News 26 March 2020

Michelin-starred restaurants keep the home fires burning

“It’s all we can do”: whether it's takeaways or charity food boxes, top restaurants from Copenhagen to New York find ways to keep their kitchens open

Words by Adam Lechmere

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Some of the world’s top restaurants are finding new and inventive ways of coping with the extraordinary situation they are in. Some are finding they can do the things they never had time for, others are inspired to help the needy – but for all, the instinct is to keep on cooking.

Richard Wilkins, who runs the tiny 104 Restaurant in London’s trendy Notting Hill, told Club Oenologique that the crisis has opened his eyes to new opportunities.

“This forces you to think. Doing the same thing over and over again stifles creativity but this situation explodes everything.”

Doing the same thing over and over again stifles creativity, but this situation explodes everything

Wilkins, who has worked with Alain Roux, Anne-Sophie Pic and Gordon Ramsay, has transformed his 12-cover restaurant into a high-end takeaway, offering full meals and plating instructions for locals. He had 20 orders his first night, which, as he points out, is “massive for a restaurant my size”.

He’s also doing more baking, which has always been an ambition – and with the interest-free loan the government is offering businesses, he might open a bakery. “These are really hard times and it’s not easy to stay positive,” he said, “but every crisis has its opportunities.”

Wilkins makes clear that as he has no staff except a manager and a kitchen porter, transforming his business to takeaway has been fairly straightforward.

For Rasmus Munk in Copenhagen, owner of the extraordinary Alchemist in Copenhagen – which Vanity Fair described as giving “new meaning to the phrase ‘over the top’”, and which employs 30 cooks for 40 diners – the opportunity was of a different kind.

Alchemist Dome
Alchemist, photographed by Claus Bech Poulsen

“When we were told we had to close, suddenly we had four huge kitchens and no diners”, spokeswoman Lena Ilkjaer told Club Oenologique. “So Rasmus decided to use them to produce 400-500 meals a day for the homeless.”

At present, Danish law allows up to 10 people to congregate, so Munk has five chefs producing what Ilkjaer calls “regular basic Danish food” such as pasta with pesto and chicken tartlets, which are then distributed by the Copenhagen council.

Munk has been working on the project for some years but has never had time to realise its potential. The enforced closure of his kitchens was the opportunity to  make it work. It also has the great advantage of using up some of the hundreds of tonnes of surplus food in the city.

And, Ilkjaer says, the plan is to continue when the restaurant reopens. “They are discussing this at the moment with other restaurants – how to keep going when they don’t have the empty kitchen capacity.”

Rasmus Munk
Munk in the kitchen at Alchemist, photographed by Soren Gammelmark

Andrew Wong, who runs two restaurants in London, the Michelin-starred Restaurant A Wong and Kym’s, also took the chance to distribute free food – this time via his local parish church, St Peter’s, in the ultra-exclusive Eaton Square.

“The boxes are made ready-to-cook and are given out as hands-free drop-offs to the elderly members of the community,” his spokesperson said. “Andrew’s view was, ‘if I’m going to go bankrupt I might as well go down helping people’.”

While both Wong and Munk say they plan to continue distribution when they re-open. Others, such as the three-Michelin-starred Core by Clare Smyth in London, found they simply could not continue their charitable efforts.

“Clare and the Core team were baking bread and providing produce from their suppliers to those in need in the area,” her spokeswoman Mimi Rice Henken told Club Oenologique, “but sadly they had to wind down their efforts last Saturday because of safety concerns as well as following government guidance.”

The food was donated to the local community centre which Smyth has worked with for two years, and she continues actively to promote the charity Hospitality Action’s COVID19 Campaign to help support vulnerable people in the hospitality sector.

The team of chefs at Core by Clare Smyth
The team of chefs at Core by Clare Smyth

Charity or not, for all chefs, the prime instinct is to stay open and to keep cooking. In New York’s East Village, Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta and her husband Julio Pena of the 25-year established Il Posto Accanto, have put in place an elaborate sanitizing ritual in order to stay open for takeaways.

Tosti di Valminuta says in a video released by the New Yorker that they have gone from being “everybody’s living room…the rock of the neighbourhood, to zero”. The restaurant survived 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy and now operates as takeaway only, with a sanitizing station at the door, and all chairs and walls wiped down after every customer. 

As the veteran restaurateur says, “Today we’re open and we’re serving food. Tomorrow, inshallah, we’re going to be open and serving food. That’s all we can do.”

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