Bonding with suppliers and getting ‘match-fit’ – London chefs return to action

Our heritage food industry may be one of the long-term winners of the pandemic, but restaurants continue to tread their way out of lockdown with caution

Words by Adam Lechmere

Clare Smyth
Chef Clare Smyth of Core in Notting Hill has found re-opening "a relief more than anything"

One of the unforeseen consequences of lockdown for the UK food industry could be a boost to British artisan producers.

The country has long had a thriving heritage food industry, with products from scallops to carrots produced by specialist growers, and supplied to Britain’s ranks of fine dining restaurants.

And it now looks as if lockdown, despite initially cutting off this supply, has seen a greater focus brought to local production. The result is concentrating attention even more keenly on where our food comes from, and on the importance of cherishing this heritage.

Lockdown has seen a greater focus brought to local production

“We’re even more committed to supporting our suppliers,” Clare Smyth of the Michelin-starred restaurant Core in London’s Notting Hill told Club Oenologique. Producers of “niche, bespoke, heritage brands and breeds” are part of the fabric of British culinary life, she said, and it was important restaurateurs “make sure we don’t go backwards, that we don’t argue for 50p off a kilo of lamb and that sort of thing. Without us supporting them, they don’t exist.”

Over the last few months Smyth has set up regular Zoom calls with suppliers such as the Ethical Shellfish Company and Lake District Farmers. “It meant we were able to connect. We had scallop divers describing exactly what they do, and farmers showing us around. Some of the team had never spoken to them, and it was good to see the front of house staff asking farmers what they would tell the guests about their work.”

Robin Mackay of High Hurst Farm in the Lake District supplies Smyth with lamb, and heritage pork from her Gloucester Old Spot and Berkshire pigs (one of her sows is about to farrow, she enthusiastically relayed to Club Oenologique). Mackay said lockdown had made people think more carefully about where their food comes from.

“Clare has been here several times, she’s cuddled the goat kids – she’s totally committed. But I’ve never met her front of house staff, so to connect with them was very positive. If they can feel part of the process, they can pass that on so the customer is making an active choice in what they eat.”

Clare Smyth
Chef Clare Smyth has become even more committed to supporting suppliers
Core by Clare Smyth

Smyth has found the experience of re-opening after nearly four months of closure “a relief more than anything – that we’re busy, that people are prepared to come out and have a good time.”

She admitted that her and her team have also found it exhausting however. “We are knackered – our feet were killing us by the end of each shift”. Others made the same discovery: after weeks out of the kitchen, returning staff weren’t “match-fit”, as Will Beckett, co-founder of the upscale Hawksmoor steak chain, put it. “Doing a single shift was harder than doing a double shift in the past – 20 covers in half an hour was much more difficult than doing 40 covers before. We’ve had to build up our fitness.”

But, by and large, the mood among the fine dining sector is considerably improved since re-opening was first discussed in the early days of lockdown. Back in May, the idea that a restaurant could be run under social distancing rules was “impossible and implausible”, Jeremy King of the Corbin & King group, which owns The Wolseley in Piccadilly and a dozen other major restaurants, said (our review of the early experience at The Wolseley can be read here).

Beckett, who agreed with King at the time, last week told Club Oenologique that the experience of opening several restaurants had been “a pleasant surprise”. Six of the chain’s eight outlets (four in London, and the Edinburgh and Manchester branches) are now open.

He said the fact they have opted for the least visible safety measures is key to their success. They worked on the assumption that the venues should be absolutely safe but that it shouldn’t be “a theatre of safety” – so they took away the perspex lecterns at the door for example, and masks and gloves are optional for staff.

“We assumed people wanted normality, that they wanted their happiness to be on the same level as their feeling of safety, and we think that has proved right with the majority of customers.”

Hawksmoor's 35-day dry-aged rump steak has been reduced to £10 thanks in part to the government's new scheme

The UK government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme (by which diners get 50% off their meal, up to a maximum of £10, in an effort to persuade people back into restaurants) has also gone down well with Hawksmoor’s clients. The brand has reduced its 35-day dry-aged rump steak, plus chips and sauce, from £30 to £20. The government scheme sees this reduced by a further 50% to £10. According to Beckett, its offer, which runs from Monday to Wednesday until 31 August, has been enthusiastically taken up, with 5,000 covers booked. “That was a pleasant surprise”.

Perhaps most obviously – and this has been a feature of lockdown across dozens of different sectors – restaurateurs have taken heart from realising the strength of connections with loyal customers.

Trevor Gulliver, who with Fergus Henderson founded the St John group (there are now three restaurants – the flagship in London’s Smithfield has had a Michelin star since 2009) told Club Oenologique it was “a fillip to see the lovely connection with our customers”. The highly-reputed St John bakery remained open throughout lockdown, feeding “all those folk who needed a donut in times of pain.”

Trevor Gulliver
Trevor Gulliver has been running restaurants and bars in London since the early 1990s. Photo by Patricia Niven
St John
The St John bakery remained open throughout lockdown. Photo by Stefan Johnson

But Gulliver, who has been running restaurants and bars in London since the early 1990s, is clear-sighted about the problems ahead. Yes, he says, his personal mood is upbeat, he’s delighted to see the kitchens opening up and the cooks in their whites again, but he notes there are no tourists and hardly any commuters.

“We are just at the beginning of this. I have a deep concern about thinking the good days are going to come back. We are in danger of missing the profound nature of what this pandemic is.”

Gulliver used the word “trepidation” to describe his mood; even the optimists are far from complacent. Asked if she was positive about the future, Smyth took a long moment to answer with a very cautious affirmative. “The most stressful thing was the uncertainty, so it’s good to be back, for the sake of our mental health alone. I think we’re going to be ok.”