Chefs dish up the truth about life in lockdown

A word of advice before you begin to read Lessons from Lockdown: Cooking after Covid, a collection of searingly honest reflections on life during the pandemic, written by chefs based all over the world. Set aside plenty of time (you won’t be able to tear yourself away from it), and have plenty of tissues on hand to dry your tears.

Written in the form of letters, many of them deeply personal and searingly honest, the 121 contributions present a compelling snapshot of the human cost – and some gains too – experienced by workers in an industry severely and brutally impacted by Covid-19.

Many contributors chose to address their letters to young chefs, offering them words of wisdom as they face this unprecedented challenge. Others dedicated their words to members of their team, or to family members.

The letters are presented as an ebook, published this week by Food on the Edge, the Galway-based food symposium. Most are written by chefs, along with a few hospitality industry representatives, food writers and Irish artisan food producers.

“In contacting our past speakers, chef friends, industry colleagues, I have tried to be as broad and inclusive as possible. This is important given the issues that our own industry still needs to tackle in terms of representation and equity for all,” says Food on the Edge director JP McMahon, who is the publication’s editor. McMahon, who is also an Irish Times food writer, has been working on the project since last June, along with designer Edel McMahon and copy editor Abigail Colleran. “This book is a record of our time. Of our ambitions. Of our failings. I hope it will stand the test of time,” he says.

Commonality of experience is a recurring theme throughout the letters, with many of the contributors appreciating having an extended period of time away from their kitchens, some for the first time in their professional lives. The pleasures of spending time with family, having an opportunity to take care of themselves, mentally and physically, and the chance to take stock of their lives, are mentioned again and again.

But so too are the deep sadnesses associated with Covid-19 restrictions, closing businesses, making staff unemployed and not knowing where it will all end. “On last March 14th, I saw everything that I had built with my teams vanish, I felt the accountability of having 70 people at risk of losing their livelihood and the risk of leaving my daughters without anything to eat and the risk of me and my wife Sara falling into a bottomless pit of depression,” writes Alexandre Silva, chef/owner of Michelin-starred Loco in Lisbon.

Feelings of remorse and guilt at having to break up tight-knit teams and let staff go are mentioned many times, including by British chef and restaurateur Nathan Outlaw. “The prospect of having to make all of them redundant was, to put it mildly, harrowing.”

Killian Crowley was about to open a restaurant in Luxembourg 

For former San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year UK and Ireland, Killian Crowley, the pandemic upended his plans to open his own restaurant, but it also made him pause to think about whether it was what he really wanted. “Just before the pandemic I was really close, with some investors, to opening a beautiful restaurant. My dream was about to happen: a 40-seat restaurant, beautiful kitchen, beautiful setup, great area in the centre of Luxembourg city. I have never been so close to opening my own restaurant.

“Just before the pandemic showed up, we were going through the numbers and figures and I soon realised that people that come forward with money are leaving with money and they’re here to make money. Their vision isn’t yours, they just need somebody to do the job.”

Mike Tweedie, head chef at the Oak Room at Adare Manor.
Mike Tweedie, head chef at the Oak Room at Adare Manor.

For Mike Tweedie, head chef at the Michelin-starred Oak Room at Adare Manor, lockdown gave him time to reflect on what was truly important to him. “I missed every part of my job, even the parts I didn’t enjoy, but for me personally, lockdown was a dream. I had time to reflect on me, who was I, where was I going in my life; 2019 was a year where I achieved everything I have ever worked for, but personally I lost everything. On May 19th, 2019, my youngest brother, Liam, lost his fight against cancer at the age of 23.”