Fire and Pestilence: Australia, Restaurants and the Virus

Fire and Pestilence: Australia, Restaurants and the Virus
12 May, 2020

Photo: Per Anders Jorgensen / Finedininglovers.com

I can recall a few moments of virtue-signalling more suited to my own interests than those early days of corona panic, when it was all about Chinatown. I stand with wontons. All the actions designed to drive business back to the city’s Asian restaurants were well intentioned, all of them missed the larger story, and in the end none of them mattered.

Cut to a montage of news stories cross-fading like the beginning of a disaster movie: The WHO declares a global health emergency. Deaths spike in Italy, Iran and South Korea. The toll from the virus overtakes SARS, then MERS. Saudi Arabian authorities close Mecca to pilgrims. Coachella is postponed, the NBA season is suspended. Borders are sealed. It’s on every continent bar Antarctica. Tom Hanks tests positive.

On 8 March, 10 days from the opening of the 2020 Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, there were 12 confirmed cases in the state of Victoria and zero deaths. Today, around two months from when we were supposed to open, there’s 6,980 confirmed cases in Australia. Worldwide, it took nearly three months for cases to reach a million, and just a fortnight for that number to double. They don’t call it “going viral” for nothing.

On Friday 13 March we postponed our festival. On 16 March a state of emergency was declared. Gatherings were restricted to 500 people, then 100, then it was one person every four metres, then it was two people to a room.  For hospitality, the hammer came down regardless on 23 March with the announcement that all restaurants, bars and cafes had to close, except for the provision of takeaway food and beverages.

And so, as in most of the rest of the world, we learned some new moves. We pivoted, we furloughed, we stood down. We ran through a Kübler-Ross sequence, each of us: denial, anger, depression, bargaining.

If acceptance, the other phase of that process, has been harder to come by, perhaps it’s because whatever else is wrong with hospitality in this country, the one thing you’ve always been able to get is work. And that’s just not the case right now.

The other thing that has been especially challenging to our sector is the inability to help. We’re in the business of bringing people together and feeding people, and in just about any other crisis, these are incredibly important capabilities. Hospitality is first to leap into the breach.

Only months ago Australian hospitality reacted quickly and nimbly to the bushfire crisis, raising money, organising supplies, and providing support to affected communities in a variety of ways.

Right now it’s not impossible to help, and there are certainly people who need it, but providing that help is fraught with a host of new challenges, many of them unique to this pandemic. Right now bringing people together is not the answer.

Hospitality, having been among the sectors hit first and hardest by restrictions on trade, has also been among the quickest to find new ways to react. While government regulations have been flying thick and fast, the rules about who does what in restaurants and bars went out the window very quickly. The fanciest restaurants in town suddenly do really good lasagne to go. Cocktail bars come to your door, and suddenly everyone has embraced retail.

Andrew McConnell has teamed up with Baker Bleu to open a grocery and bakeshop at wine bar Marion, Chef Thi Le has decided to turn Anchovy into a Laotian takeaway, and every second top-flight Italian restaurant in town now sells fresh pasta to the punters.

Sunda is bottling its Vegemite curry. 400 Gradi answered the run on flour in the supermarkets by opening a pop-up grocer stocking it in 25-kilo sacks. Ides now publishes a zine.

Over 48,000 people tuned in to IGTV to join Ben Shewry from Attica in a live “cook-a-long” with TV and radio personality Hamish Blake, doing a flambéed prawn spaghetti that’s roughly a million miles from more familiar Attica fare such as An Imperfect History of Ripponlea or Plight of the Bees.

Koichi Minamishima can’t do takeaways of the nigiri that landed Minamishima at the top of local restaurant ratings. Instead he’s doing the best and fanciest chirashizushi you’ve ever seen, and sending out DIY shabu-shabu packs loaded with abalone and Kagoshima wagyu.

Regional restaurants, many of them still reeling from the fires, have been hit harder still, and a greater proportion of them are shuttered for the moment. But that’s not to say there’s nothing happening outside the city. Brae is doing produce boxes (“locals only!”), Michael Ryan at Provenance, better known as a devotee of contemporary Japanese cooking, is flexing his cocktail muscles, wineries are doing online tastings, and you can get drive-through in your boat from Sardine.

Whatever you can’t sell, you can share, too. Whether it’s your time, your expertise, your share of voice on social media, or even your playlists

Not everyone is okay here. Not everyone is going to come back. There’s a million people in Australia on working visas, a great many of them working in hospitality, and though they pay tax, they’re not eligible for benefits. Not everyone can afford to stay home and make terrible sourdough for Instagram. And whenever you leave your home, you increase your risk of exposure to the virus, however incrementally. It’s common to hear people say that the remarkable thing about this pandemic is that it affects us all equally. Of course it doesn’t.

But restaurants will come back and they will in the long-term be better for this. Our assumptions were tested and they were found wanting. We were tested as people, though, and we found we could adapt.  The old ways of doing things no longer served us, so we forged new ways. Stronger at the break.

At the end of her life, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who came up with the five stages of grief proposed a final additional phase to the process. That final phase? Meaning.

Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio: "There’s Going to be a Whole Second Wave of Closures.”

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