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Q&A with chef Masaki Sugisaki

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The executive chef of London restaurant Dinings SW3 tells Tina Nielsen about how he dealt with the pandemic-enforced closure

How did you react when the lockdown was first announced?

The first week was a nightmare. In the run-up to lockdown we did about 160 covers per evening, so there was a lot of food in the kitchen – so many ingredients – to get rid of. That was painful.

I was very nervous because I just did not know what was going to happen. I was thinking of the pandemic but beyond that what would happen to the business. It took me a few weeks to calm myself down and start focusing.

I had the option to stay open for takeaway but at the same time I had to consider whether it was worth it. At the end of the day it would mean putting my staff at risk because at the time we didn’t know how fast it would spread.

One of my close friends had Covid-19, he suffered for a long time. For me he was like family – it could have happened to anybody around me, so I decided to not take the risk.

What was your next step?

It took me at least four weeks to tidy up the mess in my head and I needed to find the confidence to go with whatever decision I made.

I started to consider takeaway, but there were lots of takeaway options already and it didn’t feel like it was good enough for the customers.

I thought of all the special occasions such as birthdays or anniversaries that people would have during lockdown and they couldn’t have a party. What if they had a proper feast delivered to their house? Luxury bento boxes would be the perfect concept and that was the start of my idea for the takeaway bento box.

It took six weeks to have the boxes delivered from Kyoto – with reduced air travel – but I needed time to prepare the food concept and of course get all the ingredients back in stock. It was also a good time for our staff to return – they said, “OK, chef when do we start? We have had enough of being at home now.”

How did you turn the challenging situation around?

At one point during lockdown I started thinking, “stop taking this moment in this negative way”. In a way it worked for me to reconsider or to look back at what I was doing before to combine all the messy information together and have a clear vision of my next step.

It was the same for the restaurant, we had to reconsider how we worked. I said to the team “everything will change, after this people’s perceptions will change and we need to be responsible whatever we do.” At the end of the day the restaurant is a high risk location to spread the virus and people’s perceptions towards health has changed, which is ultimately a good thing.

While I was still at home I did a lot of training with staff online to keep them active and once we were back in the kitchen with my senior team we had some intensive training sessions.

Our regular customer base is loyal and we maintained engagement with them. They would ask us for recipes through social media, so we did that. There were lots of customers supporting us and that was amazing.

What do you think we can learn from the pandemic?

I think we can take a lot from it. Before the pandemic, people in busy cities like London were always chasing things; work, friendships, socialising – always chasing. There is a huge and constant stream of trends, we didn’t have the time to look back or to stop and think.

This lockdown was an opportunity to stop entirely, which of course was stressful at the beginning. But I think many people started to realise a lot of things  – some started doing exercise who had never done it before and others started to control the amount of alcohol they consumed because they had to stop a busy social life. They realised they drank too much or ate to much or didn’t take care of themselves.

I also think people developed and awareness of the environment, think about the reduction in CO2 levels, there was no noise from planes and cars. That was a sensational experience.

What was it like to reopen?

We reopened in July and it was very exciting; we have been very busy. We don’t do the bento boxes anymore, I had so many nice comments about them and I really appreciate it but I think our customers have had enough experience at home. Now, they want to come back and dine with us in the restaurant.

Tina Nielsen