If you’ve been paying attention to the London restaurant world over the last couple of weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s been transformed into a socialist utopia: trendy wine bars which used to offer tiny portions and no service have suddenly become stolovayas feeding the hungry masses, delivery box by delivery box. ‘We’re in this together’, the industry declaims, extolling the adaptability and industry of both its leaders and also the rank-and-file. Profit has been forgotten, rather, it is the solidarity that will pull everyone through the crisis. But think about it: what happens when an industry run on freebies, a mutual, simmering hatred and the industrial amount of cocaine flowing through the Novikov toilet pipes comes to a screaming, juddering halt?
The reality is that the food world is in meltdown right now. Everyone in this world is fucked: from the self-styled captains of industry, chefs, PRs, and the food writers and influencers who attach themselves to the carousel like barnacles on a baleen whale. But who is the most fucked?
If they’ve been put on furlough, most chefs who don’t own their restaurant are going to make it out of this alright (even though the government hasn’t yet taken into account that a significant portion of their wages is made up through service charge). However, they are out of their minds. They are skull-numbingly bored. Having got used to ‘feeding off the buzz’ of a busy restaurant, they’ve found themselves back home with a resentful partner they previously had a good excuse to avoid and screaming children who keep shitting on their mise-en-place. The chefs who own their own restaurants are silent right now. They’re either up to their eyes in the most excruciating paperwork, as they navigate the labyrinth of the Job Retention Scheme; or in some cases, at their second mansion in the Home Counties, while their accountant wades through the admin. The others, needing something – anything – to take their minds off it, have all pivoted to Instagram, where they begrudgingly give away the secrets of the recipes they have hoarded throughout their careers. They are now reduced from a semi-rock star lifestyle to spending 20 stories on the correct way to emulsify a cacio e pepe, or how to make chickpea flour crumpets. They’re wary that if they reveal too much people may realise this cooking lark is easier than it looks.
Broadsheet Restaurant Critics
You would think that having no restaurants to review might be a bit of a problem. But actually you would be wrong. This is the perfect situation. The secret is most critics hate food and regard it as a vexing, time-consuming obstacle getting in the way of their favourite topic – what they really want to write about – which is of course: themselves. Finally, they can still get paid to write, but they no longer have to go through the rigmarole of actually having to do any research. Soon Sundays will be full of articles about imaginary restaurants: a newly opened oligarch-hangout in Chelsea that Jay Rayner can gleefully take down for charging too much for an artichoke starter; a fake West London bistro William Sitwell won’t even have to spend the energy of a five-minute walk to visit. Oh god, we’re going to get Giles Coren’s Kentish Town guide to tin-can survival aren’t we? This will be a new golden age of solipsistic restaurant reviews without the restaurants: we can’t wait to hear the novel ways our critics can make the pandemic about them.
They used to dread the Monday emails from the PRs, advertising some godforsaken concept in Hoxton that no one in their right minds would ever pay for, or a new initiative from a chef no one wants to cover, because he is widely acknowledged to have a pair of wandering hands. But now those emails have dried up, and they have started to miss them. They have nothing to write about. Please, someone, anyone, just tell them Sexy Fish are organising coronavirus parties to build up herd immunity for the Mayfair elite, or that Gordon Ramsay is starting a new pan-African restaurant in Belgravia called Lucky Gazelle inspired by his head chef’s one visit to Apartheid-era Cape Town, or that Sketch is spending £2,000 on return flights to whizz Grant Achatz over for a dinner based around the idea of sustainability. No concept, no one-night-only collaboration, no £150 vegan tasting menu is too frivolous to cover. Just please, please not another article about Jason Atherton’s store cupboard recipes.
Those uber-cool restaurant guides, you know the ones, the ones that thought by rewriting PR emails (it’s a skill you know) and decontextualising restaurants from culture, class and any sort of politics they were ‘disrupting’ food writing? Well, that pivot looks kinda uncomfortable doesn’t it? Plus, there are only so many ‘10 restaurants which are still open’ lists that people can take.
Bougie Food Shop Owners
‘While we feel it is essential to stay open during these crazy times, our first priority is the safety and wellbeing of our staff. We have made a few small changes to the shop layout to make things easier. First off, no one is allowed inside the shop, and you must keep a five-metre perimeter from the entrance at all times. If you wish to buy anything, please use the pen provided and write what you would like on a piece of paper and carefully post it through the door. From there our wonderful staff, dressed head-to-toe in ethically-sourced hazmat suits, will peruse the shop for you and put your items together. If we don’t have an item, say an onion, then we will substitute it for the nearest available Natoora produce that we can find. Please immediately take your items from the box. I’m afraid we can’t offer any refunds, but do have a nice day and stay safe.’
Terrifyingly the #invites have dried up and influencers are now facing an existential crisis over what they contribute to the world. What if there was nothing to be influenced by, or anyone to influence? Well, the ones who actually know how to cook are doing fine. They can still recreate those sick noodle pulls in the comfort of their own home, even if it’s just with a pack of Shin Ramyun and a single slice of Kraft cheese. But the rest? Stuck having to fill a vacuous feed with content either cobbled together from photos taken in February (‘Don’t know about you but can’t wait to be back eating Meatliquor’s Dead Hippie Burger once this is all over!’) or sad, professionally lit photos of a single piece of toast on their kitchen table hashtagged #stayathome. Their father was technically a Baron but they’re currently researching ways of monetising taking photos of veg boxes and/or investigating if they can sue the people of New Malden for stealing their ideas on Korean food (which they brought to London in 2010).
It’s difficult to overstate how monumentally fucked PRs are right now. Previously the all-important conduit between the restaurant world and the lifestyle media, now they are stuck as the middleman between two industries that don’t currently exist. They’re now about as useful as someone trying to translate ancient Aramaic into Esperanto. Yet you’re still getting those emails: ‘Hope you’re doing well in these strange and crazy times! Just wanted to reach out and wondered if you would consider Eggslut, which is still open as usual, doing takeaway and delivery. Food writers, this is the perfect time to tell them that a) how are you grasping hoarders still open when there is an egg shortage going on? and b) actually, even if the pandemic had wiped out every single restaurant in London, and somehow Eggslut was the only takeaway service still standing, you still wouldn’t consider it.
Because places like Eggslut have designated themselves as an ‘essential’ business – even though everyone in Notting Hill who ever considered eating there is somewhere in a cabin in the Cotswolds, telling anyone who will listen to them that self-isolation is sooooo much better in the country, and maybe, you know, humans are the real virus – all the staff have been kept on and are now working as delivery drivers. In some ways, it’s better than dealing with the usual braying crowd of influencers incessantly photographing scrambled egg with a 10x mark-up while their sriracha mayo congeals, but hold on, isn’t there a pandemic going on? Where is their significant wage increase? As ever, the most fucked are not those at the top but at the bottom of the restaurant chain – the dishwashers who were laid off before Rishi Sunak had time to say ‘Job Retention Scheme’, the delivery drivers working overtime, the low-waged service workers googling the lifetime of COVID-19 on the new £10 notes they get paid with, the immigrants who weren’t registered and have to choose between being paid and possibly being deported. Meanwhile Deliveroo and Uber Eats are circling like vultures, dreaming of a day when the inconvenience of actual restaurants no longer exists, and everything can be sent from dark kitchens hidden on every street, straight to a customer’s door within five minutes. If anyone is going to come out of this considerably un-fucked, it’s them.