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More time to think: the Secret Chef on navigating Covid-19

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In time there may be lessons to learn from this crisis, says the Secret Chef, but right now it is hard to see the other side and a way through for hospitality

There are times when I envy those who bow their heads toward Rome. There must be something freeing about confession although I find the concept a little hard to swallow. I’m from northern European, Lutheran stock and, while I’ve discarded the religious aspects, the work ethic and vague guilt associated with fun and enjoyment remain. I think that’s why writing this column is so liberating: I spend a few hours pretending to be someone I can’t be during my daily life and have four joyous catharses a year to enable me to ease the weight on my shoulders.

Here is this quarter’s confession: this piece is already a week late for submission. As someone who has spent many years abiding by several dozen deadlines throughout the course of every service, tardiness pains me. It niggles away and frustrates me, especially when I know it is my fault. In the kitchen the chain of command allows for the apportion of blame.

With words instead of dishes, screens instead of plates there is only one person at fault and that is the person sitting at the keyboard.

I generally get a little editorial direction when writing: loose themes on which to base my words. Can you write something on food waste? We need a few hundred words on no-shows. Do you fancy submitting your thoughts on tipping? And, generally, I spend a couple of weeks thinking about the theme and then coalesce the thoughts into something cogent.

This time, unsurprisingly, it was a biggie: “Focus, in some way, on post-pandemic restaurant life, please.”

Easy. A veritable buffet of subjects to gorge on and yet here we are, seven days the wrong side of deadline and still not finished, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Baby steps

And now I know. Here’s the scoop: the pandemic isn’t over. There is no clarity of hindsight on which to base my thinking because there is no hindsight. The world spluttered, then coughed and then stopped turning entirely. Every single restaurant on the planet closed their doors – and many of them remain closed, countless of those will never serve another customer. Thousands have taken baby steps towards re-opening with masked servers and temperature checks and plastic screens and have since been ordered to shutter once more. The immediate present is one in which indoor dining is a fading memory and a distant hope – how can I do justice to that ridiculous, previously unthinkable notion?

I can’t. That’s my second confession: I feel inadequate. Pretty much all the time at the moment. Although I could re-open, my restaurant remains a takeout – the prospect of a second wave of infections as summer rolls into the cooler days and nights of autumn is, as far as I’m concerned, an inevitability.

Without a vaccine, other services will be given priority over hospitality, quite rightly. Our kids need educating more than we need to cook a tasting menu. At some point it will be possible to look back at all this and consider what the future looks like. But that time isn’t now because, for the moment, we are still right where we are.