The situation with COVID-19 evolves very rapidly. When I spoke to Alberto Landgraf a few weeks ago, the pandemic situation in Brazil was not as bad as it is today. They say a week is a long time in politics, you could say the same thing about the evolution of this pandemic.
Alberto is the chef of Oteque, in Rio de Janeiro, one of the top restaurants in Brazil. Like many, Alberto is finding he has got much more time than usual which means that he has the time to think, to read and to re-examine everything.
Personally he is not too concerned, he feels fine. And he is not afraid for his business and his fine-dining restaurant. He has more concerns for others in the industry and for the world in general because this pandemic is the biggest crisis we have had to handle for a very long time.
“We are used to economic crisis from the past. In this case, it is not just an economic crisis but also a health crisis. But, we are seeing that despite all the shit that’s going on, there is hope because we see many people helping others. In this crisis, the rich and the poor are dying together with the virus. No one is privileged and if we do not look after each other, we are all going to be in trouble,” he said.
When I spoke to him the first time, Alberto spoke about silence being under-rated and about how he would search for moments to find silence. That meant taking a paddle out to sea.
I remind him about this statement and he smiles. “It is paradise at the moment. A few days ago, I was talking with my counsellor and told her that I was feeling a bit guilty because I was feeling well. It is like I am on holiday. When the restaurant is open, there was pressure of opening the restaurant on time, there is pressure of getting people to the restaurant, there is pressure linked to awards and keeping a high standard. Even when on holiday, or travelling for an event you talk to someone on the phone, you have to see how many reservations came in, if everything was fine. So right now, there is a silence not just outside but also inside and this is something I have not felt for the past 10 to 15 years,” he said.
The Brazilian chef said that during these times it was important not to feel guilty. “This situation is not going to last forever. So you should enjoy the silence because soon there will come a time when there will be a lot of noise again,” he said.
Alberto said the economy in Brazil was fragile and restaurants were a fragile business everywhere in the world. “The situation is complicated. Restaurants in Brazil are closed and there are towns where some businesses are open but these are places with no cases. In the bigger cities, nowhere is open.”
He said it was pointless to open because even if restaurants were open, people would not go to restaurants. “It will take some time even when we will be strong enough to open for people to return to restaurants,” he said.
Alberto is not necessarily concerned for his restaurant because it has only six tables and these are distanced already. “Maybe for me it will be fine. But for restaurants that are bigger, the reopening is going to be complicated,” he said.
Restaurants will recover
How is the restaurant experience going to change when we get out of this, I ask him. “Right now, I get many texts every day from customers telling me that when we get out of this, the first thing they will do is to go out to a restaurant to eat and drink as much as they can. A restaurant is a safe place where you go to forget about your problems before going back to the real world. It is not just about the food but it gives you the possibility to detach. You have those two or three hours where people look after you and you do not have to worry about anything.”
Alberto is positive that restaurants will recover. “Many people in the news say that restaurants will be the last to recover from the crisis. But I don’t agree. I do not think people are going to buy new clothes before going out for a meal. Will they buy a car or new furniture before going out to eat? I have a strong belief that many will be fine.”
Like in any crisis, however, Alberto knows that there will be those that are strong and those that were already struggling before. “Some restaurants were already going down and are using this situation as an excuse to close their restaurants. This is happening everywhere. Churchill used to say I see every crisis as an opportunity,” he said.
So he also sees opportunities for the restaurants that will survive the crisis. However, given this is also a health crisis ‘talking about it is also very delicate,’ he says.
“I have not decided to do any deliveries and to keep my staff safe so that when we are ready to reopen we can ensure that we are back healthy and ready to serve. People understand and appreciate this.”
He is of the view that between 30 to 40 per cent of businesses will close either during the crisis or within three months of the reopening.
Alberto does not think he will need to readapt his business or the way he cooks. “What I cook at the restaurant is what I know. The main reason I am here today is because 20 years ago I believed in a path and I choose to take that path both in tough times and in good times. There were many tough times in the past. I don’t think that I have to change because first, I don’t know how to do anything else and second I also feel that there is no need to change anything. We are still 45 days into this and it is still too early to start making life changing decisions,” he said.
There is no question that there will be an impact on society and Alberto said that there was a need to understand that. “There will be a financial impact for sure but as Ferran Adria once said, the cheapest luxury in today’s world is a dinner at a restaurant.”
Alberto is of the view that the problem at the moment is not about the restaurant world but rather about how we survive the pandemic as a human race because the situation looks ugly.
“Of course, there will be restaurants that will struggle because people are discovering how easy it is to cook at home. It is easy to make a quick meal. So certain restaurants are going to suffer,” he said.
What he is most worried about are the suppliers because these are fundamental to what he does.
“People ask me whether the travel circus surrounding gastronomy is going to stop. I don’t think so because this is sustained by big brands and they want to promote themselves even during the crisis. When this is over, the chef symposiums, the travel is going to be back. Chefs will need this to survive so I think it will be the same, I don’t think there will be a different landscape.”
We need to come out of the crisis thinking that we should consume less, understanding that we can live a simpler life, that we do not need to be on social media all the time and understand that at the end of the day we are fragile.
But he knows changes are in any case necessary. “We need to change as human beings. We need to change our mentality around consumption. I think that we need to come out of the crisis thinking that we should consume less, understanding that we can live a simpler life, that we do not need to be on social media all the time and understand that at the end of the day we are fragile. Even big powers in the history of civilisation crumbled and that is what is happening to us. We have technology, we have research and medicine and money but a flu came and it can destroy us all. “We need to think as human beings before we think as chefs, as journalists, as anything.”
I tell him that people may end up travelling less in future. “For a couple of years, this will be the case but it will come back. For some places, if there is no international tourism they will not survive. In Brazil we complain that we do not perform well on world restaurant lists because we are not on the international route for voters. We are just a destination. But, right now, that is good because restaurants will survive thanks to their local customers. When this ends, such places may end up being stronger than countries or cities that rely on 100 per cent of travelling customers to fill their restaurants.”
He mentions Japan as a case in point. “Japan for me is the last frontier that we have not discovered yet when it comes to food. There is a language barrier and I was hoping that the Olympic Games would break that barrier. Unfortunately, that’s not the case now. But Japan is a good example. They focus on local customers and most restaurants prefer to serve locals, it is actually impossible to get into some places unless you are with locals. That is a very clever thing to do,” he said.
New routines in lockdowns
Reading has always been important for Alberto. He has been using the time to read again. “I have rediscovered the pleasure of reading books. I am also recording some online classes about creativity. This is not about cooking but rather about the creative process.”
There have been some projects that I left on the way side and I am now working on them again. “I had been working on a book about Oteque before I mother got sick and now I can restart the project because I have time for it. I am also exercising, cooking for myself, talking to friends that I have not talked to in a very long time.”
Alberto is young and had not been to el Bulli so he is also using his time to cook from all the el Bulli books. “I had never been to the restaurant so I am trying to go to el Bulli right now. I have all the books which I had not touched before. They are like the bible and I am now looking into the details of the book. A lot of people paid attention to the spheres and foams but there is a lot more in the books. I am going through the recipes with a fine comb. What’s interesting is that you can look at Ferran in real time. As a chef, it is like being a musician, when you eat certain things you don’t need to go back to the recipe. You have a basic knowledge of what’s happening. While there might be new ideas and new ways of understanding things the basics are there. But with Ferran it is different,” he said.
I ask him if he has learned anything from the books and he said that Ferran solved problems which were real with a certain simplicity that made him a genius. “He never stood still. He was always thinking about something. If you think what he created 25 years ago, without a food lab, without the internet, that everything was written on notepads, it is just crazy. He has influenced not just a second generation of chefs but also my generation indirectly.”