2020 has been a hell of a decade. For the hospitality industry it has been one long gut punch. Covid is testing our emotional resolve and our financial resources to the very limit. We are all painfully aware of how difficult it is to keep our businesses in the black in normal times. The fight between hard science and political expediency is making survival increasingly improbable, with customer confidence, rolling shutdowns and social-distancing measures making planning impossible and cash flow non-existent. It is not alarmist to say that many of our businesses won’t survive.
As this pandemic stretches on we do what we can to prevail against rising debt and the burgeoning sense of hopelessness. We have reverted to basics, to our mothers’ recipes, to take-away boxed dinners, sourdough and comfort food. There is no room for frivolity when you don’t know if you will have the means to cover salaries or rent in the coming days or weeks. Even the most famous among us are cooking burgers or punching out boxes of fried chicken from their fine dining temples.
If there is one upside to any of this, it is the timely death of the celebrity chef. Driven back to the kitchen by sheer necessity, our gregarious stage personas are feeling the deep sense of loss after the dogs barked and the caravans moved on. Restaurants that only existed due to tourism were shuttered, and those that were an essential part of their community have continued to thrive as they celebrate the long and meaningful relationship with their customers.
"It was the sense of recognition that gently tucked us in that night."
The celebrity chef started like all of us, at the bottom with a carefully knotted neckerchief and a roll of new knives. Driven by naiveté and enthusiasm and yearning for the knowledge passed down by the generations before us. With the quiet satisfaction of knowing that every plate you put out was to the best of your ability. The faint praise given for a job well-done punching through the fatigue. The odd compliment from the dining room floor filtering down through the hierarchy. It was enough. We celebrated our culinary heroes from afar and wondered if the accumulation of years of punishing hours was enough for us to reach their hallowed status. For the few that had the talent and temerity, the toil was enough to elevate them above their peers to inspire the next generation.
We strived for a consistently full dining room of happy eaters and habitué and, should we be so honoured, recognition from the guides. Perhaps a star or rosette or Bib Gourmand was awarded. The inspectors, armed with a strict criteria, had been sufficiently satisfied that this was a quality establishment working at the peak of its category. A glass of cheer for the crew after clean-down was thanks enough. It was the sense of recognition that gently tucked us in that night.
Somewhere in the digital age things started to go wrong. The sense of achievement was amplified by social media, the celebration led to self-congratulation, smugness and our base natures came to the fore. We started cooking for likes and were rewarded. Pop-ups were everywhere, as young chefs wanted a piece of the fame they felt sure they were due. What loudly purported to be talent attracted investors who were more than eager to throw down cash to be part of the culinary lottery. They were rewarded too. More failed, but who cared about them? Who wrote about them? Competition was fierce. Michelin was deemed too French, too slow, too careful, too boring. Another form of recognition was required and so the list was born. Constructed of every good intention, it wasn’t long before its exigent potential to make money was realised and the seeds of our destruction were sown.
"The celebrity chef was at full power. An exercise in solipsism followed by a conga-line of lickspittles, sycophants and supplicants."
Lists became the dominant form of recognition. We yearned to be on them. We cooked like those already there. Marketing became our buzzword. We thought we were going global. Devotees with money to burn and airline miles to accrue became the customers we wanted. The locals ‘didn’t understand’. Gastro tourists flocked to the exalted halls of those in the top tier. Heroes of the gastro class were fêted and held aloft, grammatically egregious hashtags like #makeitnice were enough to aggregate the outpouring of adulation for those at the very top of culinary Everest. Someone with the ‘swagger, chutzpah and enough star power to warrant an 8,000-mile journey’.
We drove sponsored marques, never flew below business class, only drank grand cru from the best vintages, appeared on late night chat shows. Became brands in ourselves. The celebrity chef was at full power. An exercise in solipsism followed by a conga-line of lickspittles, sycophants and supplicants. Those forgettable opportunists, ‘the international food media’, driven by the promise of access, acted as one to ensure that those crowned were glorified to the full satisfaction of attendant public relations. The back-slapping was only ever a short precursor for the knife. In this carnival of narcissism, the fear and self-loathing was palpable.
2020 brought the extinction event we needed. A great metaphoric calamity that blocked out the sun and allowed a philosophical reset to values and worth. It showed us who we are and shone a light on who we were. It continues to do so. This is a time to reflect on what we want to be as an industry and who we are here to serve. The cult of personality has had its time, enabled by the soft-bellied culinary pundit class. It is of no value and only breeds actions that are transactional. Not those based on the purity of our craft or principal, or for the benefit of the true star - the customer.
Staff shortages are hitting the hospitality sector hard, prompting some restaurants to look outside the industry to train those without restaurant experience for life in the kitchen. Andrew Friedman finds out more.