was getting weirder and weirder,” Polzine recalls. “And then all of my friends’ restaurants started closing. It was just fucking nuts.”

Within a matter of days, none of Polzine’s friends could even visit her due to the shelter-in-place order, thereby denying her the bare minimum of what a person might hope for while recovering from cancer surgery. But still, they found ways to step in: Nicole Krasinski, the co-owner of State Bird Provisions, helped Polzine board up her restaurant.

As restaurant owners across the city made tough decisions to lay off workers as they closed or pivoted to bare-bones takeout operations, 20th Century Cafe’s own April 1 reopening date was pushed back. As shelter-in-place orders across the region were extended, the date became became April 7, and then May 3 — though the truth is, no one knows when restaurants will realistically be able to welcome customers into their dining rooms once again. And on a more personal level, Polzine has met with her own unexpected delays: Because the surgery damaged some nerves in her legs, she wasn’t even able to start walking again until just last week.

In total, the chef’s experience has been somewhat akin to Rip Van Winkle waking up from a long nap to find the whole world has gone to shit. “There was a period of about two weeks where there was 10 percent of me that honestly believed I was in a coma and was imagining all of this,” Polzine says.

Still, even in the face of so much adversity, the chef remains remarkably upbeat, crediting her “amazing will” with helping her to pull through. She isn’t quite at the point where she’s ready to start making definitive plans for what 20th Century Cafe will look like in a post-coronavirus world, but her most likely plan is to try to set up some kind of pantry operation at the restaurant in the next few weeks. “I make some pretty damn nice jam and marmalade,” Polzine says. She also makes good bread, and is thinking about making a smaller, four-serving version of her famous Russian honey cake, normally a massive concoction that serves 20. As of late last week, she was fairly certain she wouldn’t be selling anything for Passover, as she has in the past — but she also wouldn’t rule it out entirely.

Polzine likens the whole ordeal to the plot of one of those old martial arts movies. “You have the shit beat out of you, and you almost die,” she says. “And then you go to the master and train.” And at the end, Polzine adds, the hero always wins.

20th Century Cafe

198 Gough Street, , CA 94102 (415) 621-2380 Visit Website