Eight weeks into the city’s mandatory lockdown as a result of measures introduced to contain the spread of COVID-19, the majority of London’s restaurants, bars, and cafes have closed. A handful, like the Venetian neo-bacaro Ombra in Hackney, have successfully shifted gears in order to remain open. Such businesses have diversified into offering takeaway and delivery, while also selling groceries and wine, both to serve their community, but also to ensure their future survival.
As part of a 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. Four weeks on, Ombra has settled into a regular cadence.
We recently caught up with Ombra chef Mitshel Ibrahim, who shares his day-to-day experience, what he’s learned from the lockdown, and his vision for the reopening of the city’s restaurant industry (read the first interview here). His words follow:
Last week was a bit slower compared to previous ones. As more places open up, I guess there’s more competition. The deliveries have slowed down massively during the week, but on Sundays, it’s too much that we’ve started renting out a car because it’s unmanageable by bike.
It’s definitely not as buzzing as it was when this all started — everything was new, everything’s fresh. Everything’s different. Now, we’re not bored, but it’s become a routine. The picture has settled a little bit more.
It takes quite a lot of energy to remain relevant, and to keep feeding people. Not food, but feeding them what they need. At the beginning, everyone needed yeast — so we started getting yeast. Then flour was the next thing, because everyone was baking. So it’s just trying to forecast what’s next, and trying to accommodate it, if it’s manageable and it fits our identity.
And in the last two weeks, we’ve started selling fresh pasta to wholesale customers, like grocery stores and shops who want to offer our linguine and others to their regulars. I think it could get interesting in the long term to keep us going. And If wholesale keeps picking up, maybe we could be looking at finding a site where pasta production is done. We’ve kind of become good at scaling things up without compromising on the quality or the end result.
It’s a lot of mental work in terms of trying to keep it exciting both for the staff, for me, and for the clients. I guess not everyone wants to eat pasta or the same combination every week. For Easter Sunday, we did a starter, a lasagna, and a dessert for two. So we might try to do more of those things, maybe once a month, or whenever there’s a special occasion. Then there’s the planning — it’s not just having a menu where you just make a dish, and switch into something else if ingredients run out. Now, it’s a whole new menu every time. But it’s good. I can’t complain — we’re very lucky to be able to keep working.
Are people going to feel uncomfortable going out when restrictions are relaxed? I’m not too sure about that. I see people in the street, on the canal at the weekend. They’ve pedestrianised the market, so I’m not sure if it can be compared to previous times, but you see people on the street. Unless there are stricter rules — which it doesn’t look like there are going to be — I don’t know if people are gonna be scared or not. I guess some of them, but I don’t think the majority are.
Even now, people sometimes ask us “can we have a table for four?”, and we’re like, do you not realise? Occasionally we’ll be eating staff food on the terrace. So some people see that: “Can we also get some?” and we’re like, “no, restaurants aren’t serving food to dine in — I don’t know if you’ve been following the news for the last two months?”.
In terms of predicting the next few weeks and months, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I feel like a lot of places are going to inevitably have to switch to a set menu where you have to ensure you’re getting X amount of money for a set period of time from a table, as opposed to, I don’t know, a table of four sharing one starter. It’s going to lose a bit of romanticism and be a bit more of a financial exercise. It’s a compromise.
I feel like having fewer tables in the dining room will cause that — I can see Ombra probably having to do that because it’s already quite a small space. And I mean, the terrace, it’s great, but it’s quite hard to say. In Italy, any places that have terraces or outdoor seating can open more easily than ones that don’t, so we would be lucky if the same is happening in England.
But unless a vaccine comes up tomorrow, then we’re not gonna be back to normal until that happens.
Mitshel Ibrahim is the head chef at Ombra in Hackney.