Restaurant reinventions during lockdown
The creativity in the restaurant industry knows no bounds, as these inspiring lockdown stories testify
High-quality meal kit deliveries (see our pick of the best here) have rightfully received a lot of attention over lockdown, but restaurants and chefs are pivoting to counter the impact of Covid-19 in many other imaginative ways – from mail-order curries to takeaway kebabs, virtual wine tastings and hand-made ceramics, meet some of the people showing off the hospitality industry’s irrepressible ingenuity. After, check out our guide to the UK’s best gastro pubs with rooms.
Next level takeaway: TLC on the Prom, Edinburgh
“Even in the most recent restrictions, we’re still able to operate”
“It was a bit scary – it all happened in a week,” says Roberta Hall-McCarron, chef-owner at Edinburgh’s ambitious Little Chartroom restaurant, which, last August, launched a spin-off takeaway kiosk at nearby Portobello Beach. “It ticks all boxes for the situation: it’s takeaway, outside and, even in the most recent restrictions, we’re still able to operate.”
TLC on the Prom has been a financial lifeline. But McCarron insists on staying true to her creative urges. Using compact, yakitori-style konro grills and a Big Green Egg cooker, most dishes are BBQ-finished and, on the menu, fresh or tempura oysters feature alongside distinctly cheffy flatbreads. Fillings might include octopus with scallop, clams, mussels, XO sauce and charred corn, or tandoori carrots in vadouvan butter with sunflower seed hummus, parsnip crisps and lime pickle.
This stellar street food is pricier than most and Roberta has worried about pushing it creatively (serving partridge consommé was bold) but people have embraced it, during a day at the beach or, recently, while out walking. “We’re allowed to exercise, and people are able to pick up food on the way, which is great. People just want to get out.”
Constant reinvention: Bench, Sheffield
“When there's so much doom and gloom, we wanted something fun"
Despite Covid, Bench was always going to launch last October. “We’re not people to sit around,” says co-owner and drinks expert, Jack Wakelin. “The conversation was, how can we adapt and survive? That’s the aim.” This business based in Nether Edge was conceived as a cool neighbourhood wine shop, deli, bar and diner. Chef Tom Aronica would cook small plates of leeks, smoked cream and roe, or Swaledale lamb rump with caesar dressing, while Jack (the duo met at the award-winning bar, Public) served natural wines and forced rhubarb whisky sours.
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Within weeks, Bench had to close to diners. That meant switching to retail of team member Dan Ward’s sourdough, groceries, wine and pre-mixed cocktails. Tom then undertook a radical leap into takeaway kebabs and, later, fried chicken. “When there’s so much doom and gloom, we wanted something fun,” says Jack, of Bench’s Bull-Dog tonkatsu sauce wings, and thigh burgers with Nashville hot butter, spiced chicken fat and smoked lime aïoli.
Bench is now totally contactless, too. Food is ordered and delivered via City Grab, an app developed by a Sheffield taxi firm to connect independents with locked-down fans. “We’re managing to get by without racking up debt,” says Jack, looking to the future. “So fingers crossed!”
Mum’s Punjabi feast by post: Momma Bains, Nottingham
“Momma bains’ thurka curry base is the key ingredient”
The meal kit pivot was never realistic for Restaurant Sat Bains. Sat’s two-Michelin-star kitchen operates at such a technically elevated level that, says Sat: “I know it doesn’t translate, even if we make it as easy as we can. I didn’t want to devalue what we do.” But his mum’s samosas got him thinking.
Pre-Covid, Tarsem Kaur Bains would drop Punjabi snacks at her son’s restaurant and it struck Satwant Singh Bains that the family feasts this conjured memories of – “all helping ourselves to Punjabi dishes passed down mother-to-daughter for generations” – are what people are craving right now.
New company, Momma Bains, is the result. The RSB kitchen now makes Momma Bains’ samosas for award-winning chip shops (Rick Stein’s, Nottinghamshire’s The Cod’s Scallops) and its food truck based in Wollaton Deer Park. Meanwhile, in collaboration with a high-end food manufacturer, Sat is creating chilled curries, such as saag aloo, aubergine sabji or mung bean dahl, for nationwide postal delivery.
Tarsem and her thurka curry base is the key ingredient. A 20% shareholder in Momma Bains, she oversees and taste-tests each cook: “I’ve got to give her credit and something of value,” says Sat. “It’s her recipes.”
Getting Tarsem to weigh things is a battle – “She’ll measure salt in her hand,” laughs Sat – but that is precisely what he wants: “We could produce it, as chefs, but I want it to authentically taste of home.”
A DIY solution: Exose at Home x One Catering Prep, Manchester
“Menus range from homely takes on Caribbean dishes to fresh pasta"
The first lockdown was a huge blow for Exose Grant Lopo-Ndinga. A finalist in 2019’s MasterChef:The Professionals, the 24-year-old had left a full-time job to do pop-up events with his fellow finalists. Suddenly, those dates were cancelled.
This came just as Exose was finding his cooking groove, too. He went on TV, not to find fame, but to test himself. “I was insecure about my cheffing skills. I felt I was slow and not creative. I thought, right, let’s try a hard competition, never thinking I’d get to the final. Obviously, I came out with a lot more confidence.”
He also acquired a large social media profile which (note: this self-starter created his own business, Granted Cakes, aged 17) was vital to the lockdown launch of Exose at Home. First, Exose sold chilled meals and, latterly, twice-a- week, he has been delivering hot dishes in Manchester, his menus ranging from “homely” takes on Caribbean dishes to fresh pasta.
It is all very DIY: “I’ve not even got a website.” Exose was cooking at home, initially, then in a closed restaurant and is now in a friend’s catering prep space. Menus appear on social media, orders are taken by phone and email, then diners are invoiced with payment details. But it works. Exose keeps numbers manageable and sells out on pre-order. It is a neat, sustainable stopgap: “The business came out of nowhere and where it is now is incredible.”
Ten more ways hospitality is facing down Covid-19.
1) Siu Tang, Chester
Pandemic pop-up in the Chef’s Table prep kitchen, serving take-out char siu and kung pao buns.
2) Passione Vino, London
Italian wine bar and shop running online tastings with co-founder Luca Dusi.
3) Belzan Bread & Pantry, Liverpool
From gorgeous focaccia to own-recipe baked beans, Belzan has reinvented itself as a neighbourhood deli.
4) The Moorcock Inn, Sowerby Bridge
Chef Alisdair Brooke-Taylor’s stunning hand-thrown pots and plates are now for sale.
5) Pastaio, London
Buying merch from your favourite restaurant is a great support. We love Pastaio’s ‘This Too Shall Pasta’ t-shirt by artist Jenny Dyson.
6) Mana, Manchester
From lobster rolls to smoked-egg-topped Belted Galloway burgers, this Michelin-starred restaurant is offering exceptional take-out.
7) AYO, London
Plans for his own restaurant scuppered by Covid, Paul Murashe now creates high-end luxury lasagnes.
8) Artisan Street Kitchen, Birmingham
Until chef Andrew Sheridan’s restaurant, 8, can open, he’s selling French bistro treats.
9) Baraxturi, Ramsbottom
Creating frozen tapas and Basque pintxos for delivery.
10) Five Star Kebabs, Brighton
Chefs Dan Kenny and Luka Dmitryi serve their extravagant kebabs straight to punters outside their flats. They’re launching at-home kits, too.
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