'We're not going to open the restaurant yet because I don't feel like we can do it on our terms'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th June 2020

Calling covid-19 'the great equaliser' might have been an overstatement on madonna's part.

But in recent months, restaurants, all the way from high-end fine dining to casual dining - have been forced to radically review their practices to remain in any capacity of business. 

 

Grilled by The Staff Canteen · S2 Ep24 - Sam Buckley, Atul Kochhar and James Cochran

 

There is no one-size fits all: depending on your region, your usual clientele, your style of food and so many other variables, keeping an ongoing relationship with your customer base is tough.

Adapting 

Where The Light Gets In could practice social distancing if it needed to, explained chef and owner Sam Buckley, but will remain closed until it is sure customers feel confident enough to return.

"We're not going to open the restaurant yet because I don't feel like we can do it on our terms," he said.

As for other measures, like perspex screens, shields and masks, he explained: "that's not hospitality to me. That's not the warmth and the embrace. People in my house eat with me."

Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Atul Kochhar agreed, and said: "I haven't been to any restaurant in the world - and I have been to some very conservative countries - where putting screens up is the norm."

"I might as well just send takeaways and send food home - people can sit at home and eat in their gardens, which will be an all better experience than coming to the restaurant," he added. 

If they were to install screens, customers will be disappointed, he said, "and they will stop coming to restaurants, which will be the death of the industry." 

Sam said: "The whole format gears towards us being held stranglehold by a virus. We don't need to learn to live in a coronavirus world."

"We should coerce ourselves into living in a Covid world and setting that up," he added, "but we don't need to make anything permanent. I would be sad to work in that environment and sad to dine in that environment."

Turning a new receipt

For Atul, saving his business has been a case of switching almost all his restaurants to a delivery model.

Indian Essence already did deliveries, so that was fairly straightforward. Hawkyns and Kanishka 'at Home' took a bit longer to set up. 

The chef explained that Hawkyns' delivery service isn't profitable per se, but the chef is set on continuing to rely on the revenue when he reopens, as, in his words, "I don't think people will be rushing back." 

Sindhu, because it is located in a hotel, has remained closed, and Mathura is still a year away from handover - but not so lucky for the chef, he had signed the handover deal for Vaasu, in Marlow, on February 20th. 

"I didn't know where to go to look for water to jump in," he laughed. 

Vaasu will only open for takeaway this year, and will launch properly in the new year.

At Restaurant 1251, not only is delivery the only option while the lockdown is in place, but it will be until all social distancing can be dropped. 

Normally, chef and owner James Cochran said, "we're doing 100 covers on a Saturday; now we're probably going to be doing 25-30 percent of that if we were doing an eight course tasting menu."

But, he remarked, "my food does not work as a delivery service, so I wouldn't be comfortable with doing that. When people come here, you're going to get your food in thirty-five seconds to a minute of when it's been plated."

"What do I do, go against the ethos of what I do, and start charging people £150 a head because we're literally doing 30% of our turnover? No."  

Instead, James and his team members who haven't been furloughed have set their fine dining capabilities aside for the short term and have become full-time chicken connoisseurs. 

Within hours of closing the restaurant, he said, "we came up with the idea of Around The Cluck." True to his style, which weaves his Scottish and his West Indian heritage together, buttermilk jerk chicken seemed "like the perfect gateway." 

His 'dirty chicken with healthy sides' has been a hit, and will be going nationwide as a DIY kit in the coming weeks. 

Another approach is the 'gently reheat' delivery boxes, which is what Sam decided would suit what they do at WTLGI.

The chef explained that he and his team gathered on the Wednesday morning before the Prime Minister ordered the restaurants to shut, and came up with the new concept:The Pickle Factory.

The boxes - of which they sell about 100 a week, within a 7 mile radius, but soon to ship nationwide - include bread, butter, breakfast food, starters using produce from their farm, a broth, meat, roasted veg and optional wine. 

If this wasn't enough to keep them busy, luckily, the chef also has another trick up his sleeve: The Landing.

Located on a rooftop carpark of one of Stockport's Brutalist 1970's shopping centre car parks, the chef secured the space as a secondary location to grow produce - as most comes from the restaurant's own farm in nearby Marple - and plans on opening it for live events (once these are allowed), to sell natural wines, hotdogs and host guest chef events. 

Thanks to The Landing, he said, "we can come together and start talking to our guests again."

Lessons learned 

Showing that they, like many in the industry are adaptable, flexible, and eager to feed their guests by whatever means necessary, is one thing the chefs can agree they will keep with them as they (someday, maybe) resume their operations as they were before. 

But there are some things they don't want to go back to.

Atul joked: "We've all had to become yogis now."

While before his restaurants closed, Atul said he spent too much time pondering "expansion plans, or the systems, or running the place," he became tired of decisions being led by "adding money to the pot."

He added: "This pandemic has paused that and made us think: 'Have a grown in a human way? Have I grown psychologically? Have I connected to my surroundings? Have I learned something new?" 

The chef has also made a pact to spend more time with his family.  

In the future, he said: "I have no desire to work my backside off, come back home tired, sleep and then wake up and find out that my wife has gone to drop off my kids at school and I'm off again, taking a shower and leaving home before she comes home."  

While before, James said his life was, much like the French expression of 'metro, boulot, dodo' (tube, work, sleep), the past three months have been a chance for him to gather his thoughts. 

"It's nice to reflect and appreciate what you have around you." 

In the future, James wants Restaurant 1251 to be a place for his team to share and look out for one another, "for me, my business partner, and the whole restaurant team, to be able to join and have an amazing life," he said. 

Sam acquiesced, and added: "We'd all agree that we've all been too busy to realise that we were too busy." 

"I'm not going back and I don't want my chefs to go back either. I want to spend time with my daughter. We've got rid of our car now, we just walk." 

"If I tried to walk before I would've been like: 'what the hell, I have not got an hour'" 

Recently, he said, he read his business plan for WTLGI, and realised that not only had they accomplished everything they had set out to do, but they had taken it further. 

"I didn't realise why we'd gone further - I haven't got anything else out of it apart from two panic attacks and nervous breakdowns. So we're going back to five courses, we're going to slash the menu price in half." 

"I've done the numbers and it doesn't work," he said. "But I can make it work."

"I hope that we can all realise the pace before and realise what's more important. That's the most important thing to take out of this. Not PPE screens, not worrying about chasing a star or chasing reviews." 

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th June 2020

'We're not going to open the restaurant yet because I don't feel like we can do it on our terms'