Afforded time out from the kitchen and the daily grind, chefs have reinvented themselves and changed their approach to life and work
A chef’s life means long hours in the kitchen with little time for anything else. At its most essential the Covid-19 pandemic served as a reminder of what life feels like when you don’t spend the majority of it inside a restaurant.
Used to working 17-18 hours a day as the chef and owner of Restaurant Materia in Lake Como, Davide Caranchini got a taste of life outside the kitchen when Covid-19 hit last year.
“Our work is very tough, especially when you own the restaurant, so you never think about your personal life or your hobbies,” he says. “During the pandemic, it has been interesting to discover there is a world outside the restaurant. I am lucky because my girlfriend is also my business partner so we spend a lot of time together anyway, but now we try to reinvent ourselves.”
For Mauro Colagreco, the chef owner of Mirazur, currently ranked the best restaurant in the world, the first period of lockdown and quarantine in the spring of 2020 meant an opportunity to re-think what he wanted to offer his guests in the south of France. “I spent the first quarantine working the vegetable gardens with my gardeners,” he recalls. “It was a critical moment for me; we were all scared and uncertain. Like everybody else, we wondered what would come next.”
For Colagreco and Mirazur the next step was a reinvention. Spending time working the crops in the gardens and studying the rhythms of nature, led him to introduce the lunar menu when the restaurant could yet again welcome diners.
There was no way, he says, he could reopen in the same way as he’d closed the restaurant. “It made me go looking for other things and it was during the course of this search I thought about the lunar menu,” he says. “This was the starting point of some lovely new things and it has opened many doors.”
On the other side of the world, Joshua Niland in Sydney spent consecutive lockdowns by getting to know his restaurant team better.
When he made his first appearance at Madrid Fusión Alimentos de España in 2020, shortly before the pandemic, it was to talk about his singular approach to cooking fish. “I really wanted to speak about all the things we have done at my restaurant Saint Peter – charcuterie, offal utilisation and the people in Spain were particularly interested in dry ageing,” he says.
In the year since, his gaze has been less fixated on the fish alone. “I have changed a lot in the last year during the pandemic; I am now trying to seek out what gives me the most amount of joy in my week and what gives my team the most joy too,” he explains. “I have discussed with the team why they cook and I am trying to understand them better by asking a series of simple questions.”
He says 2 out of the 15 chefs reacted to his questions by crying. “The two boys I thought were dominating their work and were proud and happy were actually unfulfilled. Nobody had ever asked them what makes them deeply happy and satisfied,” he says.
“Everybody should be spoken to like that and it is the approach I have had since lockdown because I felt I wasn’t giving a good enough education and experience to my team. When you open your own business and everybody is watching, you don’t want to fail, you put the blinders on and get your head down and make it happen.
Then you look up and you realise you haven’t given enough to your team so that is where my attention has gone in the last 12 months.”
For some chefs, there’s hope that the changed behaviours that were introduced by necessity during the pandemic, will remain. Joan Roca, head chef of El Celler de Can Roca, twice named the best restaurant in the world, has welcomes the earlier dining time necessitated by the curfews.
“In Spain, we are used to eating dinner so late and it is really very challenging, but the curfew meant we had to shut at 11pm and diners would make reservations for 7.30pm or 8pm,” he says. “It is a schedule that we prefer and we are going to attempt to keep the earlier dining times because it is better for the team – and better for the health of diners”.