In the first round of lockdown rule adherence, I found I didn’t really miss eating out all that much. Going out to a restaurant has for me always been at the very heart of what I do and what I am as a professional and as somebody who has always been interested in, and been in love with, the world of food and wine.
Living alone, I cook for myself, something I have always genuinely enjoyed. Perhaps it is because in my professional capacity I have to cook to please others and make the food special and memorable for my clients; whereas when it is just me in the kitchen, I have nobody but myself to please, and so the process becomes an indulgence rather than a chore. During the first lockdown I kept a diary of every single thing I cooked for myself, and looking back I am pleased to see how much of an effort I made to celebrate local and seasonal produce in all those dishes. Perhaps one day they will become part of a book.
But no matter how much I write about food; however many recipes I construct; however many food festivals and events that educate and celebrate food that I participate in and no matter how many broadcasts and social media postings, it is undeniable that ultimately my industry all comes down to people preparing food and offering it to people who are either paying for it or – as in a domestic setting – are not. The simple, time honoured ritual of going out to eat, be it a cream tea in a teashop or a five-course degustation menu in a Michelin starred restaurant; in the end provides parallel experiences – good or bad. There’s the taking of one’s seat, the careful perusal of the menu that leads to the choosing; the service and delivery of the dishes, and finally the eating – with a certain degree of gratitude for the effort, and hopefully, deep felt enjoyment. Backstage, as I know only too well, there are those who cook; those who wash up; and those who serve. And whether an establishment is large or small, the pressures for them all are pretty similar.
In the ‘in-between’ period before this second lockdown, I had the opportunity to eat out a handful of times, and it really broke my heart. It seemed to me that the very soul of the hospitality industry had been ripped out of the experience. Everywhere I went, the atmosphere was consistently largely one of despair mixed with fear and misery, reflected in the body language of the reception and waiting for staff that wiped tables without enthusiasm and who refused to catch the eye of their patrons. The food itself, when it finally came, seemed to have had every trace of love, care and pride extracted from it: these essential ingredients replaced by plastic cutlery, plastic boxes where there had once been plates, and endless regulatory processes and expensive technology systems that made me wonder if there was actually anything left to spend on good ingredients once the regulations had been rigorously met. It made me sad, really, deeply, profoundly sad. It seemed inconceivable that the very life of my industry seemed to have vanished in a cloud of sanitisation. I found myself wondering whether it would ever feel the same again. And feared it would be unlikely, at least for some time.
But there was one marvellous, outstanding, rescuing exception.
In October, I took a good friend with whom I have shared many long country walks, conversations and tears over these long, weird and often lonely months, to celebrate her birthday over lunch at the glorious, vast Rathfinny Wine Estate in Alfriston, East Sussex. From the moment we arrived, this magical place was enough to instantly restore my faith in my beloved world of food and wine, thanks largely to the kind and courteous, fully engaged attitude of the waiting staff and the fantastic food prepared by young chefs; visible from our table in the large heated marquee, whose every sinew seemed to strain in their enthusiastic efforts to execute their menu in the best possible way, with enormous respect for the ingredients at hand. It was delightful, delicious, and more than that, it filled me with such hope and joy that somehow, even in the midst of all this chaos and trepidation, it was possible to have a dining out experience to remember with such genuine pleasure. Now I simply long to return, and as soon as it is possible to do so, I urge you to discover this perfect little pocket of excellence, on soft rolling Sussex slopes with the English Channel glinting in the light just 3 miles away. It is a place of great, dignified beauty, and the wines, by the way, are absolutely exceptional.
Halfway into Lockdown 2, which somehow feels so very different from Lockdown 1, I find I am not cooking for myself with the same feverish fervour that I felt the first time around. I am writing more, reading more and, like the rest of us, wondering what on earth Christmas will be like this year. I’m also supplying various local food markets, which thankfully are allowed to stay open this time around; with various goodies such as my homemade Panforte and other seasonal sweetmeats. So I’m much busier, my days have much more structure, and thus there is less time to cook for myself.
So now I am missing going out to eat. I miss the tinkle of glasses and the snap of a perfectly starched napkin. I long to study a menu and a wine list as I painstakingly plan what I’m going to eat and drink. I want to chat with the staff and find out about the people behind the establishment and their food philosophy. Quite simply, I want to be cooked for and served, with that combination of love and professional attention that successful establishments can deliver in spades with an apparently seamless lack of effort.
I only hope that for all of us, this will all come back soon and that it will be at least as good as my reassuringly special experience at Rathfinny. We can do this, and maybe we shall all be the better for it in the end, because nothing helps you to stand back and look at things clinically quite like a global pandemic.