The Prime Minister’s first announcement, encouraging people to avoid pubs, bars, cafes etc. and urging people to work from home, while neglecting to enforce closures of the said establishments sparked industry-wide disbelief and anger. Would we stay open, hoping to stay afloat while compromising the safety of our team and guests?I quickly wrote a petition, discovering there were many others like myself who had also created petitions, pushing for closures and a relief plan. We took the decision ourselves to close Ikoyi and soon after, so did many other restauranteurs around London.
My proudest moment as a chef was knowing that in the midst of this crisis, we would be able to support our team for 6 months without a single guest walking through our doors. My partner, Iré and I calmly considered our numbers and realised we could pay the staff in full until April. After that we would go into “Emergency Pay” where Iré and I, as well as the rest of the staff would all receive the same wages.
Our hope was that this would cover everyone’s living costs while keeping their contracts in place. Very soon after, the Chancellor announced a series of relief lines for UK businesses including loans, business rates cutback and most importantly a job retention scheme in which HMRC intends to reimburse 80% of wage cost up to £2500 per month. I felt both reassured and extremely fortunate to be living in a nation willing to pledge this kind of support in times of crisis.
I cannot say that others such as colleagues based in the United States have been offered the same peace of mind. While we have been closed, it feels as though I am on some kind of extended holiday with no end in sight. The pressures of kitchen life have often led me to fantasise about the indulgence of an interminable break, free from the shackles of running a kitchen, worrying about the tiniest of details, the quality produce and the constant high levels of execution. But this is a hiatus I find disturbing - not only because the longer it goes on, the more it calls into question the longevity of the restaurant, but also because it calls for a redefining of what it means to be a sustainable, successful restaurant.
Many businesses have already pivoted their operations in a positive direction. Organic farms such as Namayasai in East Sussex as well as Flourish Produce in Cambridgeshire have directed business toward the domestic consumer offering prized vegetable boxes. Pesky Fish are ramping up their home delivery system, offering customers the chance to cook with fish which just three weeks ago, only the best chefs and restaurants in the country were using. The Sea, The Sea, based in Chelsea seems to have anticipated the future model by already offering retail as well as restaurant food, which has allowed them to adapt quickly in the face of closures. This restaurant / fishmonger has a small kitchen counter run by one of London’s most influential chefs, Leo Carreira, as well as consumer access to highly specialised seafood.
Most of us, however, await anxiously for the obscurity of the future to fade, so that we can decide a more permanent solution for our restaurants. Our industry supports the economy and employment to a staggering degree, so why is it that we are so fragile? With so many companies on the verge of bankruptcy and laying off the majority of their workforce, the pandemic doesn’t just illuminate the brevity of human life, but also calls into question the sustainability of our business models. There is so much glory and heroism being a chef, but is this a war worth waging if we work around the clock but can lose everything at the drop of a hat?
It is clearer than ever, that when you walk into a restaurant you aren’t just paying for a plate of food – in fact this is only a fraction of the cost. You are also covering business rates, staff wages and the high rent for the time spent at the 6 feet of space your table occupies within the domain. Covering these costs isn’t just an act of generosity that restaurant owners seek to extract from their customers, but what’s necessary for them to survive.
In a climate of great financial pressures, it seems the expectation is to diversify and roll out restaurants around the city to support the cash flow for a group company. Certainly, in the fine dining sector, there is also a constant pursuit of the most ambitious experiences for our guests, the most refined produce, and the most tailored narrative of food sustainability. But now more than ever is the time to ask ourselves tough questions: what does sustainability mean if we cannot protect our staff and balance our accounts for longer than a month at a time? How can a restaurant group be stable when propped up by debt, with a large workforce and sites with varying levels of performance?