“You Can Just Feel The Energy.” Bloodwood and Claire Van Vuuren Are Making Up For Lost Time
The pandemic started just as Bloodwood celebrated its 10th birthday. After a second lockdown that nearly claimed the Newtown restaurant, its chef-owner Claire Van Vuuren is renewed by an optimism she’s felt since reopening Bloodwood.
“You can just feel the energy,” she says. “People are ready to eat and drink, to make up for the months we were in lockdown.”
Since Bloodwood, reopened last month, she’s been re-energised by the enthusiasm of diners; seeing them smear charred bread with her pecan pâté and snack on her spiced chickpeas and cashews, or toast each other with the venue’s ‘Back to Bloody Business’ blood orange and whisky cocktails.
The mood’s a lot sunnier: a big contrast to the dark stretch of lockdown that went on for 107 long days from late June to early October. Like other restaurants across Sydney, Bloodwood had to close its doors and serve takeaway-only meals during that isolating time. It was, to put it mildly, a struggle: A spooked public rattled by headlines about the Delta variant weren’t as willing to step out for takeout as they were last year.
“Without the government grant, I don’t think we would have made it through,” she says.
Like many people, the recent lockdown caught her off-guard. Then Premier Gladys Berejiklian had gained a reputation for being lockdown-adverse, with a magazine cover claiming she had “saved Australia” by averting shutdowns. This claim, of course, aged badly once the Delta outbreak raged out of control – and the cover image gained a second life as a social media punchline.
The premier reluctantly issued stay-at-home orders for four local government areas for Friday June 25 – causing much confusion in Newtown, where, bizarrely, one side of the main drag was deemed safe, while the other side had to close its doors. “It was confusing, fielding all these phone calls: ‘are you guys really open?’” Van Vuuren recalls.
“I thought we’d make it to Saturday, but by Saturday, the whole thing was getting shut down,” she says. The entire city was now in lockdown. “It happened really quickly. The whole street was a ghost town.”
At first, she closed for the initial two-week shutdown. But as the lockdown was extended, Van Vuuren knew she’d have to restart the takeaway model that helped the restaurant survive the previous lockdown.
“We came back, and we all made bets on how long it would be,” she says. Some of her Bloodwood staff guessed the stay-at-home orders would only last seven days, perhaps stretch out to a fortnight at the longest.
“I bet four weeks. I wrote a four-week roster, and I bought four weeks of packaging for takeaway. And then it just kept getting out of hand. It kept getting bigger and bigger. The four weeks became eight weeks and at that point, Gladys was being frustrating to businesses, and making you hang on to the Friday before to know whether you’d be open [next week] or not.”
When the government finally began expanding the lockdown for month-long stretches, it was a relief, as it allowed businesses like Bloodwood to plan ahead.
“I freaked out. People were too nervous to be out.”
– Claire Van Vuuren
And while last year’s lockdown was buoyed by immense diner support – “we straight away had every customer coming in to check on us, make sure we’re okay” – this time, the enthusiasm for takeaway had dropped off dramatically.
“I freaked out,” she says. “People were too nervous to be out.” Van Vuuren had to reconsider Bloodwood’s approach.
“Last year, I was against being with any delivery partners, but people weren’t coming out,” she says. Her reluctance to use these start-ups is understandable: delivery apps have been notorious for charging exorbitant commissions that restaurants find unsustainable – and the pandemic has led to calls for them to reduce what they charge, particularly with restaurants so dependent on takeaway revenue to survive lockdowns.
“So, we went on DoorDash,” she says. “Our turnover doubled as soon as we started using delivery, but [we were] busy for two to three weeks, and then it died out completely, to the point where I just shut for a week,” she says. Although Bloodwood was officially on a break, as her team recovered from lockdown burnout, Van Vuuren didn’t keep the lights off entirely.
“We just kept cooking amazing staff meals every night to stay positive: we’d have staff meals together downstairs at the big table and share a bottle of wine and then go home at 8.30, to keep sane.”
Throughout lockdown, she also made sure her employees were well-fed, bundling up loaves of focaccia, unsold trifle and other leftover stock at the end of the week for them to take home. Additionally, she kept in close contact with her team, particularly those living alone or younger workers not caught up on the latest COVID rules and developments. “I always feel a responsibility as a boss that you’ve got to check in on them and make sure that everyone is okay.”
Despite trying to keep people in good spirits, it was still tough to see her restaurant empty. “You’ve got packaging sitting on tables and bags and it’s just clutter,” she says. “There wasn’t the buzz and warmth of seeing customers enjoy your food as you peer from the kitchen, mid-service. It was quiet, and the shifts felt so short. “
By August, grinding for the restaurant’s survival had become monotonous. Orders didn’t really pick up until the end of the week, so Bloodwood was only open three days for takeaway orders.
The chef found herself going to P&V Wine and Liquor Merchants around the corner to help her friend Lou Dowling pack boxes, because her own shifts only lasted a few hours.
The flatlining of takeaway orders was tough to endure, but one promising development (compared to last lockdown) was the rapid deployment of government assistance: “Last time … I had to support 20 families, or help 20 people pay their rent, and that eight-week stretch where you were waiting for the first Jobkeeper payment to come through was so hard,” she says. At the time this was particularly difficult as she had to take bank loans to cover her team’s wages. This time, though, her employees could get financial help quickly. “I relied heavily on the fortnightly Jobsaver payment,” Van Vuuren says.
“It’s going to be 12 years in February that we’re open for and that’s going to be a huge feat. To see how Newtown has changed in that time and still to have customers that have been coming here for 12 years, that’s kind of nuts.”
The customers’ thirst for booze also helped. “They ordered a lot more alcohol this time,” she says. Cocktails, one-litre Negronis and weekend banquet purchases kept Bloodwood ticking until it reopened last month.
“It was so nice to get the restaurant back into shape – dust everything off, get the tables back down,” she says.
“Coming back this time, I don’t know a restaurant that isn’t completely busy,” she says. And while the industry is plagued by a staffing shortfall, Bloodwood is in good shape: “We seemed to be one of the only restaurants that maintained its staff – everyone came back to work really happy and jolly.” Being a caring boss during lockdown wasn’t just a decent human thing to do – it turned out to be a smart HR flex, too.
Reopening has also allowed her to debut new dishes created by her staff during the lockdown, such as a pan-roasted Murray cod dish with a fragrant broth and toasted curry base, inspired by a junior chef’s Chiang Mai roots. And the simple act of serving a diner straight away – instead of pinning your hopes on delivery driver speeds and takeaway packaging – feels thrilling to her. “How good is it to put food on a plate?”
Bloodwood’s greatest hits – the polenta chips with gorgonzola sauce, the signature trifle – are still on the menu, too: creations that have endured since the restaurant’s 2010 opening. Last year should’ve been a celebratory year, given Bloodwood’s 10th anniversary, but even the pandemic hasn’t worn down Van Vuuren’s sense of achievement.
“It’s going to be 12 years in February that we’re open for and that’s going to be a huge feat,” she says. “To see how Newtown has changed in that time and still to have customers that have been coming here for 12 years, that’s kind of nuts.”
It’s not just about the buzz of having a full restaurant either. Even groups asking for takeaway orders, when they can’t get a booking, fills her with optimism. And should another shutdown come her way, she’s prepared. “I’ve got enough packaging for another lockdown,” she smiles.
Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.