Chefs in lockdown: What do you do when the kitchen closes?

Irish chefs Kevin Thornton and Anna Haugh on finding perspective during the pandemic

Chef Kevin Thornton at home in Ranelagh, Dublin. Photograph: Fergal Phillips

Chef Kevin Thornton at home in Ranelagh, Dublin. Photograph: Fergal Phillips

 

Last June, having finally had to accept that Food on the Edge, the symposium that brings chefs from all the world to Galway every October, would fall victim to Covid-19, JP McMahon began another project.

The chef and restaurateur opened his contacts book and invited previous participants and supporters of Food on the Edge, some of the the biggest names in global gastronomy, to write a letter about how the pandemic was affecting them.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, with culinary luminaries such as Massimo Bottura, Albert Adrià, David Kinch and Dominique Crenn reaching for their keyboards and sharing their thoughts, their pain and their hopes.

The resulting 123 missives, many of them searingly honest and thought-provoking, have been published as an ebook, edited by McMahon, designed by Edel McMahon and copy edited by Abigail Colleran.

Lessons from Lockdown: Cooking after Covid, is available free of charge, for a limited time, to anyone who subscribes to the the Food on the Edge newsletter at foodontheedge.ie, and will be available on Google Books next month for €5.

Here are two letters from the collection, by Irish chefs Kevin Thornton and Anna Haugh.

KEVIN THORNTON

Chef and co-owner with his wife, Muriel, of Kooks, a culinary experience business in Dublin
Subject: Cooking after Covid

To all humans who love this planet,

The entrance to 2020 was quite interesting, with lots of really exciting plans for the year. In March, Covid-19 turned everything upside down, inside out and back to front and everything would not be as we thought.

For me the first few weeks of lockdown were surreal, a bad dream with no escape. My salvation has always been nature and my weeks are punctuated by trips to my sacred spaces. Suddenly this was snatched from me and I missed parts of spring – the fiddleheads, the wild garlic, the smell of the woods where the shoots push their way up through the damp earth.

We established a routine – meditation became part of it, as did exercise at home and most of all food became our daily excited focus. Food was the only familiar thing that had not changed and as a family our appreciation for its ability to comfort and sustain us became more heightened.

In every crisis there are positives to be found and also blessings – a content family nucleus, food and music, a really good head space and, most importantly, health. The kitchen was where we spent most of our time as a family – cooking, eating and talking. We explored our excitement for the future, grateful for the chance to reimagine what that future might look like.

We have been through three recessions in our business lives – this period too will pass and my hope for our collective learning is to appreciate that our island is a special place – our land is beautiful, wild and fertile and our food producers are passionate and proud.

ANNA HAUGH

Chef and owner of Myrtle restaurant in London
Subject: Don’t get your perspective twisted?

Anna Haugh
Anna Haugh

Has the lockdown changed me as a person? No and that’s a BIG NO.

Since I joined this industry some 20 years ago it has tried and tested me, which has been both good and bad. What I can say is: what you put in is what you get out. The lockdown is one of those tests that may not have been good for me, but it hasn’t weakened me.

I feel the same strength through my veins as when someone told me that women weren’t going to run the pass, or that the most senior position for a woman was head of pastry. It leaves me with a feeling that I’m still going to rise, even if you think I’m incapable.

I have never wanted to give up. Every time I think about it, I am reminded of the spit and stale breath of a chef shouting in my face, so why would I feel like giving up when I am faced with the same stale breath of coronavirus, and all the hell she brought with her?

During lockdown my wonderfully strong, funny sister-in-law, Michelle, who is my brother’s wife, the mother of their three beautiful children, was diagnosed with cancer. As I type this I realise my command of English is useless in expressing the love I feel for her and the injustice of this disease.

Michelle will not get better. This line has stopped me, this line will change me for ever. This is not fair, this is not a test, this is life, at its cruellest moment. I have my health and I cannot share it with her, I cannot take her pain away. One thing I can do is have perspective on my life and my problems.

Myrtle restaurant reopened on July 18th and we stood together fighting this climate, even with new restrictions, because the customers keep coming back and new ones are stepping in the door. I must never lose sight of this because for me the difference between happiness and sadness is perspective.

I ask myself was I happier on March 1st than I was on June 1st? The answer is no, I was not happier, I should have been. I wish I could go back and throw my arms around Michelle and laugh with her.

That is why after this lockdown I refuse to ever lose my perspective, because I love you Michelle with all my heart.

These are edited (for length) entries from Lessons from Lockdown: Cooking after Covid

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