BRUSSELS: It has been many days since I last used my car. Last Saturday, at 4.40pm I left home in the direction of central Brussels to pick up a delivery from Casse-Croute, the boutique takeaway that Karen Torosyan opened soon after the lockdown at Bozar Restaurant in Brussels, Belgium.
The streets were deserted. Empty. Driving slowly around felt like I was the only one out. That feeling would be replicated days later when I decide to walk to the city centre to look at what has become a ‘ghost’ town.
I arrive a few minutes before 5pm, the time of my appointment with Karen.
Parking is no problem, I leave my car around the corner, something that until a few weeks ago would have been unthinkable.
I am a few minutes early. For many weeks now, apart from family and neighbours, I’ve spoken to people I know only via my phone. It feels weird.
There is a sign on the side door to the restaurant asking you to call the chef once you have arrived. He’s busy in the kitchen so he tells me to wait a few minutes.
It’s sunny so people are walking outside the restaurant. Some look at pages from the chef’s book which was published last year and which today seems like a decade back. Some are running, some stroll by on their ‘quarantine walk’.
A few minutes later he’s up and ready to open the door for me. He disinfects his gloves, then with a wipe he disinfects the two door handles, first the one inside and then the one outside.
I walk in. He has prepared most of my order but we have a little chat keeping our distance. This feels like a taste of the future.
Karen Torosyan is one of the first chefs in Belgium that immediately adjusted to the new situation. Within days of the forced lockdown he was back in his kitchen cooking by himself. “They told us to close the restaurants, they did not tell us not to cook,” he said.
Now, six weeks into the lockdown, the chef is appreciating the new reality. He knows that we are in this for the long haul. “I could have sat down and done nothing but for me this is a way to understand the new reality and to also reflect on how things will look like after.”
He also has contact with his clients, something he always enjoyed thanks to his open kitchen but maybe not as intimate as it is today.
“A few days ago, someone called me while they were cooking the pie in the oven because it seemed like the cooking was going faster than expected. This contact with customers is something that I am really enjoying.”
The Armenian born chef has been able to replicate a lot of what has made him famous in the restaurant to his Brussels clientele at home.
The pie we get and cook at home is stuffed with veal and pork. The end result is as beautiful as what is served at the restaurant. Karen has done at least 95 per cent of the work but there is the added satisfaction of bringing it out of the oven and seeing it looks good, very good.
We order other things from the restaurant, the picture perfect Jambon Persillé, the pate en croute which has made him world famous, a rillettes of mackerel, fois gras. Everything is exceptional.
With the help of Arnaud De Schepper, he has now taken to also explaining how to prepare certain dishes at home on his Facebook page. Chefs and restaurants are having to invent themselves and Karen knows that the challenge of reopening the restaurant will not be the first wave of customers who will go out to eat once restaurants reopen but rather once these customers understand what the new normal is going to look like.
When people who want to enjoy a night out will go to a restaurant, they are going to realise that the experience is going to be extremely different to what they were used to before. There may be less contact with the staff, the amuse bouche will be served differently, food may be served with gloves. There will be fewer people in restaurants because of forced social distancing.
Karen is preparing not only mentally but also in practice for these changes. For the time being, he is extremely grateful to be learning on a daily basis. “People go to a restaurant because they want to enjoy themselves, they also go to a restaurant because they want to eat something special that they might not make at home. I’ve been thinking a lot about the sort of experience I should provide with the added satisfaction of finishing something at home,” he said.
He is also winning new customers one at a time. “I’ve had customers who’ve never been to the restaurant, who maybe come for a portion of paté en croûte and then return a few days later for more. They will be new customers of the restaurant when it reopens.”