Copies of Nick's book are on their way to New York, Birmingham, California, Belgium, Newcastle upon Tyne and Dorset. Alice Waters of the iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse is mentioned below and pictured above in more convivial times round a table at Viader, Napa Valley.
I promised in Consolation for not eating out – a competition that I would send the three winners a copy of my book On the Menu but in fact I will be sending out six copies to those who most eloquently described what consolations there have been for a year without restaurants.
The first, from Mrs Michele Platman of Birmingham, was a tribute to wine tastings on Zoom.
‘We have truly missed eating out – the thought of having to cook yet another meal at home fills me with dread – and I am so looking forward to enjoying a meal with friends that I haven't had to prepare myself – or do the washing-up afterwards! The last takeaway we had was in August 2020 – from the local chippy (although the chips were Aunt Bessie's, cooked in our oven), and it was so achingly mediocre that we vowed never to order another takeaway for the duration of lockdown, however long it might be. But all that is now coming back to bite us on the rear!
‘But the one consolation of not being able to eat out is that we're able to enjoy some great wines in the comfort of our own home, both as a couple and as part of two wine tasting groups. It's been a real labour of love organising a different modus operandi for each group, but it's really paid off handsomely. For our more serious group, one member provides the wine on a specific theme (last night it was Loire Valley Chenin) and that member arranges all the logistics for getting small samples of the seven wines to each attendee. It's a very long process to get some boxes hand-delivered and others couriered to their destinations, but it is the next best thing to meeting up in a member's home, which of course we can't do at the moment. We tasted some superb wines and it proved to be well worth all the trouble of pouring out 50 ml samples into tiny bottles and packing them up for delivery!
‘We do it differently for our less serious wine tasting group. We pick a specific theme each month, and each member purchases (or plucks from their stocks) a wine within that theme: Greece, for example. On the night, and via Zoom, everyone tastes their chosen wine and describes it to the other members present, including some information about the wine, and adding in a potential score out of 100.
‘In practice, wine tasting by Zoom shouldn't work – by any stretch of the imagination – but somehow it does, and we're absolutely thrilled to be able to enable our members to continue enjoying wine during lockdown – and taking their minds off the fact that no-one has been able to eat out for a very long time. But hopefully, it won't be too much longer.’
The second, from Heidi, a member of the Scheid winemaking family in Carmel, California, showed that a sense of humour is always essential.
‘A world without restaurants is unbearable. Here at my home in Manhattan Beach, California, we’ve coped by creating our own in-home restaurant, named “The 502”, after our street number. Ambience at The 502 depends on where you ask to be seated. We have a sports bar seating area (in front of the television), a Moroccan wine lounge (in front of the fireplace), counter seating for quick service (in the kitchen), patio dining (outside, naturally) and an innovative concept called the Zen experience (in bed). The menu changes daily and is often delivered in bags by wonderful people who leave the food at the doorstep. The highlight of dining at The 502 is undoubtedly the expansive wine list; in fact, the quality of wine far exceeds that of the cuisine. The proprietor is quite generous with her international selections and always supportive of opening a second bottle. While The 502 is a bit unreliable at times, its generous spirit and warm familiarity shine.’
The third comes from Owen Tudor of Belgium, someone who definitely saw the positive side of a year without restaurants.
‘Essentially, “nothing” [is the answer to what has consoled me during lockdown]. I’ve lost seven stone in the past 12 months because we made a decision that, with our normal lives (international travel for me, an Oxbridge college for my wife) suspended, we could gorge and drink ourselves into a stupor every night, or … not. We chose the latter.
‘It was, admittedly, improved by three weeks in Tuscany last July and a necessary fortnight in Florence in October. (The simplest way to dispense with the need for quarantine when returning from my job in the red zone of Brussels to the UK was via green-zoned Florence. It was tough, and I’m definitely not looking for sympathy). More importantly it was improved by our son whose own normal life as a chef was also upended, leading him to become a supermarket delivery driver and creative preparer of low-calorie but high-taste lunches.’
This, from Alan Smeaton of Newcastle, struck a chord, with me anyway.
‘It was only when I started reading old reviews by food critics going back several years and salivating over menus that I finally understood how much I was missing restaurants. Being someone classified as clinically extremely vulnerable I couldn’t even risk going out with my wife Anne when COVID-19 restrictions were briefly eased last year. Fortunately I had one get-out-of-jail card, namely that Anne is an excellent home cook who finds preparing food very relaxing and good for her mental health. It’s that precious skill which has made a year of not eating out a bearable experience.
‘Our biggest challenge being stuck at home, and also people who can’t drive, was to find good ingredients that could be delivered to our house. Thankfully more and more producers began offering home delivery to the public as their restaurant customers were unable to open. Yes of course I realise how lucky I am to be able to afford wild game from a Scottish estate, fish from North Shields fish quay, rare-breed pork from a farm. For many others simply the challenge of keeping food on the family table must have been immense. I have now become even more sensitive to food wastage and embarrassed when we have to throw out something that is no longer safe to eat. Just as importantly I realise how much eating is far more than an exercise in keeping the body functioning; it nourishes the soul and helps to protect our mental health in dark times.
‘The day I feel it’s safe enough to walk back into one of my favourite restaurants I will have a huge smile on my face, but not really in anticipation of the food I will eat. What I’ve missed most is hospitality, the warmth and comfort that comes from eating somewhere where people are pleased to see us and make us feel at home. Anne can cook great food but we can’t recreate that sense of someone else looking after us. Catching up with restaurant staff who almost feel like old friends and finding out how they have managed during these dreadful days will be so important. Eating at home every night for a year can become a monotonous experience that feels very isolationist. And of course there’s always the issue of the washing up …’
Penultimately, Steven Limandibhratha of New York writes:
‘My immediate response is to quote Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going”.
‘My 2020 started memorably, a combination of fortune and earlier toil bearing fruit. During the first ten weeks of 2020, I was out every night but five, travelled through ten different cities, across five different countries. Highlights include beaches in the Philippines, sushi in Tokyo, and dinner at Osteria Francescana the week before Italy locked-down. Forgive the trumpeting; my point is the impact of COVID-19 on my life was a complete overhaul.
‘The following ten weeks of 2020 were not easy. I was locked down alone in a studio apartment and my Wall Street job went into hyper-drive. NYC was the COVID epicentre of the US. For ten weeks, the front door of my apartment opened five times for desperate runs to the grocery store.
‘With the stage set, what kept me going was maintaining my perspective. I was not fighting for my life or worrying incessantly about my loved ones. I wasn’t forced to go into work every day and didn’t lose my job. I turned my attention to my wine collection and honing my cooking skills. Nights out were replaced with reading and listening to records. European vacations were replaced with many rounds of golf. NYC introduced outdoor dining and I made extra efforts to patronise my regular restaurants, including The Simone and Rezdora.
‘Looking back, and obviously putting all the deaths aside, my potentially contrarian view is I’m happy 2020 happened as it did. Through hardships people show their true colours and I believe we are all better for it. Personally, I know my relationships have flourished.
‘Bertrand Russell argued that one of the keys to happiness is finding zest in life. I kept going through the support of my family and friends, maintaining my perspective, and concentrating on the joys.
‘“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love” Marcus Aurelius.’
And finally, to a particularly honest response, from Charlotte Howlett of Poole.
‘Now this could be seen as an invitation to brag. An opportunity to boast about one’s pandemic pastimes, to strut your stuff on the acquired-skill-set front: punishing pastry routines and other culinary high-wire acts; self-awarded gold medals in veg-growing and foraging; a lovingly-assembled and curated drink-in wine list; and let’s throw in a fine-tuned and toned body. But none of this would be very accurate or … true.
‘After a stab at some of the above, I returned to default mode: moping. What was missing? Great food and wine? These, with cash or creativity could be obtained or rustled up at home. Immediate family? They were around. There was still a void, a space to be filled. I came across an article in the New Scientist that identified (yet more) COVID collateral: the importance of those looser ties to our mental well-being, of contact with what has been termed “the outer circle”. (Sorry, nuclear family, but it seems you are not quite enough.) What was missing was conviviality, and by extension sitting around the table together, sharing food, wine and laughs, which had been a part of my life both at work and play. Medical research validated my malaise. Phew.
‘I decided to go down an unusual path perhaps to fill the vacuum, and try and get in touch with a huge extended family: our ancestors. Our distant ancestors. Not through genealogy or the paranormal but through words. I began a journey down etymological rabbit holes, looking at words that have lost their freshness and link with their origins, and have attempted (with much online help and varied success) to uncover something of our forebears’ mindset, and possibly even reach back to Mr and Mrs Proto-Indo-European.
‘This has inevitably been a journey through space as well as time, a reminder of our millennia-old connections with not just European and Middle Eastern civilisations but well beyond – a linguistic globetrot. Some of these words have been food-related and sensory (words come out of our mouths as well as heads), and I have been hungry for revelations, insights, entertainment. A hooray-eureka moment came when I (finally – where have I been?!) realised that wisdom and taste were very close relatives: knowledge comes through tasting, testing and flavour, our very great-grandparents seemed to be saying (sapere and sapore in Italian; savoir and saveur in French, to give just two close-to-home examples; conversely, ignorant and insipid share the same root in some Latin languages). I really should have got this before.
‘Has this wordy and worthy-sounding endeavour replaced the pleasures of eating out with others? Of course not. In a recent radio interview legendary chef and activist Alice Waters was reduced to tears when asked what the closure of her restaurant Chez Panisse meant to her. It was not just about the food, important though that was, but about companionability, (literally) the breaking of bread together, sharing her food and food philosophy. And the buzz. The bistro buzz! May we gather around the table (preferably a round table) once again, or fire or BBQ like our long-lost forebears, with a renewed sense of joy, connection and appreciation of taste.’
Thank you to everyone else who sent in their thoughts.