The coronavirus pandemic has brought industry to a grinding halt across the globe, and the gastronomy industry is one that is particularly hard hit. Lockdown conditions have dried up incomes in an already struggling industry, leading to an inordinate amount of job losses and financial turmoil. But the COVID-19 outbreak has provided the gastronomy community with some much needed time for reflection during which the underlying malaise can be identified and the way forward can be charted. The Basque Culinary World Prize sought to foster this reflection by hosting a webinar titled, ‘How is Gastronomy Facing the Challenge of Coronavirus?’
What We Learnt
“The restaurant industry was on life support anyway.” says Anthony Myint, San Francisco-based chef and restaurateur. According to him, the pandemic has revealed just how challenging the restaurant industry is and how vulnerable business owners are due to the fundamentally broken food system. “There’s no cushion, no safety net, no savings for businesses under the current system.” he remarked. But under the circumstances, restaurant owners have been given some time to think, a luxury the breakneck pace of the industry scarcely affords. The only way forward is to rework the food system from the ground up, focussing on localisation and sustainability to create a more resilient food system.
No one felt this collapse harder than Douglas McMaster, chef-owner of zero-waste restaurant Silo in Brighton. “By zero-waste I mean we don’t even have a bin,” he explained, “we’re pre-industrial. We don’t call wholesalers, only farmers.” The imposition of the lockdown meant that McMaster’s local food system was completely dismantled, highlighting the need for change. He argues that this lockdown has brought to light the industry’s complete reliance on an industrial food system and currently, with a lack of alternatives, plastic is a ‘necessary evil.’ While there’s a long way to go to replace plastic, investment in and innovation around bioplastics is especially important.
The current crisis has left those at the margins of society especially vulnerable. Many of those in the gastronomy industry have decided to undertake their most basic role; to feed the hungry. Brazilian chef David Hertz through his Gastromotiva (social gastronomy) initiative has been working to transform kitchens across his country into Solidarity Kitchens to feed the hungry and aid churches and convents in distributing food to those who need it.
The same is being done by chef Elijah Amoo Addo in Ghana through his Food for All Africa project, the first food bank in West Africa. “COVID-19 isn’t the biggest problem for them, it’s hunger.” he said as he detailed a tragic interaction with a local who told him she would rather die of the coronavirus with a full stomach than stay safe from the disease and starve to death. About 40% of the workforce in Ghana is employed in the hospitality industry, a majority of whom were left jobless when the virus broke. Chefs across the globe are embracing their duty to feed people through such social gastronomy initiatives.
The current time off is also being utilised by these chefs to spread knowledge about cooking and unify the gastronomy community. Chefs are going online to share recipes and techniques to encourage home cooking at this time. People have been given time and are thus cooking and finding joy in doing so, and the industry is taking steps to encourage it.
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The Way Forward
What all the speakers at the BCWP webinar agreed upon is the need to maintain environmental consciousness and sustainability as major goals for the industry at large. Anthony Myint stresses that people must embrace regenerative agriculture and strive to become carbon neutral, even when such goals can be lost when in the midst of an emergency. Eneko Atxa, chef of three Michelin star restaurant Azurmendi in Bilbao is continuing his work on a soil protein that creates negative emissions.”In moments of change (like COVID-19) we must also change.” he said.
As for the future of fine dining, Atxa remained positive that the industry will recover amidst doubt about the demand for eating out. According to him, fine dining is about getting joy, which is central to “who we are and how we understand life.” He emphasised the need for restaurants to adapt to the ‘new normal’ through creativity and innovation; to transform potential health necessities into new experiences and opportunities.
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The most earnest plea came from Spanish chef Diego Guerrero when he said, “Let’s not rush so much, let’s prioritise our loved ones.” He rued the modern tendency to “be first, just to be first,” and implored people to make the most of this time. “Time has stopped in lockdown, so use it to see what is truly important. Let’s not forget.”
Nominations for the Basque Culinary World Prize are open until July 1. This year’s prize will includes a significant focus on efforts the chefs have taken to address the coronavirus pandemic in the culinary industry and in wider society.