Well, I am, like countless others around the world, a chef who currently has no restaurant to work in. The Greenhouse in Dublin, where I proudly work under exec chef Mickael Viljanen, won its second Michelin star in a glitzy ceremony last October. Today, the restaurant is closed for a while. I am, like many in my bracket, looking to open my own business in the near future. This is still the plan, but how that business looks, may well have changed in the last week.
The coronavirus has arguably affected the global hospitality sector harder than any other. It doesn’t care if you have three-Michelin stars or one, it doesn’t care if you serve 2000 guests or 20, and it certainly doesn’t care if you are world-renowned or not. As a chef with little ‘skin in the game’ currently, I am extremely humbled to be a part of an industry where owners have closed business’ in order to protect their staff, the public and their customers, (often before being directed to). These decisions have been made in full knowledge they may never open again, losing everything they’ve built in the process.
I think it is fair to say the world has changed almost overnight. For the first time in recent history, we are fighting a battle without borders or man-made barriers, political preferences or opinions, and no human agendas. We are coming together as a human race with the same goal, and for this reason, we will achieve that goal. Society will be different on the other side, and how we live our lives will change, perhaps for the better.
Right now, restaurants aren’t important. But as Winston Churchill put it during WW2 when questioned on his continuing funding of the arts sector: “Well then what are we fighting for?”. With time, restaurants will regain the dynamic, creative and valuable asset they provide to our modern society. They might just appear a little differently.
I have been struck by how restaurants have adapted to the new normal here in Ireland and abroad. It almost seems like we are looking into the future of the industry, through a very unfortunate veil. Chefs, restauranteurs, bartenders, bakers, and all the people that make up our industry have temporarily halted the pursuit of technique, artistry, recognition. The ego and vision that has fuelled us for so long. Instead, they’ve adapted and responded to the short term needs of society, becoming central figures in the global fight. People still need to be supplied and fed.
Niall Sabongi is one of our fish suppliers in Dublin, the restaurant trade makes up 100% of his business. “It was decimated overnight” he tells me. But “I feel the public will still want fresh fish and not from big chain importers. We are lucky that we work all year with great small local boats and want to continue to support them as they do us”. As a result, Niall has adapted and set up an online fish market, where the public can buy whatever has landed each morning, only for it to be delivered to their door, with little social contact. With the restaurants closed, the local boats and supplier are now dealing directly with the public, just as it was in years ago.
Michael Sheery runs Dublin's upmarket ‘fast-casual’ venue, Bujo, which recently won three stars in the sustainable restaurant association guide 2019. He says his business was unable to provide a safe system for social distancing and because of this he made the difficult decision to close. However, he spent the first night reinventing his entire business system. Bujo, famous for their burgers, closed Sunday and by Tuesday the team had created a digital drive-thru, using WhatsApp video to take orders with "zero-contact" delivery direct to the car boot of customers, overcoming the distancing issue and reinventing his model in just two days. Sheery says he is lucky, “BuJo was fortunate to have a model that could adapt quickly. The tech we had already been working on was essential. We found we could move from being a sit-in restaurant to a fully zero-contact collection venue, still providing the same product with a different type of service."
Further afield, Irish chef and restauranteur Andrew Walsh from Cure Singapore is moving fast to react to ever-changing consumer demands: “Business is down about 50% but we can still operate and tick along. At the moment, I can keep everyone's wages going which is my priority. The market was confident the last few weeks, due to the tracking the government undertook and rigid testing, but it is changing every day”. Andrew has put himself out for hire, launching ‘Cure at Home’, offering private dining cooked for guests in their own home. He's bringing the restaurant experience out of its traditional setting and satisfying demand for high-end food while people can't leave their homes. The novelty but also the convivial beauty of a chef cooking in your home for your family and friends could easily be an experience that continues after the coronavirus regulations are lifted and restaurants reopen.
It is both inspiring and educating to see these businesses adapt and survive with their backs to the wall, unending in their loyalty to their staff, their consumers and themselves. There are so many positives here, but also a list of questions regarding the long term effects of the survival mode: who will regulate this in the future? Where will the surplus staff fit into the changed model? Will the reduction in revenues as a result of lower sale prices be sustainable? It is impossible to answer these questions at the moment.
We can now perhaps ask ourselves: has the future of food and hospitality arrived? The restaurant model will surely come into focus when the time arrives to reopen our doors. The goalposts will have changed drastically. The temples of gastronomy that we know and love around the world will always have their place in the industry. They are the beacons, inspiring people in each generation to enter the industry and strive to reach the high standards we all strive for.
The inspirational leaders in these restaurants play the part of messiah-like figures, whether they like it or not, their ideas and teachings spread around the world. But is it reasonable and sustainable to run so many of these restaurants? Restaurants that often rely on numerous ‘stagiaires’ and ‘free labour’ to operate effectively?
What if the costs of running these restaurants increase dramatically in the aftermath? Will social distancing become part of life resulting in fewer seats and revenue? Will the customers still come if the menu is priced accordingly, their steak now twice the price? Will some of the world's top chefs remove themselves from the financial shackles of restaurant building and practice their skills in a different way? Danny Guisti and his drive towards cooking better quality food for school children in America comes to mind, long before this pandemic, he left a great position at Noma in Copenhagen to create an army of chefs to cook in schools, inadvertently challenging the perception of what it takes to be a great chef. Will more follow his lead?
We must look at the role of the chef in our new reality. There will be challenges, the inevitable closure of many restaurants will result in a massive surplus of chefs without work, not all of them can just go and open a restaurant. We could, however, argue that chefs are some of the most trusted figures in society, feeding people daily with little questioning of what, how or why, and people happy to pay for the experience. This will present numerous new opportunities. During this time of isolation and quarantine, people are reengaging with, understanding, and valuing our supply chain, our cooking skills, our communities, our families and the simple joy food can provide. Chefs must understand how to react to these habitual, social and cultural pivots.
Perhaps there will be more demand for the restaurant experience to move into the home, like Walsh in Asia. Maybe there will be opportunities for chefs to react to the consumer demand for cooking knowledge and skills, like Massimo Bottura and countless others have done with online cookery tutorials. Consumers will rethink how they interact with the supply, it's already happening. Can chefs, growers, farmers and a fishing fleet join forces to create meaningful, creative, quality alternatives to the current supply outlets?
Younger chefs considering opening a business will have to think differently, we will have to think logically. Yes, the goal may be to ultimately open that temple of high-gastronomy, but there will be a stronger need to build financial foundations that back this up. This may mean something as simple as accelerating 'fast-casual' concepts, starting with larger, high-turnover operations, places where we can showcase our skills in an economically viable way for much larger audiences. With this approach, perhaps even started away from premium city centre locations, we can make those much-needed mistakes while mitigating risk, learn how to run a business effectively. Build year after year, provide secure jobs to staff and offer a consistent, effective product and service. Once all this is in place, maybe then we can really aim for the stars, or launch that 10-seat counter.
There are no right or wrong answers to any of the above, and plenty of plausible opinions on all sides. The focus and aim in the immediate is on following expert guidance, acting like responsible human beings, and saving as many lives as possible.
At some point, the world will start turning again, we will reopen, and people will return to enjoy the unique pleasure we provide. The Restaurant will always remain, and the will and perseverance of those in the industry will endure.
The last few weeks have proven that our industry can adapt to meet consumers' demands, and while there are risks and side effects to the decisions we take right now, there is also a whole new world of opportunity to be discovered.