Mei Mei in Borough Market, before the lockdown.

Restaurant DiariesLondon

‘This is Going to Get Serious Really Quickly’: One Worker’s Experience After COVID-19 Shut Everything Down

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, a government-issued mandate shuttered the vast majority of restaurants, bars, and cafes, with a few switching to a limited takeaway and delivery service. As part of a four-part series hoping to explore the experiences and perspectives of restaurant workers in the immediate aftermath, we’ve spoken to and shared a few of the stories from those on the frontline.

Chloe Rose-Crabtree is a chef, writer, and manager at the acclaimed Mei Mei, a Singaporean kopitiam located in Borough Market. Recently furloughed, here she shares her experience of the realities of trying to stay open in a pandemic, and why restaurants are more than just places to eat. 

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Our head chef sounded the alarm early. What’s interesting is that with Borough Market, you see all the tourists coming in, so you see more and more people coming in with masks. But we didn’t really think we necessarily needed to close until it felt like a week before the official announcement. I personally wasn’t feeling really good about getting on public transit coming in. It was more the atmosphere of the city that sort of tipped you off like, OK, this is going to get serious really quickly.

What it came down to was, do we hold out on this and sort of see and wait for the government to make a decision for us, and continue to put staff at risk? Or do we realise we have so few customers coming in anyway? Because it’s a tourist market, and tourism shut down. You know, the cost of operating became so high as well. None of it added up. It just made more sense for everybody to be safe. 

[Mei Mei owner and founder] Liz gave us the option of taking time off before the furlough was even talked about. That’s what we were hoping would happen, that the government would offer support. But we didn’t know. So she’s like, you can take the week now, take your paid time off, and then we’ll figure that out later.

Borough Market. Image credit: Garry Knight

So we get paid through the end of the month, essentially. But it came down to us if we personally felt comfortable coming in. And so one day, one of the girls came in because she felt OK doing it. And then I came in the day after to help Liz close everything down. But it didn’t feel at all like we had to be in if we didn’t feel like we weren’t gonna be protected. That was totally something you could call Liz or I to cancel your shift. And that was fine because I’d rather that than someone be there, and be uncomfortable and be scared. 

More than ever we also need to be reaching out and checking in with one another to make sure people are processing this abrupt change to their lifestyle.

It was really nice that when we switched over to takeaway, I think the customers that we drew in were people who were just appreciative to have someone who was providing them with something they’re actually going to need. And that’s something that Liz and I have been sort of chatting about rolling out more of. I know she’s doing some meals in Maidenhead, but transport is an issue. Where do we produce these meals then?

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With being furloughed, it’s obviously a bit sad — I want to be working. But Liz has been really good about keeping in contact, so I’ve been talking to her quite a bit and we’re looking at creative ways to either have us do a little bit of work, or find a way to reopen in a different site. Again, it comes down to the issue of transport. If no one can move around, how do we open that in this time?

But it’s just been a bit weird. You go from such high, intense work by working in a restaurant and then go straight into, you just don’t know. Mentally it’s very taxing. I’m really lucky that I’m not in a position where I’m hurting necessarily because I am covered by the relief. I don’t have to worry too much about us not opening anytime soon. But there’s a lot of uncertainty there.

More than ever we also need to be reaching out and checking in with one another to make sure people are processing this abrupt change to their lifestyle. I’ve set up a group chat for our team at Mei Mei where we can check in, share jokes, and keep everyone informed about the business as things change. For someone like myself with anxiety, the uncertainty of this situation can put you in a really bad mental space.

Cooking has always been an outlet for me to process that emotional state and I’m lucky enough to have a kitchen outfitted so that I can continue recipe testing and feel productive. It has made me feel really good to be able to make pastry drops to people I know in the local area and now that the dust has settled around my brain, I am looking at how I can use my culinary skills to volunteer. 

There are chefs that have been volunteering from the beginning but for a lot of us, the transition to this new lifestyle has been really unsettling, and we’ve spent the last few weeks just trying to ground ourselves and figure out what the next few months will look like professionally and financially. I think its really important to remember to be kind to yourself right now, and if you’re in a space to do so, reach out and see what you can do for the people around you. It’s easy to see all the Instagram live videos people are doing and feel like you’re not being productive enough, but some days it is just enough to brush your teeth and change out of your PJs.

Image courtesy of Chloe-Rose Crabtree

I think what’s going to be really exciting is that people are rethinking how they interact with restaurant spaces. They’re not necessarily just seeing them as places to grab a meal now, they’re looking at them as a place to source their food, so then they’re learning more about where a restaurant is sourcing their ingredients from, they’re seeing it more as a community space, which I really hope going forward is something that we continue with.

My partner and I were talking about this on our walk. He said, do you think people will avoid people after this? You know, I actually think people are going to want to interact more than ever because we’ve been so isolated. And that’s what people are realising. Even most introverted introverts really miss having person to person conversation. Where do most of those interactions take place? It’s in bars and restaurants and cafes.

Chloe-Rose Crabtree is a chef, writer, and a manager at Mei Mei in Borough Market. The restaurant is delivering fresh items, sambals, and spice mixes, which you can buy here

David Paw is Resy’s International Editor. Follow Resy on Instagram and Twitter

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