Friday, October 22

My strange year eating out and in | Food

me I vividly remember the conversation as we walked through Covent Garden in early February, on our way home from dinner at Yori Korean Restaurant. Or at least my idiotic part of it. “Sounds like the flu,” I said, drunk on too much peach soju. “I’ve had a bad flu before and, well, it didn’t kill me. How bad can this be from Covid?

The reports of this chase weren’t the kind of problem he had time for. Not when there were proper things to worry about, like the British restaurant scene in early 2020 being so jubilant, and so much going on, that paying homage to it was hard enough to plan. Poor me, I know. I needed to make time to go to Abergavenny and visit again Walnut, perhaps in the spring, and then hopefully another dinner at Gareth Ward’s glittering Ynyshir; there were vacancies to review in Edinburgh, and possibly he had already spent too much time at the Ancoats Food Quarter, which some Mancunians called Scrancoats.

Conquering the Beech Tree (prawns, pork fat, burnt apple): Tom Aikens' Muse, London.
Ah, the memories: a dish called Conquering the Beech Tree at Tom Aikens’ Muse, London. Photograph: Karen Robinson / The Guardian

I spent in early 2020 criticizing things I saw as real problems in hospitality: the seemingly unstoppable food hall scene that stole £ 50 from your purse for a custom burger and the privilege of bringing your own drinks from the bar; I was also bothered by the sharp increase in low intervention wine flights, Waiters spent eons lecturing me on food waste, and I was wary of an upcoming visit to Tom Aikens’ new concept dining room, Muse, where the menu was not a list of dishes but a list of feelings (one of the dishes was called “Conquering the Beech Tree. My first memory as a child was a feeling of courage; I was always taking risks and looking for challenges. We had a very tall and beautiful coppery beech tree in our garden that I climbed over and over again. As chefs, we must always challenge ourselves to ourselves “).

What a list of ridiculous non-problems it sounds like now, because that Covid thing turned out to be so disgusting. Turns out, even when I’m well oiled with Korean liquor, I’m not an epidemiologist.

In March, when almost everything came to a halt – stoves off, chairs in place, staff suspended or released – a reality was established in which restaurants may never be the same again. Like many of us, I calmed down a bit with home cooking, planning and list making, soaking lentils and sowing seeds, and activating the alarm for 4 a.m. to secure a drop-off space. at the supermarket. I used golden bananas in cakes, I joined a clandestine network of people who knew where Be-Ro flours were stored and stopped just before naming a sourdough starter.

I started out in a great fighting spirit, but by June I had fallen into a pattern of boring pasta dinners and possibly too many glasses of nullifying pink. The super Saturday in July saw some restrictions lifted and some restaurants reopened, although somehow this (temporary) freedom simply gave me the opportunity to take stock of what we had lost, potentially forever. Finding an open Pret a Manger was suddenly a struggle. The breakfast buffets were unsanitary. Hotel bars were closed until further notice. Organizing an impromptu meal with friends was now a delicate ballet, populated by those who could and did go out and those who did not dare to leave the house. “What do the rules say we can do?” it was a question that my friends and I debated constantly.

The hotel's buffet breakfasts may be a thing of the past.
Is the hotel’s breakfast buffet a thing of the past? Photograph: ribeirorocha / Getty Images / iStockphoto

There were moments of joy at The Clarence Tavern in Stoke Newington, Chuku’s in Tottenham and The Curlew in Bodiam, East Sussex, but then the R rate went up again and the shutters went down again. Early fall was the season for the sophisticated DIY restaurant food kit, from which I really don’t think any restaurant is making a profit. These kits feel more like a flag in the sand stating, “Somewhere here is a restaurant almost alive.” And while I’m happy to try cooking at home, I could do without all the leftover plastic. Each delivery flooded my house with tiny pots, silver foil, plastic bags, and foam insulation, and then after cooking there was all the washing and removal of poorly piped ganache from the ceiling.

Customers eat and drink on the street outside a bar ahead of a coronavirus shutdown in Soho
Take it outside: eat and drink moved to the streets in London’s Soho. Photograph: Bloomberg / Getty Images

All the second lockdown did was reinforce my love for being cooked. In fact, a plate of food made by a chef and placed in front of me with a smile is without a doubt one of the great joys of being human. As 2021 approaches, I realize that what I will miss the most about the future is the excitement of a brimming Friday night restaurant. I’m sorry for days of busy and chaotic service, loud dining rooms, and leaning so close to a friend that you can feel their saliva in your ear as they blow off steam. Those days are gone, I think. I will miss the sticky laminated menus covered in fingerprints and see the faces of the people who serve me. I will miss every restaurant that I don’t return. I’ll miss my naivety that night in Covent Garden, filled with Korean liquor and kimchi and pajeon, that a little virus could change anything. The future of eating out is mysterious and changing. I promise to keep going there and report diligently.

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