True grit: The Secret Chef reflects on Covid-19

It might feel like the breaking point, says The Secret Chef, but this industry's "steadfast stubbornness" will see it emerge through the storm

Whatever I write here seems insignificant.

There is now no need for us to imagine the unimaginable because it is here. Right now. Staring us down. The speed at which the trickle turned into a deluge was mind-boggling. A distant hum and then an ear-splitting roar. A province in a country far away is in lockdown. Italy has closed all bars and restaurants. The Union Square Hospitality Group just fired 2,000 staff. We became numb to it in what (in hindsight, at least) feels like seconds.

We pored over screens: the next tweet we read or press conference we watch might contain the answer to the question ‘but what about our businesses? Our staff? Our families? Our houses? Our customers? Our suppliers? Our inventories?’

I lived a decade in a week.

There was no room for emotion. We were so deep in the weeds, together, that we packed feelings away, along with the exotic spices and dry stores, in order to protect and insulate ourselves from the reality bearing down upon us. What should we do? What can we do? To cook and to serve and to be hospitable runs deep through our veins, our marrow, to our very core. What even are we if our very reason for being is taken away? We should have collapsed like banquet souffles.

I can’t process this. It’s all too immediate. I’m still in the middle of the storm.

Embracing the new normal

We didn’t collapse. We did what we always do – se démerder mon ami, tout le monde: se démerder. The system was there for us when we needed it most. That exact same grit and steadfast stubbornness that turns two quarts of broken hollandaise into a shiny emulsion and manages to eke out six portions into nine meant we could turn on a dime. Within days we had embraced the new normal. Stories that would previously have inspired New Yorker think pieces (“Alinea does takeout!”) were acknowledged then cast aside, raising not even an eyebrow, let alone an editorial.

I’m so close to breaking.

And this is how it is: The lowboy is stacked with hotel pans, full of lasagne and the hand thrown flatware has been packed away, replaced with cardboard boxes and burger papers and deli tubs. The brown paper bag is now our delivery method. Multi-course degustation menus and hefty a la cartes are a thing from a near-distant past and who knows when we will see them again. Refinement is no more and volume and turnover are what we need to survive. The landscape of the future is now as unimaginable as the current vista was a month ago.

Things will not – cannot – go back to how they were. An imagined future has no relevance, we just have to play with what we have and hope that it works.

I’m just about holding on. For now.

The Secret Chef

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