The last time I went to a restaurant was on 11 March. It was for lunch at Jacob Kenedy’s Bocca di Lupo in London’s Soho. The place was packed. As it was a special occasion, I and my other half started with a glass of prosecco, followed by deliciously salty fried sage leaves filled with anchovy, which we watched being dipped in batter and dropped into hot oil. Next came a light feast of sea-bream carpaccio with rosemary oil and orange zest; pan-fried veal kidneys and artichokes; tagliatelle with ragù Bolognese; calamaretti with courgettes and bottarga; and a side of minerally green monk’s beard with oil and lemon. Plus a couple of glasses of wine to wash it all down. Afterwards, we trotted across the road to the restaurant’s sister venue, Gelupo, for ice cream and sat outside with our double-scoop ricotta and sour-cherry gelati, watching people go by.
I look back on that meal now with wistfulness and concern, because who knows whether Bocca di Lupo or indeed any restaurant in London, or beyond, will survive the current shutdown? “It’s like wartime. Or an episode of Black Mirror,” says chef Tom Brown of seafood restaurant Cornerstone in Hackney Wick. Brown tells me of his peers, chefs and restaurant owners, “grown men and women used to hard graft” gripped with fear about the future.
The overnight closure of bars and restaurants around the world has been brutal. Townsend, the new restaurant at the Whitechapel Gallery from Nick Gilkinson (who launched Garden Café) and chef Joe Fox (formerly of Petersham Nurseries), had to close the day before Fay Maschler’s positive review in the Evening Standard. Innumerable projects, pop-ups and openings have been postponed, among them the much-anticipated skyscraper restaurant SAGA from Daniel Humm alumnus James Kent and Jeff Katz of Crown Shy in Manhattan; and two new ventures (a café and restaurant-bar) in West Hollywood from the group behind the hugely successful LA hotspot EP & LP. “Years of planning, designing and hiring now hang in limbo,” says co-owner Grant Smillie.
For those of us who cherish restaurants and dining out, the question is: how can we help? Many restaurants are offering gift cards and voucher schemes to be redeemed once they reopen. Some are pivoting to takeout and delivery. Others are providing seasonal-produce boxes, which benefit their suppliers, whose survival is also crucial. To that end, initiatives such as Natoora’s home-delivery app in London and New York (previously only available to restaurants) and the Farms to Feed Us database (cathystgermansevents.com), spearheaded by regenerative-farming activist Cathy St Germans, are forging direct links between growers and consumers.
In the UK, you can also pledge to Hospitality Action’s Covid-19 Emergency Appeal (hospitalityaction.org.uk), instigated by Tom Brown, which aims to keep hospitality employees safe and able to pay bills. It raised £32,000 within 24 hours of its launch. Other restaurants have launched GoFundMe pages to help employees. In the US, these private efforts are joined by organisations such as One Fair Wage (onefairwage.com), which is offering emergency cash assistance to workers who ordinarily rely on tips, and ROC United’s Disaster Relief Fund (rocunited.org), helping the million-plus restaurant workers (many undocumented) who are losing their jobs. In European countries like France and Spain, employees are largely relying on salary-support measures from governments.
A glimmer of hope – or glimpse of the future – may come from Hong Kong, where at the time of writing some restaurants have reopened for dining. Customers must fulfil various protocols, signing declarations of good health confirming they haven’t travelled outside Hong Kong within the past 14 days; having their temperature taken at the door; and using hand sanitiser and stowing their face masks in paper bags at tables. “So long as there is demand, we are ready to run our restaurants like this for at least the rest of the year,” says Syed Asim Hussain of Black Sheep Restaurants (which includes Michelin-starred BELON and New Punjab Club) of implementing such measures and operating at half capacity, so that every other table or chair is empty.
Stevie Parle, the owner of Soho and west London pasta restaurants Pastaio, hopes that through this crisis, people begin to understand that hospitality isn’t just about food, it’s a people business – “the people who make the food and those who come through the door”. It’s also a major employer and economic contributor. “I don’t think people noticed that before,” he adds. “They think of hospitality jobs as badly paid, which isn’t the case any more.”
He also hopes the restaurant sector will be more united in the future. “Generally, in hospitality we don’t organise,” he says. “We don’t have lobbies or unions. We are a disparate collection of businesses who don’t have much in common. It’s very broad, the difference between McDonald’s and a Shoreditch wine bar. We have also never managed to effectively communicate to government what works and doesn’t work for us. Suddenly, we all have the same problem: no one is allowed to come through the door. And we have started to pull together against what is an existential threat.” Already, people across the hospitality industry have started contacting each other to trade experiences and offer support (including legal advice). It has crystallised into petitions, such as the one started by chef Alex Claridge of British restaurant The Wilderness that has picked up 300,000 signatures, and an industry-backed effort coordinated by Kate Nicholls of UKHospitality calling for government action and aid.
This is being replicated elsewhere, with action groups such as the 50-odd “band of brothers and sisters” convened by Lorenzo Lisi, proprietor of Hotel De’ Ricci and its sibling Ristorante Pierluigi in Rome, to help keep Italian hospitality alive; and Relief Opportunity for All Restaurants (ROAR), backed by Momofuku Group, Jean-Georges Restaurants, Eataly and other major players in Manhattan to help New York traders secure rent- and tax-relief and insurance guarantees.
For student chefs graduating this summer, there may be a silver lining. “If we start to see any kind of return to people gathering, there will be work,” says Camilla Schneideman, managing director of Leiths School of Food, which will complete this year’s diplomas with online tutorials, if necessary. “There’s always a need for highly skilled people. Also, this industry has proved endlessly resilient. The whole rise of street food and supper clubs came out of the last recession, when there was a shift away from white-tablecloth dining to a more informal style. That did huge amounts for the food industry in this country.”
Tom Brown describes the day when, “a dribbling mess”, he prepared to let go of his staff and was met by their response. “Chef, we all know you would do anything for us,” one lad told him. “You’ve normally got us and now we’ve got you.” “I will never forget that,” Brown says. “That to me signifies hospitality – that caring for people, that warmth and generosity. And that from a 19-year-old kid who’s got nothing – and is about to have less.”