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Flocks of people have filled seats in restaurants in the past few weeks to reap the benefits of the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme. Many eateries have filled these slots for the whole of August, proving just how much Brits love a meal out – or a great deal.
Perhaps they’re making up for lost time. For nearly four months of lockdown, restaurants were closed – meaning chefs were out of work, people could no longer eat out, and the four walls of our own kitchens became far too familiar.
Of course, food can be put on tables with or without restaurants – but some have worried the temporary closures may have been detrimental to innovation.
Chefs working at top restaurants are among those who experiment with new ingredients first, authoring recipes that trickle down and influence the food we buy in shops. Supermarkets have their own food development teams, too, but these teams are often inspired by the styles, textures and flavours of dishes that leading chefs create at Michelin-starred eateries and cool independents.
So as restaurants closed for months under lockdown, did it impact food trends and menu development for the better – or worse?
Monika Linton, founder of the Brindisa Spanish restaurant group in London, tells HuffPost UK that while food trends may have suffered in terms of innovation, “discovering food did not”.
Rather than putting cooking aside, chefs decamped to their home kitchens to innovate, she says, propping up the food innovation ecosystem from there. “You could find chefs on social media giving tips on how to add flavour to simple dishes made with store cupboard foods,” adds Linton. “Recipes using store cupboard ingredients really were the thing.”
The months of restaurant closures gave chefs a “much-needed breather” to absorb and learn new techniques using basic ingredients that were easier to find, says Linton. And chefs agree, telling HuffPost UK they learned more from their time spent at home than they would’ve, perhaps, at work.
They didn’t feel rushed into an endless conveyor belt of recipe creation. Instead, they thought more broadly about food and flavours. “Obviously restaurant trends suffered as restaurants were closed,” says Anthony Garlando, head chef at Aqua Shard. “But the majority of enthusiastic cooks had the time and energy to carry the trends into their homes and create their own styles.”
“Enthusiastic cooks had the time and energy to carry the trends into their homes.”
Garlando says the surge in news stories about Britons relying on basic cookery ingredients to make sourdough or bake cakes – either because of supply chain issues or because they were unfamiliar with cooking more complicated foods – made him reflect on the benefits of straightforward food himself.
“I learned not to over complicate dishes or ingredients, pick the best products that are in season, treat them correctly and cook them with respect, he says.
This simplicity is reflected in Aqua Shard’s new lunch menu: a fuss-free offering, which he says has had “excellent feedback”. Dishes champion local British produce, such as Isle of Wight tomatoes, and elderflower vinaigrette, he says.
Eran Tibi, head chef at Bala Baya, a Tel Aviv–style eatery, also transformed his home kitchen into a development kitchen. “I’ve written dozens of recipes and menu ideas,” he says. “My partner was lucky I’d say, being my guinea pig!”
Tibi went back to cookbooks he hadn’t opened in years, using the time to think creatively and more deeply about discovering new foods and recipes.
While chefs have been going back to basics, restaurant attendees have been getting more creative with their home cooking than ever, adds Tibi.
“More people are beginning to understand the labour of love that goes into every dish,” he says. “Change can be scary but often, this sense of fear can be translated into exciting opportunities. Now, more people are cooking, baking, shopping and connecting with ingredients.”
Garlando agrees, and believes many people – not just chefs – will look at lockdown as a period that gave them the chance to develop their own cooking skills and styles.
“Now, more people are cooking, baking, shopping and connecting with ingredients”
Does this mean home cooks may influence food trends going forward, as well as chefs and restaurants? Perhaps, says Linton. She believes the surge in home cooks experimenting will eventually be represented on the supermarket shelves. “This need to create interesting food at home was front of mind for the inquisitive home cook and replaced the inspiration restaurants normally provide,” she says.
“All of these influences will lead to more adventurous ingredients becoming available to the consumer,” says Linton. “What used to be chef territory has now moved to the consumer – and [food] ranges, I believe, will have to reflect this over the next year as people continue to cook at home more.”
But while home cooking may be on the rise, it’s clear it isn’t sending people away from restaurants, she adds. “Some customers will have become more savvy with their cooking skills, but many do just want a night out,” says Linton.