BRUSSELS: If one thing is certain for Christophe Hardiquest, it is the fact that restaurants will be completely different to what we know them when they reopen after the lockdown.
“Gastronomy is going to change completely for different things and different reasons. Chefs will need to be creative and rethink what they do completely. At the moment we have a coronavirus crisis but after this there is going to be an economic crisis and we need to think things differently,” he told Food and Wine Gazette in a phone interview.
Hardiquest is chef of two Michelin star restaurant Bon-Bon in Brussels and one of the most internationally recognised chefs in Belgium but he does not see a return to two or three Michelin star experiences anytime soon.
For two weeks after the Belgian government announced a lockdown and the closure of restaurants, the Belgian chef took a break. “I needed to take a rest for a couple of days. It was necessary. I’ve now been back in the kitchen trying out new things, testing local products because the reopening will definitely involve local produce,” he said.
After having prepared the menu for the restaurant reopening, when this materialises, he started to prepare food for hospital staff in collaboration with Rob’s Gourmet market (see story here).
Since then, he is working and constantly thinking about the future of gastronomy and the future of his business.
“What’s for sure is that I want to retain all my staff. But I know that when we reopen we will not be able to engage all our staff and we will need to reopen the restaurant with maybe a third of the staff,” he said.
To retain his staff, Christophe is thinking about a strategy and a number of projects that can sustain the numbers. That might mean having to have a number of side projects.
Christophe believes that the time spent in a restaurant by guests will be considerably shorter than before. “I am thinking of a service of a maximum of 1 hour 45 minutes. I think that the days of 14 course menus are over, at least for the time being,” he said.
He is of the view that people will not be able to choose from an a la carte menu. “Contact with staff will be minimal. Chefs will need to think efficiently about how they take orders, the way they cook and what to propose. I am thinking that guests might come to the restaurant having already seen the menu proposed on the website. There might be wine pairing which is included. Guests might return to the restaurant each week because the menu is changing all the time,” he said.
Serving a la carte will be difficult because it will require a larger selection and the chance of ‘contaminating’ the product and the guest could increase.
Christophe believes that the information about what hygienic rules to use in the kitchen will need to be made very clear to staff and to the waiters. “I am thinking that we might need to offer more food to share which means that the staff will bring things to the table and therefore ensure there is the minimal possible contact.”
Without trust people will not come to restaurants.
Trust is going to be essential going forward. “Our customers will need to trust us and the way we work. All customers will need to trust restaurants and restauranteurs. If there is no trust, they will not come to the restaurants. We need to send a message to the guests and to the government about the rules we will apply in our kitchens and in the dining rooms,” he said.
The date of reopening of restaurants in Belgium, like in many other countries, for the time being remains unclear.
“Once we have clarity, I will speak with my managers in the restaurant and organise a meeting to discuss the most important things we need to do directly after we open. I also have different projects and different ideas in mind with the aim to keep all my staff because I don’t want anyone to remain unemployed. It is important for a small company like ours to retain our staff. We are all in the same situation and we need to find solutions,” he said.
Christophe thinks that the economic crisis will also have an impact on the way we eat. “I think that many will come out of this crisis financially weakened and will be cautious about spending. So the way we eat, what we eat and what we drink will change pretty much everywhere in the world. We may need to have different units of restaurants, maybe a food truck, I don’t know. We need to experiment with different possibilities and bring our knowledge to consumers,” he said.
Food will certainly be simpler than before. “Comfort food will win and you will see more simple things on plates. There will be less frills than before. We will go to the simple things that are very good and very tasty. I think that this as well as healthy eating will win in the next couple of months,” he said.
He is also of the view that there will be more use of vegetables and food coming from the garden. “Everything is going to change. Some of this change will come from the loss of hands in the kitchen and with less staff you can only focus on simple things. I think that the guests will also need to be more tolerant to these changes that will take place.”
The reality is that for a minimum of at least two years people will not be travelling like before. We will therefore need to adjust to working with local produce and with local guests.
Christophe is of the view that the two and three Michelin star experience as we know it is over. “I’ll speak for myself but I don’t think we can be offering this. There are too many rules, there are too many open questions. What is important is that restaurants open but then we need to reflect on what the experience will be. Restaurants that cater to foreign guests will need to adapt because international guests will not be able to travel so how can they have a full restaurant with locals. This is going to be the new reality and it is going to be like this for a minimum of at least two years. We therefore need to adjust to working with local produce and with local guests during this time.”
The chef said he was thinking that people will be scared to travel from one continent to another.
He is missing the time with his staff, the morning handshakes, the coffees and brainstorming though he enjoys the time with his family.
“I hope that when we come out of the lockdown, people will still want to go out and that social life restarts slowly for everybody and everybody will feel the need to go out and share a bottle of wine and a meal.”
But he is also aware that one mistake and the situation could be back to square one which could land a catastrophic blow to restaurants. “We need to find solutions to ensure that what we propose is hygienic and the consumer can trust us in each step. I am constantly thinking of all the things that need to be done and the list is endless. Just imagine a simple issue like toilets and how do you handle this,” he said.
“I am following what’s happening elsewhere, I am speaking to colleagues in Asia. The restaurants are empty even though they were open. They are doing mainly take away and have guests mainly on a Saturday night for the time being. There is also talk of a second lockdown and that is why there is a risk of reopening too early because if there is another longer lockdown it would be the end,” he said.
He is grateful though that in Europe, there is a safety net called social security which allows staff and small businesses to survive.
“We as humans need to find new solutions to adapt to the crisis. This is the moment for new ideas, it is the moment for new visions. It is tough to change your mind but it is essential to focus on new things,” he said.
What’s for sure for Christophe is that sustainability and organic will be the most powerful themes of the next couple of months.