Learnings in Lockdown: 6 Chefs And Restaurateurs Reflect On The Pandemic Thus Far

It has been 511 days since the circuit breaker was implemented on April 7 2020. For many in the food and beverage scene, the month-long ban on dine-in was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Already reeling from the impact of COVID-19 with restaurateurs reporting a drop of 50% – 80% in revenue, the nationwide lockdown saw many throwing in the towel and calling it quits. Since then, the industry has endured two more heightened alert periods and continues to struggle with tighter pandemic control measures, including the prohibition of background music in venues and a 10.30pm curfew on the sale of alcohol, which have greatly affected businesses. 

Although we are slowly emerging from the most recent heightened alert phase and dine-in is resumed for people fully vaccinated against COVID-19, providing a much needed reprieve for battered businesses, the road to recovery is still long. While there are no easy solutions in an unprecedented time like this, we look to six chefs and restaurateurs – Chef Andrew Walsh of Cure Concepts, Chef Anthony of Summer Hill, Chef Emmanuel Stroobant of Saint Pierre, Chef Lisa and Chew Shian of Kausmo, and Chef Tamara Chavez of CANCHITA Peruvian Cuisine – on how they found their footing amidst the pandemic and how they are preparing to navigate the journey ahead.

Pivot Fast or Be Left Behind

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us to look at the world and ourselves through different lenses. For some, it is a reminder to look for the silver lining despite the daunting situation. “It is a privilege for us to be able to go to work during this trying time,” reflects Chef Andrew Walsh, founder of Cure Concepts. Echoing the same sentiment is Emmanuel Stroobant, chef-owner of two Michelin-starred Saint Pierre, who shares that “compared to my colleagues in other parts of the world, we are very lucky to be in Singapore.” 

Chef-Owner Andrew Walsh (Left), Chef-Owner Emmanuel Stroobant (Right)

Even as the proportion of vaccinated people is increasing and the situation is starting to look up again for Singapore, it pays to be prepared for the worst. Adapting quickly is the surest form of insurance to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Speaking from experience, owner and chef of Summer Hill Anthony Yeoh says his team was already investing time and money in getting ready for the imminent dine-in ban before the Circuit Breaker measures kicked in. “We started making plans for a takeaway ordering system and how to pack our meals and reviewing our menus to make them more takeaway friendly. It helped sales-wise because we were more or less ready, but the bigger bonus was that it helped morale and added stability to our team to know that we had some semblance of control in this really chaotic and unprecedented situation,” he says. 

Chew Shian & Chef Lisa

Chef Lisa Tang and Kuah Chew Shian, co-founders of Kausmo, had to quickly think of ways to make use of the ingredients originally intended for their dine-in menu. With no time to lose, the ingredients were quickly adapted into retail food items like sourdough brisket sandwiches, hummus spreads, and hot sauces, to be sold on Krusty by Kausmo, the restaurant’s retail arm. 

Similarly, Head Chef Tamara Chavez of the newly opened CANCHITA Peruvian Restaurant has pivoted numerous times since celebrating its first day on 15 May this year, switching to delivery and takeaway just one day after they opened to resuming dine-in service for groups of two, followed by five, and then going back to Phase 2 Heightened Alert. 

No matter how bumpy the ride ahead, it is clear that we need to grit our teeth and continue our march forward. We have “to be very resilient, to be very determined,” encourages Chef Andrew.

Elevating the Home Dining Experience

Ever since dining rooms across Singapore were forced to close over a year ago, restaurants and bars have been busy striking a balance between creativity and profitability with their offerings. The main ingredient, as Anthony reveals, is to understand your customers. “With pivoting the business, it was really about finding ways to service our customer needs and those needs have been changing and evolving continuously as regulations change,” he notes. During the festive period in 2020, Summer Hill had launched large festive dishes like their whole stuffed Challand duck to meet the demands of diners who wanted to celebrate at home with family and friends. 

Room Service by Saint Pierre (Left), Stuffed Whole Challand Duck (Right)

Sensing a growing appetite for interactive dining experiences amidst the lockdown, Emmanuel launched Virtual Saint Pierre during the circuit breaker, a new culinary experience that reinvents the traditional concept of social gatherings. The unique dining experience begins with Saint Pierre personally delivering a specially curated omakase meal to the diner’s home in a premium bento box. To start the digital party, diners will have to enter a virtual room on Zoom, using a link provided to them along with their meal. Once all guests have gathered, Virtual Saint Pierre commences with an appearance by none other than Emmanuel himself, who will interact with guests and introduce them to the menu’s selection. 

“While diners really enjoyed the unique dining experience that Virtual Saint Pierre provided, we received feedback that they wanted a fuss-free hot food option,” shares Emmanuel. So when Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) was announced, the two Michelin-starred restaurant introduced Room Service By Saint Pierre, a fuss-free and exquisite dinner experience where all the dishes are cooked, prepared and plated on exquisite tableware at the restaurant before delivered right to diners’ doorsteps.

Krusty’s Truffle Mushroom Butter

Some dining establishments have also pivoted to e-commerce shops, peddling home-cooking kits and groceries. As “Kausmo’s dining experience is not optimised for delivery,” shares Lisa and Chew Shian, the duo decided to launch Krusty by Kausmo, which offers a rotational menu of artisanal bakes, spreads, sauces, and house-brewed Kombucha. “This is also a strategic choice as most of our target audience are more inclined to purchase artisanal staples that store well in their fridge as compared to one-time fancy meal deliveries,” they add. Taking care of their diners at home, Lisa and Chew Shian also host virtual meeting sessions with their customers on Zoom as well as live cooking demonstrations to share more information about the dinner and ingredients. 

On top of launching Cure Concepts To Go, where diners can enjoy dishes from CURE, CATFISH, and Butcher Boy at home, Andrew also introduced The Patio Pie Deli, a pop-up deli retailing comforting pies, fish and chips, and special farmer’s market produce. “When your business is in difficult times, you have to dig deep and think about what you can do to survive,” he says.

CURE’s The Patio Pie Deli

 

Sustaining the Business for the Long Haul

In the new normal of COVID-19, old systems are becoming obsolete while new challenges arise everyday. The constant need to adapt has changed our dining culture and with it, how restaurants are rethinking the business model. “The pandemic has made us reconsider what we are doing and how we are doing it,” says Emmanuel. Moving forward, he adds, “we need to understand what is viable and what is not. For us, I am happy to have diversified and we are looking at new ways to be more present online.”

For Tamara, she sees takeaway and delivery as a “permanent solution” to reach diners at home. Other restaurants and bars are also looking at other ways to diversify their revenue streams. At Summer Hill, “we’re trying to get more products out that can bring our brand into the home where people are spending more time these days,’ shares Anthony. “And again, hedging for a worst case scenario where we might go into a lockdown or a dine-in ban where the core of our business is badly hit,” he adds.

Similarly, Lisa and Chew Shian will also be permanently adding Krusty by Kausmo into their repertoire. “Kausmo, which is essentially a communal dining concept, is not ideal in a pandemic. Safe distancing restrictions reduces our seating capacity which greatly impacts our bottom line. As such, we can no longer rely on dine-ins alone,” they say.

 

Don’t Forget About Mental Health 

Professional kitchens have always been stressful environments where chefs toil tirelessly for long hours in tight, compact areas, their hands and minds working ceaselessly in the pursuit of perfection in every plate. How then are business owners coping with the stress while supporting their team during the pandemic?

Chef Tamara Chavez of Canchita

For Tamara, it means maintaining a cheerful and positive mood and greeting her team brightly every morning to boost staff morale . “First thing in the morning, I greet every member in my team and check on their wellbeing. Sometimes, we have one-on-one conversations but even a simple “how are you?” lets them know that there is someone who cares”, she shares. To take their minds off their worries, the staff attend lessons taught by Tamara on knife-cutting techniques and sharing sessions on the different cultures in Latin America. They also helped to manage a mini garden located behind the restaurant, growing and tending to an assortment of herbs and vegetables like parsley, chili padi, baby corn, and cabbage. 

To keep the mood light, the team at Summer Hill has also started getting creative with staff meals. “It keeps us grounded when we cook for each other and remember what we love about running a restaurant. It has resulted in some fantastic meals and a little light in the lockdown!” says Anthony.

While busy taking care of their staff, it is also important for business owners to slow down and take a breather. “For our own mental well-being we do factor in off days for ourselves where we can spend time doing the things we enjoy and that helps us to de-stress,’ shares Lisa and Chew Shian. The duo recently took a week-long break during the recent Phase 2 Heightened Alert to explore Singapore and learn more about the different types of edibles and produce that thrive on our local soil, which “did wonders”. Support from the customers can also be a huge morale booster. “We’re grateful that our regular customers check in on us and ask us how we’re doing from time to time, with some even sending us food to cheer us up!” they add. 

The pandemic has been unkind but “it is a situation we are all sharing,” says Emmanuel. 511 days later, we can’t foretell which direction it will take but we can continue to work together and look forward.