‘I should be feeling despondent. I don’t’: Chefs dish up the truth about life in lockdown
Cooks from around the world share searingly honest accounts of Covid-19’s impact in a new book
Irish chefs Aidan McGee, Shauna Froydenlund, Robin Gill, Anna Haugh and Kevin Burke at the London launch of Food on the Edge 2019. McGee, Froydenlund and Haugh are among the contributors to Lessons from Lockdown: Cooking after Covid.
A word of advice before you begin to read Lessons from Lockdown: Cooking after Covid, a collection of searingly honest reflections on life during the pandemic, written by chefs based all over the world. Set aside plenty of time (you won’t be able to tear yourself away from it), and have plenty of tissues on hand to dry your tears.
Written in the form of letters, many of them deeply personal and searingly honest, the 121 contributions present a compelling snapshot of the human cost – and some gains too – experienced by workers in an industry severely and brutally impacted by Covid-19.
Many contributors chose to address their letters to young chefs, offering them words of wisdom as they face this unprecedented challenge. Others dedicated their words to members of their team, or to family members.
The letters are presented as an ebook, published this week by Food on the Edge, the Galway-based food symposium. Most are written by chefs, along with a few hospitality industry representatives, food writers and Irish artisan food producers.
“In contacting our past speakers, chef friends, industry colleagues, I have tried to be as broad and inclusive as possible. This is important given the issues that our own industry still needs to tackle in terms of representation and equity for all,” says Food on the Edge director JP McMahon, who is the publication’s editor. McMahon, who is also an Irish Times food writer, has been working on the project since last June, along with designer Edel McMahon and copy editor Abigail Colleran. “This book is a record of our time. Of our ambitions. Of our failings. I hope it will stand the test of time,” he says.
Commonality of experience is a recurring theme throughout the letters, with many of the contributors appreciating having an extended period of time away from their kitchens, some for the first time in their professional lives. The pleasures of spending time with family, having an opportunity to take care of themselves, mentally and physically, and the chance to take stock of their lives, are mentioned again and again.
But so too are the deep sadnesses associated with Covid-19 restrictions, closing businesses, making staff unemployed and not knowing where it will all end. “On last March 14th, I saw everything that I had built with my teams vanish, I felt the accountability of having 70 people at risk of losing their livelihood and the risk of leaving my daughters without anything to eat and the risk of me and my wife Sara falling into a bottomless pit of depression,” writes Alexandre Silva, chef/owner of Michelin-starred Loco in Lisbon.
Feelings of remorse and guilt at having to break up tight-knit teams and let staff go are mentioned many times, including by British chef and restaurateur Nathan Outlaw. “The prospect of having to make all of them redundant was, to put it mildly, harrowing.”
For former San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year UK and Ireland, Killian Crowley, the pandemic upended his plans to open his own restaurant, but it also made him pause to think about whether it was what he really wanted. “Just before the pandemic I was really close, with some investors, to opening a beautiful restaurant. My dream was about to happen: a 40-seat restaurant, beautiful kitchen, beautiful setup, great area in the centre of Luxembourg city. I have never been so close to opening my own restaurant.
“Just before the pandemic showed up, we were going through the numbers and figures and I soon realised that people that come forward with money are leaving with money and they’re here to make money. Their vision isn’t yours, they just need somebody to do the job.”
For Mike Tweedie, head chef at the Michelin-starred Oak Room at Adare Manor, lockdown gave him time to reflect on what was truly important to him. “I missed every part of my job, even the parts I didn’t enjoy, but for me personally, lockdown was a dream. I had time to reflect on me, who was I, where was I going in my life; 2019 was a year where I achieved everything I have ever worked for, but personally I lost everything. On May 19th, 2019, my youngest brother, Liam, lost his fight against cancer at the age of 23.”
Forcibly removed from their all-consuming jobs, many of the chefs who contributed to Lessons from Lockdown recognised that there was more to life, outside the kitchen. For Matt Orlando, chef/owner of Amass, in Copenhagen, lockdown learnings may be life-changing. “To say this is a time of uncertainty, is an understatement. Will Amass be here in a year from now? I am not sure. I have realised that I have let my restaurant define who I am over the last seven years. I have also realised that this cannot be the way forward.”
There is a definite thread of hope, and a genuine commitment to change running through the letters too. Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy in New York, writes: “Watching my community come together to support each other, watching strangers become allies, and allies become friends and helping each other through the chaos of this year is the one thing that’s given me hope for the future. When things settle down, when we can all breathe easier, when we all feel less scared, we need to still remember the hard won lesson of 2020: we’re all in this together”.
It’s a sentiment echoed by JP McMahon: “If you read through the emails in this book, some happy and some sad, you will see that good food is alive and well, despite the failings of our food culture in these times. Indeed, perhaps it is not failing but rather changing. Morphing into something else, something better.”
Lessons from Lockdown: Cooking after Covid, is available free of charge, for one month, to anyone who subscribes to the Food on the Edge newsletter at foodontheedge.ie, and will be available on Google Books next month for €5.
Chef-owner, Restaurant Arzak, San Sebastian, Spain
“Dear Young Chef, I’ve been thinking of you all as we all settle into our unsettling new reality. It’s a sad, unexpected and difficult time for everyone. The hospitality industry is in an especially hard place. But if there’s one thing chefs are good at it’s making the best out of any situation. We are givers and can make wonderful things out of the ingredients that we have on hand. We are good at logistics and planning and we are generous because our reason for being is to feed and take care of people. Now is the time to be especially generous.”
Chef-restaurateur, Sydney, Australia
“This is a plague year and by all accounts I should be feeling despondent. Let’s be honest, shall we? I don’t.
I think a lot about restaurants and what they mean, what they meant. I think about my customers of the last three decades and our relationship. What did they actually want? Looking back I’m not sure I ever knew.
I have a self-diagnosed Covid-type-19 personality. Those that know me would probably agree. Those that don’t will think I’m an arsehole. There is a subset that think both. It is one of those teaching moments, a time of reflection, introspection, a quashing of the ego, the quiet death of celebrity. A time to ponder and slow down. To read. To learn. To heal.
It is a reset.”
Chef, Oteque, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
“I was able to use my free time to stop, rest, find myself, enjoy nature, to straighten my priorities, to get my head, body and my broken relationships straight, to expect less of myself, and all of that made me rediscover the joy and pleasure that led me to cook professionally in the first place. As Einstein once said, every crisis is an opportunity, and I used this one to look at myself hard and deep in the mirror and what I saw was uglier than any virus and had to be fixed. I did and keep doing the best I can to fix that. Every day.”
The FiveFields Restaurant, London, UK
“For five months of this year I was in lockdown on my parent’s farm on the west coast of Ireland, a place that I left almost 18 years ago to come to the big city of London to learn about food. Ironic really as I now know that I got the best education on food growing up on a farm.
It really made me fall deeply in love with fruit and vegetables and maybe even cooking a little more. It taught me to appreciate all the little things – things that have I had forgotten or taken for granted over the years and made me refocus.”
Chef/owner, Manresa, California, US
“These unprecedented times, where we are at rock bottom, can be grasped as an opportunity. It is a reset bottom that can allow us, both individually and collectively, to remake ourselves into the profession that we want to be and not be shaped by the expectations of others.
It will be incredibly difficult to pull ourselves out of this mess but we can do it right. I hope that you will understand this burden, to not be pressured by its daunting reality, but to understand it will make us stronger and a true voice in society and culture as a whole.”
Chef/owner, Polly, Vladimir, Russia
“Everything was being taken away from us. And I didn’t want that, as selfish as it might seem. I was worried we’d close and our staff would lose their jobs. I didn’t feel guilty about my selfishness and I still don’t.”
Chefs Warehouse & Thali Restaurant Group, South Africa
“Although our restaurants have been closed for the best part of five months, I have never worked so hard in my life at keeping myself, our businesses and staff afloat and in a healthy, positive state. During this time I have acquired a few new skills, have rewritten my job description several times over, I have learned some of the biggest, most powerful lessons in my life.”
Room 4 Dessert, Bali
“Since March, when we reopened after our annual closing and operated for precisely five days before being closed by ordinance, we have lived (died?) a healthy proportion of our nine lives in the following fashions: A soup kitchen for the hungry; A delivery service; A streaming video host; A grocery store; Another, pop up grocery store; A lunch spot; A happy hour spot; A special events place; A travelling marketplace; A dinner spot; An ice-cream launch . . . And then finally, revisiting what we are supposed to be good at, a signature multi-course menu built around dessert that feels about as relevant as the fourth round of a spectatorless US Open.”
Head chef, Marcus, London, UK
“Many chefs and restaurateurs are having sleepless nights over what the future holds. The only reassuring thing to remember is that we are all in it together. We are not alone and we all need to support each other to get through these devastating, life changing times.”
“If you are reading this and thinking about entering the hospitality industry, it might not seem like it, but there really is no better time. Humanity is searching for that feeling hospitality provides, and we will revive that. The joy of feeding someone is priceless, and you get to do it around people who are like you and share that passion. We all can make a change, and I choose to do that through hospitality. I hope you do too.”
‘Sister’ Carri Thurman
Two Sisters Bakery, Alaska, US
“Dear Young Chef,
Cook. Cook like your life depends on it.
But remember, cooking isn’t the only thing.
Don’t forget to
Take a walk
Drink some water
Talk with someone you care about
Read something besides a recipe
Write something besides a list
Eat something while sitting down
Get some sun on your face
Tell a joke
Hug a friend
You can’t put life into your food if you don’t live one.”
These are edited entries from Lessons from Lockdown: Cooking after Covid