As cities came to a standstill, as airports closed, as streets become deserted and as people hibernated for the longest spring in our living history, many thought we were going to experience a revolution that would change the world we live in. There would be the pre COVID-19 world and the post COVID-19 world.
The restaurants emptied, the kitchens became colder, the hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen came to an immediate halt.
Now, as more and more countries start to reopen for business, the more things change, they more they have stayed the same. In the darkest moments of the COVID-19 crisis many thought that there would be considerable and even radical changes to the world of food and restaurants in particular.
A few days ago while speaking with Andrea Petrini, one of the most influential food writers in the world, founder of GELINAZ!, an avant-garde chef’s collective he asked me “Where are the new ideas?”
How are you is how the conversation started and he told me that he had been speaking to René Redzepi the other day and told him that he was broke (because he had not really writing much), bored (because he was in Lyon and hadn’t moved much) and disappointed because for all the talk about sustainability and about the future, the impression he had was that not much had changed or would change going forward.
I’ve heard the question before and if I had to be honest even I have been disappointed with what has emerged so far. It is maybe easy to sit down and write this when you don’t have skin in the game as one of my favourite writers, Nassim Taleb, would rightly say. But after months of closure and with many restaurants and business struggling to survive the question as to what the future holds for gastronomy is one worth asking.
As we emerge from the lockdowns and return to a semblance of ‘normality’, we realise that there is a post COVID-19 world but the question is whether the five stages of ‘grief’ have led us to accept that things are not really going to change and that we have accepted the hardship of the past few months and are now ready to go back to living just as if it was business as usual ‘because we need to live’.
There is of course no question that like any other business, but in particular, for restaurants which operate on really tight margins, cashflow is essential to pay the bills but what happens if there is further volatility going forward.
“We’ve been full but the volatility of cancellations is something that we have never experienced before”
As we see the spread of the virus escalate in various parts of the world and small lockdowns being imposed in various countries that have reopened, are we ready for a second wave, if and when it happens?
At a Zoom conference earlier this week, Massimo Bottura, the acclaimed chef of one of the best restaurants in the world. Osteria Francescana spoke about the huge amount of last minute cancellations which is making the reservations team at his restaurant work around the clock to fill tables. “We’ve been full but the volatility of cancellations is something that we have never experienced before,” he said.
Over the past few days, we’ve seen Michelin come back with announcements of new stars in Slovenia and central Europe.
We’ve also seen the publication of the new Opinionated About Dining lists, which given the circumstances, let us be frank, looked a bit ridiculous.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list will not be published this year and thank God for that. How, it can resume next year when most people have not been travelling around this year is something the organisers must be having headaches about. They’re trying to come up with initiatives to help restaurants survive and return to business as usual but is this what is really needed at this juncture?
Is this doing a disservice to restaurants, chefs and entrepreneurs who might not feel the urge to change as they think that keeping things as they are is the best route to survive?
Going to a city, region or country without savouring its food was like going to Paris and not taking the time to see the Eiffel Tower or visiting Rome and not visiting the Vatican You knew that ultimately, the trip was not complete.
The reality is that the challenges will come in a few months time, when restaurants may not be able to use outdoor terraces and hence maximise their space. Will operations be sustainable and if not what happens next?
There is no question that if you are reading this, you are one of many who have missed going out to a restaurant, you have missed the buzz of the restaurant service and restaurant food which you cannot make at home no matter your skill level. More than ever in history, restaurants have become cultural phenomena. They have become central to city trips, they’ve created destinations and also steered us culturally like food had never done before. Travel today, or should we rather say yesterday, centred around food more often than not. Going to a city, region or country without savouring its food was like going to Paris and not taking the time to see the Eiffel Tower or visiting Rome and not visiting the Vatican. You knew deep down, the trip was not complete.
Until March, we were in an era of what I liked to call peak food. Maybe, it was because we succumbed to what some call the filter bubble but the reality is that social media feeds, whether they’re Instagram, Facebook or Twitter were all full of food related posts. Professional chefs, food writers, journalists, foodies, bloggers, influencers, even personalities and home cooks created a food mania that became more and more intense as time went by.
Of course, like in any global circuit in any other industry, the actual ‘movement’ was limited to a small number of foodies, chefs and influencers who travelled incessantly from one part of the world to another to eat at different restaurants, to cook here and there for a service clocking air miles and carbon emissions that would put the impact of cows’ farts and burps on CO2 emissions to shame. Many than voted for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Away from the bustling frenzy of awards, lists, stars, hats and what not, wasn’t the pandemic, a three month lockdown and the subsequence void it created, the time for reflection and maybe a new way of thinking?
In various other fields and sectors, the pandemic has been an accelerator of trends that were visible before but took off at full throttle with the COVID-19 crisis. What has been the accelerator of trends when it comes to food and restaurants? Is it the delivery business? Is it scaling to other projects to build economies of scale and try and retain staff? Or is this a business that is so historic that no innovation or change is at all possible.
When René Redzepi announced he would be reopening noma as a burger bar as part of the ‘rehabilitation’ process after the lockdown some were shocked. How could one of the world leaders of the restaurant world not be more ambitious? Is this all he and his team could come up with some asked.
Others asked whether this was the end of fine dining? If Redzepi is going to sell burgers, can a destination restaurant that relies on people to travel to the restaurant survive the pandemic and its aftermath.
I personally took the opposite view. I thought he was not just genius but also humble enough to get his hands dirty and show the world that ultimately when times are bad, you need to lead by example and restart the engine in whichever way you can. His venture, albeit temporarily as it ended a few days ago, was a runaway success and went beyond his wildest dreams.
It also gave him and his team the possibility to serve locals and make a connection with people who were curious to see what noma was all about. They were connecting with people they would normally not have done before. And it brought locals to noma in droves creating a bond that might last particularly if a second wave hits again or if the jet-set crowd visiting restaurants around the world is not able to travel like before.
There are many lessons to be learned here. First, whether you run the most influential restaurant in the world or not, you need to survive first and you need to ensure that you keep as many of your team if not all on board in the project. Second, there is probably a limit as to the number of destination restaurants that can survive a drop in tourism over the coming months and years. If that’s the case, then it would be prudent to prepare for changes to the business model to ensure survival.
How Noma will look like in the coming weeks or months no one knows but the restaurant will now also be accessible (at least in small numbers) to walk-ins which will ensure that it starts to build a more local and hence more sustainable customer base.
There have been many who took the ‘take-away’ route which again also looks here to stay. This might not form part of the core business of a restaurant but it is a way to diversify the business, to add resilience and scale and also to retain customer loyalty because as Sergio Herman rightly pointed out at the opening of a food deli in Antwerp a few weeks ago, ‘it is not like everyone can eat out every day’.
There have been various interesting projects that centre around business ideas more than creativity in food and that is not bad at all. Collaborations between restaurants offering a ‘four-hands’ or ‘six-hands’ takeout menu, restaurants that deliver to cities that they don’t normally work in, that is going where the customer is rather than waiting for the customer to come.
We’ve seen restaurants like Bon Bon in Brussels or L’Air du Temps in Liernu, Belgium experiment with space. The first turning a fine dining restaurant into a bistro on the days when it is closed, the latter using the garden to create a summer winebar again to bring customers in.
We’ve seen fine dining restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, for example, be turned into soup kitchens in New York but now, as things slowly return back to a new normal, are things going to change or are they going to stay the same?
What is the future going to be like for destination restaurants? Are destination restaurants in a city going to have a better time than those in the countryside? Will a local clientele be enough or will this require a complete rethink of the restaurant as we know it.
Going forward, the most important creative ideas will not emerge from the kitchen but rather from the invention of new business models and concepts.
The crisis has shown that chefs today cannot just be chefs but they need to be first and foremost entrepreneurs and leaders of talent. They need to create the right environment for their team to be safe and to thrive. They need to retain talent because that is what makes or breaks any team. Moreover, they need to diversify because putting all their eggs in one basket is a risk that in today’s turbulent times is too risky.
Chefs need to realise and make use of the ‘brand’ that they have created over the past years. Noma has shown that a ‘humble’ burger done well can generate not just a media frenzy but also lots of interest from customers.
Of course, not everyone is René Redzepi or Massimo Bottura but everyone has the potential to build a brand, to master that one skill that makes a difference even with the most humble products or ingredients. Going forward, I believe that the most important creative ideas will not emerge from the kitchen but rather from the invention of new business models and concepts.
We may have been disappointed by what has emerged to date but let’s not forget, some of the world’s best works of art in our history have been created during the worse of times. Who is going to take the mantle?