As the coronavirus pandemic hit, the shutters came down on most of the UK’s restaurants. But over the past few weeks, behind these darkened windows there has been a hive of activity – fresh tagliatelle has been rolled out and lamb chops have been seasoned to perfection – with some of the country’s best chefs adapting to survive.
On Friday night Bombay Bustle, the Mayfair restaurant inspired by the Dabbawalas, the institution of men who use Mumbai’s famed local railway and bicycles to deliver home-cooked meals across the city, will launch a delivery service in keeping with this ethos.
Meanwhile, across the Thames in Bermondsey, Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett has been serving up dishes for customers in their homes for three weeks.
On Thursday, Noma, reputedly the best restaurant in the world, replaced its 20-course meals costing £300 with £20 burgers as it transformed into a temporary outdoor burger and wine bar, as lockdown restrictions were eased in Denmark.
Closed since 14 March, the two-Michelin starred restaurant run by chef René Redzepi, normally requires pre-paid reservations months in advance, but is offering a “drop-in-only” system.
With just two burgers on offer – the ‘Noma cheeseburger’ and the ‘Noma veggie burger’ – both described as being “packed with umami, with a little bit of magic from our fermentation cellar, and served on a freshly baked potato bun” – the restaurant will be open from 1pm to 9pm Thursday to Sunday.
The cheeseburger, featuring dry-aged bavette steak, beef garum (a fermented sauce with roots in ancient Rome), cheddar cheese, sliced red onion, pickles and a house-made mayonnaise, and the vegetarian option featuring quinoa-tempeh, will be served for at least the next six weeks.
“We feel in the first phase of the reopening that we want to be open for all,” said Redzepi. “We need to heal, so let’s have a glass and a burger. You’re all invited.”
In France – Guy Savoy – among the world’s most celebrated chefs – decided to begin offering a takeaway service from Le Chiberta, his restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, when lockdown restrictions were lifted on 11 May. He served up an abbreviated menu, including his two signature dishes, the artichoke soup with truffles and Parmesan, and a ballotine of poultry with foie gras and a truffle vinaigrette.
In London, as she makes fresh tagliatelle for her Cafe Murano takeout menu this weekend, Harnett says the venture has been a success and she plans to continue delivering food to customers once lockdown restrictions are fully lifted.
Hartnett had to furlough her staff due to the Covid-19 crisis, and has been in the kitchen with her husband, Neil Borthwick, and their lodger, Salvatore, cooking up to 40 covers every Thursday, Friday and Saturday – the days on which they offer a home delivery service.
“There are just three of us and I’m doing lots of the cooking myself so it’s actually been very busy and the feedback we’ve had from customers has been really good. I can see us carrying this on once this is all over as it’s been a real success,” she says.
Hartnett says customers still want good food even though they are confined to their homes, with some even making multiple orders from different restaurants.
“I’ve seen photographs on social media of their meals with gnocchi they’ve ordered from me and then chops that they’ve got from the River Cafe. I think people will still want to come out to restaurants regardless because they like that experience, but this has shown that they also want this type of food in their own home,” she adds.
Other chefs who have not been able to reopen their businesses, even to offer takeouts, including Manchester’s Mary-Ellen Mctague and Mark Birchall, whose Lancashire restaurant clocked up two Michelin stars within two years of opening, who have instead turned their talents to charitable work.
Mctague, who runs The Creameries in the suburb of Chorlton, launched the Eat Well Mcr hospitality collective in response to the crisis.
“We tried doing takeout for a week but it was really difficult to socially distance so we stopped. But I still wanted to do something otherwise I’d go mad so I launched Eat Well and we have been cooking for NHS workers and homeless people ever since,” she says.
McTague and her band of volunteers and chefs have been using their skills to cook and deliver around 2,000 meals to homeless hostels and hospitals across the city.
“It has been an absolute privilege to serve these people,” she adds.
Meanwhile, Birchall, who has had to close his restaurant with rooms, Moor Hall, in Aughton, West Lancashire, has been sending food parcels with soups, broths and cake to vulnerable children and their families in Liverpool.
The chef and father-of-two supports the Sandy Park Café, a not-for-profit social enterprise helping young students with special needs and disabilities from Sandfield Park school in Liverpool to gain work experience, which has remained closed during the pandemic.
“The children haven’t been able to come into the cafe and some of them are very vulnerable so we wanted to do something for them. We can’t open the restaurant -but this is our way of doing something for people who really need some help at the moment,” he said.