Letters from chefs in the heart of the pandemic

50 Best Editorial - 16/02/2021

Non-profit culinary symposium Food on the Edge, usually held annually in Galway, Ireland, replaced its annual event with a book of letters from chefs, available to download free. These messages offer a snapshot of restaurant life as cooks the world over face up to what they hope will be the final furlong of the pandemic. What have they learnt? What will they change in the future? Has this period taught them anything about themselves? 50 Best rounds up a digest of chefs’ thoughts divided into the categories that will influence their thinking in 2021 and beyond

Thoughts on the restaurant, its food and how it will emerge in a post-pandemic world...

Niklas Ekstedt,
Stockholm, Sweden
I believe this pandemic has allowed us to learn about not only ourselves but also how this will shape the industry we work in. One thing I know is that local markets and customers will be more and more valuable as we are not able to travel – as a restaurant we must be open to listening to the people of our region and adapt accordingly Throughout this, I hope destination restaurants and establishments in the countryside will be able to retain business and guests all year round as people find new places to explore, even during what would typically be off season. This will really help not only smaller restaurants but also local farmers, producers and suppliers, to whom we are eternally thankful for their hard work and support.

Darina Allen, Ballymaloe Cookery School
Shanagarry, Ireland
Let’s make it our practice to chase any negative thoughts away. Begin by counting our blessings. We’re still alive and healthy… nature is beautiful and hey, we can cook! All memorable food starts with beautiful fresh ingredients. Use the very best, explore your local area, visit and create links with farmers, fishers, beekeepers, smokers and butchers. In an ideal world no chef or cook would be accepted into a good restaurant unless they had spent a year working on a farm and gardens to give them an insight into the work and knowledge that goes into growing and producing beautiful produce. Here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, the first talk the students get on the 12-week course is about soil, the first recipe is how to make compost and the first lesson is how to plant a vegetable into the ground so they appreciate how long it takes for vegetables to grow into something delicious to eat. Top cooks and chefs always have an innate respect for food and those who grow and produce it. Learn to identify food in the wild and how to incorporate it into your menu. Cook from the heart rather than to impress the critics. Tell the story without overdoing it. Charge enough, promise less and give more.

Anissa Helou
Food writer and author
There has been a much-delayed reaction to the quasi general culture of sexism and exploitation in professional kitchens together with a call to revolutionise the hospitality industry and improve both the treatment and pay of its employees. And this is where chefs can use their forced downtime to rethink how to run their kitchens and manage both their restaurants and personnel, paying a lot more attention to how they are treated and remunerated… It would also be interesting to see chefs pay more attention to food as culture; and as they create their own dishes taking inspiration from different cuisines, to see them study these more in depth, exploring the origin of dishes and eventually be more generous in acknowledging the source of their inspiration, be it home cooks, other chefs or food writers to name a few.

Shinobu Namae, L’Effervescence
Tokyo, Japan
Food has been always the key to create solidarity. Your skill is not always for showing your personality, but is often for showing care to others. This small action from you will make a ripple of deliciousness by your cooking skills, and of empathy by your hospitality that builds the mutual trust. Cooking and serving are the strongest peaceful weapons, so you are contributing yourself, with them to make the world understood better in the end. Just after the great earthquake in 2011 in Japan, so many people lost family, home, and jobs. At the time, the economy was devastated and we had nothing to do as a restaurant. So we were operating some emergency food service for the evacuated people. After an operation, one lady approached us shedding her tears, and told us that she had a really good time eating from a ‘fancy’ lunch box and talking to us, that gave her ‘hope’ to enjoy life through the hardships. I felt connected with her. I found a reason to cook. That powerful message encourages me forever to fight against any troubles or problems. I hope you would have the same kind of experience. So let’s win this global battle together. You have already have your weapons in your hands, and in your hearts!


Shinobu Namae, L’Effervescence; Darina Allen, Ballymaloe Cookery School (image: Julia Dunin); Anissa Helou 

How the recent months will influence plans for teams and relationships…

Billy Wagner, Nobelhart & Schmutzig
Berlin, Germany
We’ve started lots of new things that would never happened if Corona hadn’t given us a kick in the backside. And, most importantly, I’ve found myself reminded of what is at the core of our industry, beyond the food we all love so much: people. The people we serve, the people we work with, the people all around us who create the art, culture, and experience we love to engage with. And that is why my advice to you would be this – no matter where you are, no matter what state of lockdown you are in, no matter how new your restaurant is. Build your community. That is something you can do, no matter the restrictions or your finances. Everyone where you are is in the same position, and together you will be able to support each other through this – your staff as much as your colleagues and customers. So reach out, communicate, tell your story, share your ideas. Together you can even seize the opportunity and build new business models or collaborations or pursue things you never had time for.

Niki Nakayama, n/naka
Los Angeles, California, USA
Like many restaurants, we’ve had to pivot from fine dining to take out. In our initial pivot, the goal was merely to survive; to make sure our employees survived and that our business survived. But the news kept getting worse, with more people losing their homes and jobs and increasing racial tensions, the overall feeling and mood of the world just felt so grim. We started to wonder how and if we could ever go back to what we once were. Could we possibly go back to “business as usual?” I personally began to question the things that I considered important in my day-to-day life. Pre-Covid lockdown, all I did was have my head down and solely focused on my work at the restaurant, and although that is the way it should be as we all are responsible for our lives, sometimes something truly extraordinary happens and life as we know it changes, because it changes us and that’s when I started to feel it; the only way we can feel some sense of relief from these uncontrollable circumstances is to find a way to become a part of the solution. It became clear to me and my team that we had to utilize our skills and strengths to help others and one another. As chefs, we must cook and find ways to feed as many people as we can so that we can stave off hunger for those who need our help the most. We must find ways to contribute and to show that we stand in solidarity as humans facing the unknown. For us we found the best way to implement this was by working with chefs from other restaurants, local farmers, fisherman, and producers, to create meals that created a deeper sense of community and to donate proceeds from it back into the community.

Jonathan Tam, Relae
Copenhagen, Denmark
Many times I felt I just couldn’t keep up with the others. But seeing so many chefs from around the world – ranging from the three-Michelin-star legends, all my favourite chefs in different cities, my talented peers in Copenhagen and the millions of others whose cooking I have not been able to experience; somehow all finding a way to continue on. Pivoting and adapting to be able to serve their dishes. Whether it was serving it in their own dining rooms, or having their guest enjoy it out in the streets, even to have it packed nicely as takeaway. It didn’t matter what the circumstances were, the only goal was to provide food and hospitality to the guests. All these chefs kept cooking, so I had to do it as well. I must say it was not easy, I’ve never experienced a challenge like this before, I didn’t know where to start, even at times I just felt completely lost. But with the support and drive from all the amazing and talented people around me. We found a way. We had to change, we had to get creative, we stepped outside our comfort zones, we were wearing masks and gloves. Definitely not comfortable. If other chefs were not giving up, neither were we. Through all the trials and testing, we somehow managed to deliver.

Alberto Landgraf, Oteque
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I was able to use my free time to stop, rest, find myself, enjoy nature, to straighten my priorities, to get my head, body and my broken relationships straight, to expect less of myself, and all of that made me rediscover the joy and pleasure that led me to cook professionally in the first place. As Einstein once said, every crisis is an opportunity, and I used this one to look at myself hard and deep in the mirror and what I saw was uglier than any virus and had to be fixed. I did and keep doing the best I can to fix that. Every day. And I will never again say the words “I wish I had time for this or for that”, I’ll make sure I have time to look after myself. And so should you.

Alberto Landgraf, Oteque; Jonathan Tam, Relae; Niki Nakayama, n/naka (image: Anita Murphy)

How the pandemic has impacted home life

Albert Adría,
Barcelona, Spain
The two months of confinement that we had in Spain are already in our memory. It was quite an experience to be more than sixty days without going out to the street and I understand that there were as many different realities as there are people and families. In my case, I realized that I had been on an infernal and insane pace for the last 10 years, that led me, among other things, to open eight restaurants. Those days at home I focused only on cooking and I realized that if I was cooking, I was working and felt that at least I was not wasting time. In fact, I am currently in the making of a vegetarian book that I shaped during confinement. The luck of having a fairly long home, allowed me to do routine walks of between 10 and 14 km a day; it is ironic that having a regular daily diet and not being able to leave the house I lost up to 4kg. In short, all this time made me believe even more in the magic of this job and how lucky we are to make others happy.

Ray Adriansyah, Locavore
Bali, Indonesia
The pandemic has helped me realize that there are more important things outside of the kitchen life… I have never before washed as many dishes before at home, I have never before spent so much time with my wife and son, especially since my partner and I opened the restaurant almost seven years ago. Through cooking I am reconnecting with my family at home, making breakfast in the morning, having dumpling sessions with my son in the afternoons, cooking barbecues together, making ice cream and above all else making memories. There are so many more things that I would like to share with my family to make up for the lost time, and I want to make sure that when everything returns to normal, I still have time with my family… A good piece of advice for all cooks in this difficult time is to really reconnect with your family, bake for them, cook your favorite dish for them, use your favorite cooking technique and tell them why it’s interesting and important to you. Share your passion with the people closest to you because they will remember this and you will remember these moments too.

Elena Arzak, Arzak
San Sebastian, Spain
While you are sheltering in place with family, friends, your pet or alone you shake off the daily routine, get some much needed sleep and eventually find your way to the kitchen or your notebook. It might not seem like the most inspirational moment, but we do have the rare gift of time that we almost never have in this line of work. Time to be creative. Time to try new things and create new dishes. Time to challenge yourself to work with a more limited range of ingredients or even things you don’t like. To experiment, to probe, to take risks. Crisis sets the stage for creativity. It’s not a time for complacency.

Albert Adría, Tickets; Elena Arzak, Arzak; Ray Adriansyah, Locavore

On building a fresh model for the future

JP McMahon, Aniar Restaurant
Galway, Ireland
Why cook? Why try and change our world through food?.. I have realised now more than ever the true purpose of cooking, of engaging with your local landscape and the traditions and history that lie hidden there. This virus has been a catalyst for me, to re-evaluate the direction of my mission to try and leave the world with a better food culture than I found: a more sustainable future that has a focus on our communities, our cities, our farms, our countries, and our place in this vast global network.

Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn
San Francisco, USA
I have always been inspired by the people around me and the good that can come from a group of individuals working together. This has always been a core value of mine but over the years, it was easy to be distracted by the hustle of everyday life. Until March 2020, I was consumed with daily dinner service, endless meetings, and the push to open more concepts. The pandemic has given me the opportunity to breathe… I always knew that hunger and the lack of real food was an issue but this pandemic truly opened my eyes to it. Now more than ever, I am completely committed to supporting local business and highlighting the amazing products being created all around us. There is no reason for us to import ingredients or goods from other countries when we should be embracing our local creators. Our communities will be stronger for it and our environment will begin to heal… The change that needs to be done in this world is obvious. Take this time to breathe, as I did, and open your eyes to the beauty that is right in front of you. Support one another and give back when you can because we are all connected in some way. Please be conscious of your place in humanity and be well.

Ebru Baybara Demir, Cercis Murat Konagi
Mardin, Turkey
As a chef from Mardin, I am living in my city for over 20 years and I believe the transformative power of gastronomy. With my restaurant, that I established in 2001, I encouraged local people - mostly women – to turn what they traditionally know best into economic benefit for themselves. My aim was to create sustainable employment for them, and we are making it happen with the strong women of my region for 20 years. However, forced migration waves from Syria, that started in 2011, have been deepening the cracks on the already fragile economic situation of the city.

Our aim for creating a new ecosystem by supporting the local producers and delivering the natural products to consumers is still ongoing when those people-in-need are in a more challenging situation than ever. In such strange times, we are living in now, to be afloat, surviving in life is more crucial than to keep those people healthy. With the awareness of this social reality that must be dealt with, we are seeking alternatives ways for going on.

Matt Orlando, Amass
Copenhagen, Denmark
For me personally, it has shown me that what happens inside the four walls of Amass is a catalyst to create a voice for real change. I am not talking about change within our immediate industry. I am talking about change within our food system. Cooking for people is great and making people happy is great, but we as an industry need to realise that this is not enough. We need to engage outside of our restaurants. We need to use our restaurants as catalysts to tell a story. Not a story about what is wrong with how we as humans consume food, but a story about what is right about how we should view food as humans. A story about respect. A story about responsibility. A story about impact. A story about awareness. A story about humility. A story about compassion. A story about each other So, I have made a personal promise to myself. No matter what happens moving forward, I will not waiver from what drives me as an individual. You do not need a restaurant to strive for the goals that you have set out to achieve. What I am about to say might sound extremely cliché, but I guess that’s why people say stuff like this. Our restaurants do not define us. Our actions define us.

Selassie Atadika, Midunu
Accra, Ghana
As an African who grew up in the US, I experienced aggressions and microaggression every day. I swallowed them, I managed them, I turned the other cheek because of the unwritten exchange that existed in my family: because of all of the trade-offs and sacrifices my parents made to get my siblings and me to the US, we would reward them with excellence in everything we did. That meant ‘Ivy League’ schools, world renowned employers, and often being one of the only Black people in the room. While immersed in these environments, none of these attacks escaped my notice, but I tried not to let them rattle me or ruin who I was as a person, and often didn’t respond to them. Another family agreement: don’t be a troublesome immigrant or minority.

Then came the ‘Great Pause’ of 2020. While self-isolating in my native Ghana, my emotions went from numbness to sadness to anger and then rage. I started playing back in my head all of the aggressions and microaggressions I faced as an African in the food industry. I reflected on the white supremacy culture on which ‘gastronomy’ is fundamentally built on and how the world of gastronomy still needs to have a white face from the old guard as the gatekeeper to first acknowledge an ‘ethnic cuisine’ before it is deemed good enough and worthy to join the landscape of international cuisine… The opportunity to share my voice, my story, and my perspective does not undo the systemic destruction of the African food systems and foodways wreaked by slavery, colonialism, and the proliferation of cash crops at the expense of thriving indigenous and climate and soil appropriate crops and the disappearing knowledge of traditional recipes and techniques…

Together, let’s engage in meaningful partnerships that create true change. When I think of the changes necessary to create an equitable food system, I picture the collective effort of lifting an elephant that has fallen to the ground. It will take a hundred hands, all pushing together. It will take each and every one of us to do it. Are you in?


Matt Orlando, Amass; Ebru Baybara Demir, Cercis Murat Konagi (image: Richard Grucia); Selassie Atadika, Midunu (image: Julia Dunin)

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