Protests against restrictions 'fucking embarrassing'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th October 2020

Yesterday, hospitality professionals including chefs Tom Aikens, Jason Atherton and Yottam Ottolenghi joined a demonstration in London's Parliament Square contesting restrictions and the effect they have had on their businesses.

Organised by grassroots movement Hospo Demo led by food writer Rachel Harty with support from Cancel the Curfew campaigners, Trade and Hospitality Union, industry professionals were invited to join en masse with their loudest utensils to hand to protest restrictions unfairly affecting the industry, which employs more than three million people across the UK.

Restaurants, bars and pubs have felt scapegoated by new rules - which include the total closure of venues in some parts of the country and a ban on mixing households indoors in others.

'We are not the most hard done to industry in the whole world'

But chef and owner of Michelin-starred The Blackbird, Dom Robinson, believes that to protest government measures serves no purpose with regards to supporting the industry. 

"It's just fucking embarrassing," he said. "We are not the most hard done to industry in the whole world." 

Having set up a takeaway service on the first day of the lockdown in March, as well as a deli in the summer, the restaurant reopened in compliance with regulations in October.

While he considers himself lucky that his landlord was amenable to the business' predicament, the chef thinks that it was his team's hard work - and what he sees as abundant government support - that has seen them through this far. 

"We've had a lot of support," he said. "And at the same time, there's a lot of people who just sat on their arse the whole way through lockdown and didn't do anything and then they've reopened again and now there's new restrictions and they're like: 'Oh shit, now we're fucked.'"

"We're a tiny, breadline business. We haven't got any backers and we haven't got anything in the bank, we've just kept it moving," he said.

"I don't feel bad about having strong opinions on this whole thing," he added, "because I could still lose my business despite my staff and I doing everything we could to proactively keep our heads above water. I could still go tits up." 

As far as he is concerned, science should be left up to the scientists, and policy to politicians. 

"It's a fucking pandemic," he said.

"I'm not an expert, I'm not Chris Whitty. I'm a chef. As far as going on Parliament Square banging a load of pots and pans is concerned - surely there's a lot more constructive things that people could do." 

"It's complete bollocks, it's just virtue signalling of the highest order."

"You could get every single Michelin star chef in the world in front of Boris Johnson and SAGE at a Cobra meeting and say the curfew is wrong and they wouldn't give a shit because it's bigger than the hospitality industry," he added. 

"Yes jobs are important, yes people's livelihoods are important but the hospitality industry is not the most important thing on God's green earth."

"We're not key workers, we're not NHS, we're not saving lives, we're giving people joy from going out and eating at the end of the day."

"Cooking has been my whole life and it's my obsession," he said, "but at the end of the day there are a lot of people that are more aggrieved and have had it a lot rougher than we have. You didn't see the nurses out on the street fucking protesting about not having any PPE did you. No, they just got on with it." 

"So if it comes to - is the NHS going to get swamped, do we need a curfew, I don't know, I'm not an expert but what I do know is that if it's the difference between us having to close at 10 and the NHS being completely swamped, I know which one I'm going to choose." 

"A lot of people will say that I'm callous, but come on. They've obviously just been there, bought their pots and pans from the shop on the way.

"That's not going to achieve anything. The government are not suddenly going to do a u-turn." 

London-centric

What's more, he said, the rally failed to show an understanding of what is happening in other parts of the country. 

 "London is a lot better off than Liverpool at the moment, but the protest was quite London-centric."

The chef lived in the capital for fifteen years and professes great affection for the city. However, he said: "London is not the rest of the UK. It's a different animal. Especially when it comes to how the restaurant industry works, it's just not the same thing at all. 

"It's obviously not going to achieve anything, a few hundred people banging pans in Parliament Square. With the best will in the world, it's not going to do anything."

Having expressed his views with regards to the campaign in favour of a hospitality minister, Dom considers that the industry has been given as much assistance as is possible, under no illusions as to the fact that it will have to be paid back by taxpayers when we emerge from the crisis. 

"From the assistance that we've had - from the furlough scheme and the grants and the business interruption loan and the VAT - I think we did alright out of it to be honest." 

Pointing to the arts sector, and to his local theatre, where most are self-employed, he said: "They're fucked. They're absolutely fucked. They can't plan anything, they can't plan shows or start rehearsals, they don't know what's happening next and it's taking a long, long, long time to get funding."  

"I know so many small hospitality businesses who aren't complaining, who are getting on with it and doing what they can do - and there just seems to be a lot of people who haven't done anything and are complaining about it."

With the hospitality industry in dire straits before coronavirus, the chef knows it is a struggle. 

"I've been teetering on the edge since day 1," he said. 

"I've lost so much fucking money doing this pub, chasing this dream of mine, so I know all about that. It's not like I'm sitting here in my ivory tower with a backer saying stop complaining, I sweated my arse off during lockdown doing fucking takeaway on my own. I've been there and I've not complained about it, you just have to get on with your lot in life."

For him, Covid-19 "is a giant shit sandwich and we [the hospitality industry] have to take a bite out of it."

With no other option but to soldier on, he said: "It's just about thinking outside the box and doing whatever you can to squeeze the revenue."

"I've got a responsibility to my suppliers, to my staff, and I've also got a responsibility to my business and to my family." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th October 2020

Protests against restrictions 'fucking embarrassing'