It’s fairly obvious to state that the hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit sectors further to the Covid outbreak. But what does the future hold for fine dining specifically? How can an experience known for its intimacy evolve and allow for social distancing?
Mark Laurie of NCASS, the Nationwide Caters Association, said, “Capacity and footfall in towns and city centres have dropped by at least 60% but rents have not. Often, these restaurants are more labours of love than profit driven businesses – a lot of chefs and owners have felt pretty crushed by it all, most will likely have to downsize if they haven’t already.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Here, two chefs, Jamie Desogus of Harborne Kitchen in Birmingham and Alex Bond of Alchemilla in Nottingham share their journeys through an unprecedented time in the hospitality industry, their plans and hopes for the future of fine dining.
Jamie Desogus, Harborne Kitchen
Harborne Kitchen reopened its doors at the beginning of July. During lockdown chef owner Jamie took the opportunity to refine the restaurant’s interior and launch a new small plates concept in the bar. The layout of the two-rosette restaurant celebrated by the Michelin and Good Food Guides, has been redesigned and now offers intimate booths in the bar and restaurant.
The new bar menu takes in dishes such as Pig Belly Taco with Pineapple Salsa, Lamb Belly with Chimichurri, and Baked Beets, Sorrel and Cultured Cream. Culinary theatre remains at the heart of the Harborne Kitchen experience; the open kitchen is still visible and diners can still book seats at the overlooking Chef’s table, now separated by an etched glass screen. The seasonal ‘Chosen’ 6 and 8 course tasting menu will be available in the main restaurant.
“Not only have we made adjustments to how we run the restaurant to ensure the safest environment, we’ve also made some significant updates to our interior; the booths will offer a more intimate dining experience whilst also allowing for distancing measures. We’ve also relaunched the bar and offer; think small plates that share the same quality as our tasting menus but with a more relaxed vibe.”
An enhanced experience
“The changes we’re making will result in a much more private and relaxed experienced, which to be honest has been a natural progression since opening. We opened with a huge buzz in the restaurant that was well received, and over time we have really refined what we do and our guests have been on the journey with us every step of the way.
“Where we’re really looking to adapt and push the boundary is with our descriptions of dishes and wine pairings. The team and I are looking at some ways we can push that experience forward without the person to person contact we used to have.”
What about long-term changes to the industry as a result of the pandemic?
“It’s commonly talked about that we will see closures in our industry, and I guess I’m doing everything I can to not only survive but come out the other side with a stronger sense of who we are and what our offer is. I’ve used this time to take the restaurant to a higher level.”
“The team are excited – they’re really buzzing about pushing our offer forward. They have been part of the same journey as me and they all really bought into upping our quality slowly when joining the team. I feel so lucky to have the team around me that I do right now. It feels right.”
How did you find lockdown?
“It’s been both amazing and super tough personally. Having more time with my wife and children has been very special, as well as allowing me some time to get back into my drumming and riding. That said I can’t stand here and paint you an insta-perfect picture, it’s been a long way from that as it has for so many people out there. I feel very fortunate to have the family around me that I do.”
A brighter future…
“Professionally it’s given me some time to take stock of how far we have come and also how close we are to certain career ambitions. It’s also made me look to try and make more of my goals intrinsic. My team, my family and my guests’ happiness really is what matters most.”
Alex Bond, Alchemilla
Alex Bond is chef-owner of Alchemilla, a Michelin star, plant-based, fine-dining restaurant in Nottingham. Alchemilla was awarded the first Michelin star of the 2020 Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland Guide.
The five and seven course tasting menus focus on showing Alex’s love for vegetables, their complexity of flavour and challenging those overcooked memories of things like cabbage and cauliflower. Alex is focused on no-waste cooking, with creative dishes that ensure all elements of the ingredients are used – including their bread ice cream with molasses and coffee, which uses the off cuts of their sourdough.
Life at Alchemilla, post lockdown…
“We’ve put in plenty of measures to maintain safe distancing. We have reduced covers, we will be closing for lunches so we can open for dinner earlier which means we can spread out the amount of people in the building. We will not be using our bar area so it can be used for distances queueing for the loos. We’ve removed tables to create more space.”
Long term effects on the industry?
“I think there most definitely will be some changes. I won’t be suprised if cost of produce goes up for one. I would like to see more people continuing to use small local producers, green grocers, butchers etc. There’s been a lovely shift to almost a post war time where we’ve started buying veg boxes and using the butcher again. I would hate to see these people just being used for personal gains and ditched as soon as some feel safe to return to the supermarket. We should definitely continue to support local. As far as fine dining and restaurants I hope that we can return to normal as soon as possible but in the mean time it will be those that learn to adapt that will survive. Now is not the time to rest on our laurels.”
Any post lockdown positives?
“For sure. Seeing such a humanitarian problem up close has definitely made me appreciate what we have and that we as a nation need to help each other more. I know that probably seems obvious but we get stuck in our bubbles and the constant business of everyday life. Much in the same way we should continue to use the local butcher or veg man we need to care for others and be more considerate with or without the threat of a pandemic. At times I have also really enjoyed the slower pace of life and more time with my wife and beautiful girls.”