DEALING WITH COVID IN MY KITCHEN
Chefs and restaurants have been crucial in taking a leading role in the current pandemic. With Covid-19 still actively changing the definition of normal to the “new normal”, most industries are rushing to adjust their business activities to stay safe and to ensure compliance with government health advice. The consequences of this on the restaurant industry have been intense and unprecedented so far.
As a business, we had to put in a lot of groundwork on how to react to this new normal once we were allowed to re-open. During the initial March – June lockdown, we in Blue Haven Collections initiated a reactive response phase which included introducing precautionary measures and COVID compliant business strategies for all our stakeholders including staff and guests. This response plan included introducing the recording of temperatures for staff on arrival to work, maintaining social distancing, enforcing the wearing of masks or visors for all staff, and the placing of hand sanitizing stations all around the hotel.
Some of the effects of these everyday changing restrictions on our business and indeed kitchen have included reduced seating capacity in the restaurant due to social distancing, which in turn means less covers, which leads to lower staff requirements. This poses a huge challenge to me as Head Chef and adds further stress and responsibilities onto me to manage the ever-changing situation.
The uncertainty of the current situation seems to be the biggest drawback in our industry and any measures put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 affects the restaurant industry harshly and directly. My experience of this is how consumer behavior seems to have changed dramatically. Some of my customers have an increased interest in eating out since the relaxing of restrictions and are keen to support their local businesses, whilst others have remained cautious regarding the current situation and remain unwilling to venture out to eat in a public setting just yet. This provides a challenge to us as a restaurant as it’s very difficult to plan for produce, menus, staffing and service on a daily basis.
The “new normal” of working with less staff, working with masks, face shields, and maintaining social distancing within the workspace has added to the “heat” in the already quite challenging kitchen workplace environment. It was difficult to adjust to these new measures. I could no longer visit my supplier’s farms or meet my suppliers face to face. The supply chain was affected in getting the right products and getting my team ready for the busy summer period. I had a role to pay as Head Chef in ensuring a positive mindset prevailed within the kitchen and making sure everyone was energised and in the right frame of mind - gearing up my team was the biggest challenge I faced when we reopened.
The unpredictability of not knowing what is going to happen tomorrow with suppliers, staff, and the business itself has resulted in increased challenges, both physically and mentally for chefs and restaurant owners nationwide. I personally make sure everyone gets the appropriate breaks and eats properly – these are basic yet very important needs for a chef which many of us tend to forget. I also enforce a strict no yelling or shouting policy in my kitchen to facilitate a more positive working environment.
We pride ourselves on having a very diverse team and we have been working hard to adapt to the new working conditions in the kitchen. We try our best to spread out the kitchen as much as possible, to prevent any crossovers. Compared to many other restaurants who have narrowed their menu offering during this time, we have done the reverse and increased the options in our menu and trust me, this is one menu where everything sells. For winter, we have events planned whereby we will be featuring a “tour around the world”, which will start from India and will have Indian dishes and then moving through my team’s origin countries’ cuisines encompassing Italy, Portugal, brazil, France etc.
On the creative side, with social distancing as chefs we are limited in doing what we do best which sometimes includes interacting with the guests and creating special moments and experiences for them on their plates at their tables, for example – I have a dish that requires two sauces to be poured on to the plate which creates an art of illusion. In a normal world, the waiters would do this process in front of the guests so they can experience the transformation of the dish before them. However, with the “new normal”, we have had to create solutions for these problems which now involves me having to label the sauces 1 and 2 and providing guidance for the guests to do it themselves. I personally feel this negates the previous excitement that would have been experienced and diminishes the guest experience to a certain extent. It is up to us as chefs to continue to innovate and find solutions to these problems for our menus and continue to provide positive experiences as best we can.
Our industry is fragile, but we are adapting to these unprecedented changes in a swift manner to keep going. However, there is only so much we all can do as Chefs with the increased costs involved before we start seeing restaurant closures and job losses which will drag the industry into a dark space.
As chefs we are determined to turn every opportunity into a success, but adequate and relevant supports must be provided under these circumstances to allow us to remain open and to come up with creative solutions to living with COVID-19. We cannot blame anyone as we understand that these measures must be enforced to help us overcome this virus, however further support and guidance must be given to an industry that has been shattered by this situation. As a head chef, I want my team to wake up, come to work happy and I try every day to give my best to make this possible and to steer them away from the pressure of the external world, regardless of how difficult this is at present.
What challenges and solutions has your business faced with Covid-19?
I would love to hear other chef’s experiences!#KitchenCulture