Chef Life, Food & Travel

  • Date Posted: 7 April, 2020

Covid-19 – an opportunity to build a more sustainable industry?

By Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen

The prognosis for our industry, post Covid-19, is not a good one. The damage is said to be lasting and although uncertainty currently seems to be the only certainty, many are making predictions as to what the global impact of the Coronavirus on the hospitality industry will be.

American chef and co-host of Top Chef, Tom Colicchio has made headlines with his comment to Daily Beast that only 25% of restaurants may survive this crisis. This is after he closed all his restaurants and retrenched 300 employees. “We (restaurants) don’t have cash reserves. The money that we make today, if we were open, goes to pay bills from 45 days ago. Margins are razor thin. This is not the business that people think it is,” Colicchio told Daily Beast. According to the Financial Mail the US restaurant industry asked Congress for $455bn in aid to help retain 7 million jobs that are at risk.

American Chef Tom Colicchio.                                                                             Picture: Rayon Richards – 

In the UK the picture seems to be fairly similar with celebrity chefs Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay coming under fire, Stein for not paying his staff during the crisis, and Ramsay for making 500 of his staff redundant to cut costs.  

In South Africa our industry is facing this crisis with a compromised immune system.  With already challenging economic circumstances that has seen a drop in diners, some Johannesburg restaurants were already selling R29.99 recession breakfasts and others closing some of their less successful branches prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Add load shedding to the equation, a weakening Rand, reduced numbers of international tourists and rising food costs and it has become a tough space to make money in.

It is therefore no surprise that some food businesses fought to the end to keep their doors open after President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster and announced several restrictions on the serving of alcohol. One of the 2020 trends – “ghost kitchens or dark kitchens” – became a necessity for several restaurants as they turned their menus into take-away options. Either for delivery, or ‘curb side collection’ as chef James Diack’s restaurants in Joburg did.

Chef James Diack of the Brightside restaurant group.

But this moment of innovation was short lived as the entire country went into a 21-day lockdown, closing all restaurants and bars. Only food supply services remain open as an “essential service”. Here some innovation continues with suppliers like Wild Peacock in Stellenbosch shifting from delivering mainly to restaurants, to offering their delicatessen to the general public at wholesale prices.

 Similar to shock waves in European and American industries, South Africa’s top chef Luke Dale Roberts announced the permanent closure of his restaurant Shortmarket Club and asks for public donations on his website to the Naturalis Trust to support staff at his remaining restaurants, including World Top 50 Restaurant, The Test Kitchen. Upmarket coffee shop group The Whippet Coffee Company also started a crowdfunding initiative through the online platform Go Get Funding to raise money to support their staff during the Covid crisis. “We wouldn’t be asking if we had it any other way,” they state on their funding page.

The Eat Out restaurant guide also announced that it is pausing reviewing for the moment and will be postponing the annual restaurant awards. “We believe the restaurant industry will need time to recover once we are through this difficult period, and it would not be accurate or fair to judge them until they are strong and back to offering the eating out experiences that have made South Africa a world-class culinary destination,” Eat Out said in a statement.

Technology seems to be a great benefactor in this crisis but also a lifesaver for chefs and restaurants. Whilst their

Chef David Higgs teaching and fundraising with his Instagram page. 

restaurant doors remain shut chefs have gone online like never before – either teaching cooking from their domestic kitchens or fundraising for their staff. Celebrity chef David Higgs does both, not only entertaining the public with colourful outfits and his new sous chef, a bulldog, but also promoting his cookbook,  Mile 8 A Book About Cooking, the sales of which will go toward his staff.

It is however not only chefs talking food online. Everyone seems to be cooking, or baking – banana bread especially – and sharing their handiwork and recipes on social media platforms. It is clear that our industry might be suffering at the moment, but our medium is definitely not under threat as people are engaging with food during this crisis. And this is the upside. Food will always be in demand and chefs have the skills to procure, process and sell it. The way in which we do this, might just have to change in future.    

Apart from uncertainly, change is perhaps the other certainty at this time. Irish chef Mark Moriarty has a glass half full viewpoint on the pandemic. “Society will be different on the other side, and how we live our lives will change, perhaps for the better,” he writes for Fine Dining Lovers Blog. He believes the current challenge will present new opportunities. It will not mean the end of dining as we know it, but certainly include different approaches to enjoying food, from the home deliveries to more chefs taking the dining experience into private homes or teaching cooking online. And younger chefs looking at starting their own restaurants will have to do so on stronger financial foundations to build more sustainable businesses.

The sustainability of our industry has been questioned globally for some time, but more specifically the sustainability of the chef with renowned chefs like René Redzepi and Massimo Bottura calling for a change in kitchen culture. The hours, the salaries, the unnecessary initiation rituals and bullying, mental support for staff, work life balance.

Whilst desperation to get businesses up and running again will put all resources under pressure, this crisis should not be overlooked as an opportunity to review the system and reconsider the kind of work environments that we create. This is an unusual situation, an unusual opportunity to create not only more sustainable businesses when we open again, but also sustainable kitchens and chefs.

As the saying goes – it is always darkest before the dawn…


*Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen is the Managing Director of the Prue Leith Culinary Institute. 

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