On Friday 20th March, the government ordered all non-essential businesses to close

No Service Please - a piece written by Edward Furseman, one of our MA Food Studies students who also works in the catering and hospitality sector

Working in a large hotel kitchen is a hot, fast paced job. Sixty-hour weeks are not uncommon, often with no breaks, especially in the busier school holidays and summer months. For most in the catering industry the job is a labour of love, uniquely demanding and satisfying, hopefully in the right proportions. Chefs are no stranger to uncertainty, being able to reflexively respond to a busy service is a fundamental skill. This reflexivity, however, is built upon preparation. Any good chef will tell you that getting your mis en place sorted is the most important lesson you can learn. For now though, in the hospitality industry, it appears that very little is in place.

 

Uncertain Times

With the Easter break approaching, overtime was being planned, and preparations for stock backup being organized. Prior to the government’s press conference on the 16th of March, bookings had been up on last year significantly. Most people were increasingly aware of the spread of the Coronavirus – especially as it was becoming prevalent in Italy. Huge numbers of flights were being cancelled, and many more people probably decided against international travel. A local holiday by the sea must have seemed a much less risky option.

Everything changed after that news briefing though. The governments advice to avoid “confined spaces such as pubs and restaurants” (Johnson, 2020), and to stay home, was received by the whole nation. The next few days must have been some of the most stressful for anyone in hospitality within living memory. There was no clear advice given to these organisations about how to proceed, or for those working for them. Many chefs took to social media to complain and vent their frustration. Some restaurants closed immediately whereas others implemented social distancing procedures. It was clear however, that with this guidance customers were not going to be eating out as normal. A team meeting was called announcing that hours were to be cut substantially, in the hopes that employees could all keep their jobs for the time being.

On Friday the 20th March, the government ordered all non-essential businesses to close. It also announced plans to pay 80% of wages for people furloughed due to these restrictions. Whilst larger businesses have had the ability to pay members of staff until government help is received, smaller companies do not have the resources to do so. On Saturday, the day after these announcements, when we would have usually been doing over 200 covers and preparing for a busy Sunday, we were closing the kitchen down. With the aid of a vacuum packing machine, and a walk-in freezer, thousands of pounds of meat, fish and other perishables were frozen or preserved. Many smaller businesses would not have had this luxury, and likely to be running on much smaller margins already. For some smaller scale companies, there may have been the possibility of adapting their business to take-away or delivery services. But for the large, remote hotel I work in, this was not the case. 

 

The Wider World

With people no longer relying on the wide choice of take-aways, cafes and restaurants to source their food, retail has been at the forefront of feeding the nation. This has been problematic. Rationing at the supermarkets and reduced movement has made the sourcing of ingredients tricky. Will this make more people question the logic of the current agri-food systems? For me and many others, working in a large hotel, and living in an era of global food networks, food availability has never been of much concern. The delicate nature of the just-in-time food system, which is so ingrained in our current shopping habits, is easily forgotten under normal circumstances as it has never seemed to cause any direct disruption to daily life. The thought that the supermarkets may run out of flour would have seemed absurd just months ago.

Possibly, a more urgent casualty of the pandemic is the increase in the homeless population, particularly in London. With the reliance of the hospitality industry on short employment contracts, informal labour, and seasonal hours many are being forced into homelessness as jobs are lost. To help combat this dire situation and provide support, some hotels have opened their rooms to the homeless. However, this has sadly not necessarily been accessible to everyone.

 

Thoughts About the Future?

Whilst many are asking when restaurants will be opening, just as significant is the question of what will open. Looking to the future is something that the government has just started to do publicly. Due to the nature of the pandemic though, no definitive plan can be outlined. However, the hospitality and retail sectors have been specified to be amongst the last to be re-integrated into the ‘new normal’. This normal however, is likely to be a huge stretch for many traditional hospitality businesses. If social distancing is to be maintained front of house, covers will have to be reduced. Whilst a hotel may have other forms of income to prop up these deflated takings, a stand-alone restaurant will not. Table service would appear to be out of the question. And, if social distancing for the customers seems hard, how will the chefs maintain a two-meter distance? Most commercial kitchens do not allow that kind of space to go to waste in their design.

As a chef, cooking is something I take a lot of pleasure in, but rarely get the time to do so for myself. Taking time to enjoy cooking and baking with my family is making lockdown personally manageable, maybe even somewhat enjoyable. However, the ever-present uncertainty regarding the future of my work and within the catering industry in general remains, along with the overall impact of the pandemic and its far-reaching and unknown consequences.

 

References

Johnson, B. (2020) PM statement on coronavirus: 16 March 2020, [online], Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-on-coronavirus-16-march-2020 [29 May 2020].

Date: 6 May 2020