It is a sunny though brisk morning. A perfect day for a lunch by the sea. If you had to ask me what would you like to eat right now at a restaurant, I wouldn’t really ask for much. The thing I miss most at the moment is a perfectly cooked spaghetti with fresh sea urchins. The last time I ate them, it was in Rimini last September but that is a distant memory. Maybe a mixed platter of grilled fish and seafood as a main course. I’m not really asking for much. I’m looking more for comfort food, for memories of better times. You’ll settle for just that you might be asking? I certaintly would not say no to a Cacio e Pepe by Riccardo Camanini. But you get the gist. The reality is that restaurants, for the time being, look like a distant memory particularly where I live.
The question I keep asking myself these days is how was it possible to do so much before the pandemic came and forced us all, or at least, many of us home? And what’s going to happen when this never ending marathon of a nightmare ends or at least enables us to return to a semblance of normality?
I only need to look back to my photo album from two years ago to notice the difference. Was it an unsustainable lifestyle? Where did I find the time? As a ‘judge’ for the newly launched World Restaurant Awards I had travelled to New York, Tokyo and Kyoto within the first few weeks of January (not to mention a two-day trip to Lyon just before the end of December which could have been the mother of all eating splurges such was the amount of calories consumed in less than 24 hours at La Mere Brazier and Paul Bocuse).
Nevertheless, I weighed a few kilos less than I did today, I had a few less white hairs and maybe some more hair.
I can count the visits to restaurants of note last year on my fingers tips, maybe a bit more but you get the gist. Before 2020, that figure was easily achievable on an ‘average’ month.
Now one year after losing the habit, the question I ask myself is will that habit return back? And if it does, in what shape and form would it be,
The first lockdowns all got us thinking about the future of gastronomy but when we emerged from them not much had changed other than maybe a recognition of how much we had missed the restaurant as a social space. Many flocked to restaurants though not all, at least judging from my Twitter or Instagram feed but the situation has been different in all the four corners of the world.
Chefs had masks on, sommeliers and waiters also and there was a sense of apprehension but in general things were not so different.
Then came the second lockdown and this time, the closure of the restaurants, at least in some countries has been even more prolonged. In the country I know best, Belgium, restaurants have been closed since the end of October and there is still no indication when they will reopen. Some speculate it will be in March, others don’t think it will be before April or when the weather will allow for the reopening of outdoor dining.
That will make it nearly six consecutive long months of not dining out. What’s that going to do to restaurant teams? What’s that going to do to producers and their fresh products? And what’s that going to do to restaurant goers? These are all questions that are difficult if not impossible to answer.
At the start of the year, the Michelin Guide has tried to show us a semblance of normality. Out came the guides for Belgium, Luxembourg, France, the UK and Ireland, Hong Kong and Macau. For some it is pointless, for others it is a breath of fresh air, a sign of hope in all the doom and gloom. The reality, however, is that no one knows what the shape of dining is going to look like in the coming months.
There is still no perspective, no light at the end of the tunnel. But once we exit this tunnel creativity is bound to explode.
In my conversation with David Ghysels, the founder of Dinner in the Sky and a top creative who has worked in advertising and communications for many years which you will be able to read next week, he speaks of us still being in the middle of a dark tunnel. “There is still no perspective, no light at the end of the tunnel.” But he believes that once we exit this tunnel, creativity is bound to explode like it has done in other pandemics and times of crisis.
I hope he is right, and I think he is but I get the sense that this marathon is going to take its toll in ways we cannot foresee. Many speak of the roaring 20s after the great influenza and the end of World War 1 and while I am optimistic, I doubt things will return the way we knew them. There is still a lot of uncertainty that is likely to stay for some time.
One interesting reflection was made by Danny Meyer in a podcast I shared with readers of our newsletter last week. In it, he spoke of first time restauranteurs probably being in the best possible situation when there is a return to ‘normal’. He believes they will be able to negotiate the best rents for vacant spaces for restaurants that are already equipped. He was less hopeful for existing group of restaurants that are struggling in many ways.
Like in every aspect of life, there are clearly going to be winners and losers. What I’ve noticed is that those that have been active on social media before the pandemic hit have been able to pivot much quicker than others. They had a ready audience that was supportive. We have seen restaurants and chefs enter the takeaway business that would have been unthinkable a few months ago.
These restaurants or chefs that have an audience are bound to emerge better than the rest. Why? Because they have kept their customers and fan base engaged. Even if it is by sharing home what they have been doing at home or their latest take-out service, they have remained connected. But for those without a social media presence, or where their presence used to be an after thought, the risk is that after such a long time closed and inactive the client based will have moved elsewhere. That is the plight facing many.
I still think one of the most interesting things to emerge from the first wave in the land of gastronomy was Rene Redzepi turning Noma, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world into a burger bar for the first few weeks of the reopening. It was a moment of pure genius. A destination restaurant, one that might not be normally accessible to people living in the city opened its doors with the most humble of fast-food products. It was a moment of much needed connection and a sign from one of the world’s leading chefs that doing nothing was not an option.
Many others have followed with serving burgers as takeaways during the second wave. There have also been many who have done charity work, fed the poor or those in the health sector during the crisis and others who did their best to help producers by turning their restaurants into shops selling either fresh or processed produce. These were just a few of the innovations that have taken place but there are far more fundamental questions as to what the future of gastronomy will look like.
A lot of things are likely to stay the same, at least at face value. The more things change, the more they stay the same. But will that really be the case in the medium term?
Every restaurant is different and there will be space for all types of restaurants. But many will be forced to think and act differently. The number of destination restaurants will probably decrease considerably. Why? Because there are likely to be less people travelling than before. People will still travel, they might even travel more but they will do it differently also because the capacity of airlines will be lower than it was prior to the pandemic for months if not years to come.
If people will travel for longer, will they go to the same destinations or will they choose differently. After many have been locked down, will city travel pick up or will people prefer the countryside?
Michelin last year introduced the ‘Green’ star and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list have been awarding sustainability but what is really sustainability? How do we measure it? And what should it include? Is a sustainable restaurant one that uses local produce? Is a sustainable restaurant one that operates a zero waste policy? Or is a sustainable restaurant one that does all this but also ensures that everyone get’s paid fairly from the producers to the trainees? What about clients who travel from far? How are these factored into the ‘sustainability’ of a restaurant? What is going to be the impact of restaurants in cities that have catered not necessarily as destination restaurants but for business travel. Will business travel return? In what form?
Until last year, searching for the next big thing was not only thrilling but kept us going. Today, nearly a year into the pandemic, I’ll speak about myself first, I’m no longer sure what I am looking for. Maybe just sitting down in a restaurant or on a terrace with family and friends will suffice. Maybe not being anxious any longer in a closed public space would be enough.
What about fine dining? There will be time for that but it is likely to be considerably different. More local, more human, more sustainable and definitely more personal. Because that personal touch is what we are all missing at the moment.