In my case this is the month to take a breather, to get your head around what happened over the Christmas period. A time to organise your Christmas menus for next Christmas. A chance for the team to have a small break after a busy period and to get ready for the year ahead.
Like many properties, the Lough Erne Resort was gearing up for a fever pitch 2020. The busiest year was set to come, and everything was full steam ahead with new menus to order, staff in place and plans progressing. Away from our culinary world, however, COVID-19 was in full effect in China.
I always see March in the hotel as the month where everything comes to life again. Our golf clubhouses come bustling. Weddings, functions, and in-house guests are up from February. The buzz begins as we head towards the Summer months.
February 2020 saw our best February yet. We had nearly 5,000 people staying in the resort with us. These are the numbers we usually see reserved for the Summer months. St Patrick’s day, wherever you work in hospitality is normally a crazy busy day. In the hotel, this day will normally see a 6 am start for our breakfast team, with our last docket leaving the kitchen around midnight. Not this year. This year things are different.
The Island of Ireland and the UK have just been hit with coronavirus. Within 48 hours, we were deep cleaning the kitchen and packing away the essential equipment for closure. It had a very edgy feel. We had never been through something like this before. There were a lot of questions, mainly ‘what will happen to our jobs?’, ‘what will happen to us?!’
I have to say; the Lough Erne team was one of the truly fortunate teams to have our owners look after us during lockdown. We are very thankful.
Something positive that we saw happen during the hotel’s closure was the compassionate gesture of food sent to woman’s aid in Fermanagh and to the elderly residents in nearby Belcoo. I hope we helped them in a small way.
LOCKDOWN AND BEYOND
Like most, this was the first time we had experienced the world being gripped by a deadly virus. It was the unknown at the beginning that worried me, how deadly was this virus and how will it affect my life and my family? Pre-lockdown, before the British government created the furlough scheme, I was nervous and anxious about my job. How will I pay my bills? I think I wasn’t the only person to feel this. Like Many establishments the availability of the furlough scheme definitely helped a lot during lockdown, knowing there was still income each week was a massive weight off our shoulders. I have never not been out of a kitchen for this long since I was 13 years old. How would I cope without doing what I love to do, cooking?
I decided to use lockdown as a positive. I didn’t want to get bogged down with all that was happening. That’s not healthy. I’m a man of routine. I like to know what I have to do each day, regardless if I’m in the kitchen or not. This helped me a lot through lockdown, I could organise my day and that made me feel as though it wasn’t a wasted day. I used this downtime away from the kitchen to partake in my hobbies and to organise new menu concepts for the hotel, that was a bonus.
For myself and my family lockdown was safe, calm, un-intruding, and to be honest genuinely nice. How lucky were we with the weather? In Fermanagh, you are never far away from a lough or an eye-catching view, and like every chef making a little bit of bread and experimenting in the kitchen. It was encouraging to see a lot of my peers posting parts of their days on social media. Social media use right is a great learning tool, and I would encourage any young chef to revise social media for tips on their image and to get inspiration from the many great chefs that use social media. With that being said, this virus has changed the industry and a lot of hard-working people have lost their jobs or business in recent times. I sincerely hope that these people will bounce back twice as strong. Our focus now should be to help one another and share as much as possible.
The only Negative was not seeing family. It doesn’t matter how many Zoom calls you do; you still can’t share valuable time with family. I didn’t find lockdown stressful or difficult as simply as I can put this, my family and I where all healthy and safe, that is what matters the most to me.
With a 1-metre social distancing ruling now in place, this will greatly help many restaurants and hotels. It is now up to each business to ensure the safety of their staff and customers and following on from this sentiment, it is so important for the customer to support the local restaurants and businesses now more than ever. We need to support the farmers, cheesemakers, butchers in our local communities and drive the economies of the North and the South, this is the only viable way to succeed moving forward. This is not the time to start cutting back on our quality, bringing in cheap foreign ingredients like Boris and his chlorine chicken. We need to rally behind our communities and help small businesses trade again.
During lockdown, I used Zoom to speak weekly with some of our team. I used this to start new menu ideas and to understand each one of our chef’s creative levels. Every chef loves to write menus and pop creative ideas to the team, so this worked excellent for us as I was able to gauge what training needs each team member required on return to the kitchen. We use a system called MTS (Mini Training Session), items we trained our team on during lockdown were - menu planning, menu layout & wording, seasonality, communication, and mise en place handovers.
As the Lough Erne is planning to open fully on 17th July, our Loughside bar and grill opened on the 3rd July. This has aided us to open one of our kitchens to the spec we are looking and to understand what necessary cleaning and sanitation is needed. My last two weeks before we open is to organise the kitchen for the opening. This includes equipment service, staff costs, food costs and new menu planning. It has been all office-based work, but every chef today needs to understand the importance of the business side of a kitchen. We had our first full kitchen team meeting on the 7th July, was great to see all the team keeping safe and well. It’s always great to work with a positive team, everyone was so eager to get back into the kitchen and get working again. It was great to see all of our team’s passion for their jobs and their continued commitment has not dropped during lockdown.
The biggest change in the hotel service for us will be trying to maintain our quality service while ultimately ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our customers, this is paramount. We have designed a ‘Guest Care and Wellbeing Promise Pack’ for all our guests. As our kitchens reopen, staff will undertake training and supervision on food hygiene and health safety. All our Chefs will be equipped with the necessary PPE, as we do not have the space to ensure social distancing within our kitchen. All our menus have been revised to suit our business at this time and I do believe with the correct use of HACCP and staff training, re-opening our kitchens should be straight forward.
My main concern and something we will be monitoring very closely are the traffic through our main kitchen. Like many hotels, our kitchen is the main hub, the engine. To target this, we will be implementing a linear and safe walkthrough that will protect our team and our guests.
I hope you enjoyed my lockdown blog. This is only a quick snapshot of my view and experiences so far. As for the future, let’s work together as a community and as Chef Network. Let’s use our voices to better each other and our actions to provide a strong and lasting platform for our industry.#KitchenCulture#Wellness