We had no idea then. But on 14 March, at some point around 10.45pm, we presented someone with their bill for the final time. Before that they had probably had coffees brought to the table with warm almond friand cakes and dark chocolate truffles. There had certainly been five courses of food, cooked in our open kitchen and carried to the table by any one of the six members of the small team. Before that, bread and a selection of nibbles, possibly a martini in a coupe frosted with condensation. A warm relief from the cool late-winter evening for a reservation made many weeks ago.
We all know what happened next.
I still feel enormously grateful that, even now, I get to cook for a few hundred people a week. Our switch from Vanderlyle the restaurant to #vanderlyletogo took place in less than a week and I am delighted that we have catered for lockdown birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and postponed weddings. That our food still brings a small bubble of joy to people, even if it arrives on the doorstep or is passed over by a gloved hand, is incredibly rewarding.
And now, we have the prospect of 4 July: Independence Day, when restaurants, pubs, cinemas and museums in England are allowed to reopen. Hospitality is a famously tough and resolute industry, and it is ready to rev its idling engine and race to full speed. I understand this eagerness and excitement – it’s impossible not to – and I pass no judgment on those who choose to open at the earliest possible opportunity.
But our own approach is going to be more cautious. Vanderlyle will not be open for business as usual at the start of July. Currently, I don’t know what the odds are of us being open again before the start of next year.
At the time of writing, there has been zero meaningful government guidance issued to the hospitality sector, though further guidelines will hopefully be released later today. The continued prevarication over the “2 metres or 1 metre” social distancing rule serves only to confuse the issue. Halving the social distancing measures will not halve the difficulties we will face when we reopen.
A lack of clear decision-making at the start of the crisis gives me little confidence that the government will successfully negotiate our exit from it. Lockdown easing in places as diverse as Florida, Germany and Beijing hasresulted in infection spikes and increases in R rates. Covid-19 isn’t going away. With no guidance about how to reopen safely and no support network if lockdown measures need to be ratcheted up again, reopening a small independent restaurant is a gamble I cannot take.
Track and trace presents a further issue. A diner displaying symptoms of Covid-19, or who tests positive (and informs the restaurant) presents us with significant decisions – both financial and health-related – that we do not have the skills, training or information to handle correctly. It should mean a mandatory two-week shutdown (in line with the current guidance for individuals) of the restaurant to prevent any further spread. The prospect of taking reservations, stocking a kitchen, preparing a menu, calling staff back from furlough and reopening, only to have to close again at a moment’s notice, is truly terrifying.
In addition, there is the harsh economic reality of having to operate at reduced capacity. Most restaurants aren’t run to make vast profits. Most restaurants can’t make vast profits. Margins have been squeezed so far over the past few years that even at full capacity it can be fearsomely difficult to break even. I would be surprised if there was a single restaurateur in the country that has forecast at 30-50% capacity and been anything other than ashen-faced at the outcome. From a business point of view, I have more confidence in our current takeaway model (albeit with the furlough scheme in place) than this leap into the dark.
My final reason is one of expectation butting up against reality. We all desperately want restaurants to reopen because of what they are and what they represent. Because of the memories we make there, because of the ballet of great service and the warmth of being cooked for.
We want to eat and not have to think about the washing up. We want someone else – anyone else – to pick a bottle of wine for us. We want everything from heat-blistered pizzas, blasted in an oven twice as hot as the one at home, to the full monty tasting menu and so many wines that you forget what you had for dessert before the final spoonful.
I want all this, too. I want to cook and put your food on a plate instead of in a box. I want to pour you a glass of wine and tell you why it will pair so well with the main course. Can all this be done from behind perspex screens, gloved and masked and incessantly worried about finances or whether or not the restaurant will have to close for two weeks because of a single phone call?
For now – for me – the answer is no, it can’t. There is too much still outside of our control. So while there are some elements that we can control we will continue to do so. Consequently, for the time being, we will continue to offer our food for takeaway, refining it and improving it and getting it to you in a safe manner. Hopefully it goes some way to reminding you – and us – what we have to look forward to when the time is right.
• Alex Rushmer is a Cambridge-based chef, food writer and owner of the restaurant Vanderlyle. The original version of this article was published on his blog