Irene Hua, Chef

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A Year in the Life

Irene Hua, Chef

Irene Hua, a chef at Dumpling Shack, describes her experience of working in hospitality over the past year as, “a real rollercoaster of incredible highs, camaraderie and community, and lows of anxiety, stress and uncertainty”.

Her experiences — learning new skills, stepping up for others, navigating the world of work in a year of furlough and uncertainty for businesses — are not unheard of in a year that saw a 99.77%  year-on-year decline in seated diners across the UK. Starting the year at Stoney Street in Borough Market, she switched to making pasta at Ombra later in the year and landed at her current workplace earlier in 2021.

In a year dominated by uncertainty, she knows the road back won’t be easy. While she’s thankful for increasing awareness amongst diners that working in hospitality is much harder than it seems, she’s keen to stress there will be reopening pains. “Please bear with us as we reopen,” she says. “A lot of us are a bit rusty from not working for so long!”

And shaking off the rust has just been part of the battle, as she has struggled to implement the government’s vague guidelines, and tried to reconnect with the food of her heritage in the face of rising anti-Asian discrimination. For workers like herself, reopening is just the beginning.

Her story of the past 12 months follows.

Start Gallery

April 2020. I’m sure every chef has an image of them surrounded by takeaway boxes, most likely for a charity effort. This was from one of the first cooks I did with COOK-19 for NHS frontline workers. The sense of camaraderie in the hospitality industry at this time was incredible, unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

May 2020. It wasn’t long until we missed cooking for other people and missed the taste of other people’s food. Our volunteer team at Stoney Street started cooking insane staff lunches to perk ourselves up, each of us bringing something to the table and quickly becoming the highlight of my week.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

June 2020. Like many, I tried to briefly run off to a farm to learn more about growing and the food system as a whole. I only managed to volunteer a day (logistically it’s more difficult than you think!) but I earned some fabulous goodies like this kai lan from Namayasai Farm.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

June 2020. An early outdoor Zoom meeting planning the reopening menu in Neal’s Yard at 26 Grains.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

July 2020. London looking glorious during our first weekend after reopening. It was such a relief to get back to some normalcy after months of uncertainty about when we could reopen.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

July 2020. Walking through Chinatown during the summer was an absolute highlight; seeing Gerrard Street set up for al fresco dining was a sight I never thought I’d see!

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

July 2020. Lack of clear government guidance was really starting to take its toll at this point. The burden placed on hospitality staff to enforce mask wearing and social distancing in public spaces was really exhausting and stressful. Compounded by working with reduced staff and worrying about selling enough to cover costs — it all put a big strain on even the best teams.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

September 2020. After a whirlwind of Eat Out To Help Out (I have no pictures as I was way too busy), I had a long anticipated meal at Orasay which was delicious! It felt great to go out and support other restaurants, but also just to be cooked for again.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

September 2020. The uncertainty, volatility and stress caused by the pandemic, and the lack of support for hospitality pushed me to start afresh. I ended up starting a new job as a pastaia at Hackney’s favourite pastifico, Ombra.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

October 2020. Two weeks into the new job, and we had to close due to a COVID scare. This was a real low point as this was just before the extension of furlough eligibility (I started too late to qualify) and the proper introduction of isolation payments from local councils. I wasn’t contacted through official Track and Trace — only through the NHS app — so I couldn’t get that either.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

October 2020. This was a prep day ahead of what would be many reopening prep days. With each closure and reopening, we got busier and busier; the support and response we received from customers was motivating and exciting. But there was also an underlying sense of doom in how the workload got bigger and bigger as we took on more bookings, not knowing whether the boom would last long enough to justify adding another staff member to help.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

November 2020. Scenes from behind the bar. This was for the first Ombra Christmas market we hosted at the end of lockdown 2. I was really grateful to work somewhere that was constantly innovating and finding ways to keep going despite the tricky circumstances. I ended up leaving Ombra recently, as sometimes the amount of stress you endure with a group reaches your personal limit. Something that the pandemic has exacerbated without a doubt, and in order to take care of yourself you just have to take a step back.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

March 2021. So this is me now, contemplating my next step and trying to reconnect with the food of my heritage. This has been a particular comfort in the face of rising hate crimes against East and Southeast Asian people. Trying to find a sense of community and safety is something I’m sure many of us will be looking for as lockdown restrictions lift and things get back to ‘normal’.

Image Courtesy Irene Hua

Read More Stories From Resy's Special Project: A Year in the Life of London's Restaurant Workers

A Year in the Life

Irene Hua, Chef

Stoney Street

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Stoney Street

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Orasay

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Ombra

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Ombra

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