Friday, 14 August 2020

Opinion: In the new normal, will fast-casual or fine-dining restaurants have the last word?

Elizabeth Haig

Much of my culinary career has been centred on fine dining. I started off working in gastropubs, including the Michelin-starred, now-defunct Royal Oak in Maidenhead. In 2015, I became joint head chef at Smokehouse in London, before going on to helm Pidgin, also in London, which was awarded a Michelin star in 2017.

Recently, however, I made a conscious decision to step away from fine dining, which is often more about aesthetics rather than taste. I took a short break from the kitchen two years ago, when I got married and had my son Riley – and this helped me to evaluate what is important to me as a chef. I realised then that my culinary philosophy is actually quite simple: food basically has to be delicious – lip-smackingly good rather than merely pleasant.

This philosophy is reflected in my new restaurant, Mei Mei, which opened in London’s Borough Market in November 2019. It’s a compact space, with just eight covers – there were 16 before Covid-19 hit and we had to implement safe-distancing measures – and a casual kopitiam (coffee shop) vibe. We serve Singaporean soul food – dishes such as Hainanese chicken rice, nasi lemak and kaya toast, all based on my or my mum’s tried-and-tested recipes. Everything we serve is natural, fresh and made from scratch – we don’t cut corners.

A spread of Singaporean favourites, including Hainanese chicken rice, at Mei Mei

Customers tell us that they like the simplicity of the food at Mei Mei, and we try not to over-complicate things; instead, we just want to let our food speak for itself. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to keep things simple and let the flavours take centre stage. In fact, the less frills there are in a dish, the much more difficult it is to execute – there’s nothing to hide behind.

I see this trend towards simplicity being echoed in some other restaurants around the world. For example, Wildair in New York serves up incredible small plates in a bare-bones setting of unadorned brick walls and plain long tables. Then there was C.A.M Sté in Paris, a no-frills joint with Asian-fusion dishes which, unfortunately, recently closed. It really stood out among all the other classical French restaurants in the city.

A classic Singaporean breakfast of kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs and kopi, but served in London

But everything changed when Covid-19 hit. When the lockdown measures began, we took a moment to step back and try to sort what our next plan of action would be. It was extremely scary, but we managed to switch our operations online quickly and saved our business just by selling things online, including our signature kaya, sambal chilli paste and curry spices.

We were able to reopen in June – as we are a takeaway outdoor operation – and were absolutely packed at first, which gave me false confidence. But as soon as the other restaurants opened in July, we saw a huge drop in sales, worse than when I was doing just online sales, which also dropped when everyone else reopened. It’s like everyone has forgotten that we existed, or that we were operating when others didn’t, now that they can get their fix elsewhere. I decided then that it was time to start our next plan, which was to introduce , our fine-dining, after-hours concept. Online bookings were sold out within two weeks and it’s been quite successful so far.

“I think people will flock to what’s comforting to them or what they’ve missed the most”

I think people will flock to what’s comforting to them or what they’ve missed the most. That could be the fast food chain they’ve been craving after, or perhaps the overall restaurant hospitality experience. I’ve seen a mix of both, but I actually think there’s more demand for fine-dining now, as people can get fast-casual fare delivered to their homes with the click of a button, so the experience of the fast-casual dining restaurant is pretty much non-existent anymore. Our model for Mei Mei was based on having lots and lots of customers spending a reasonable price, but now we simply don’t have any footfall to survive on that model.

I’m still positive that Mei Mei can make a full return, but it will take much support and people appreciating our hard work. It’s very easy to purchase online or order a takeaway from big chains, but I feel that these places have had a lot of support from the government. On the flip side, most independent businesses like mine have really lacked enough help. If this persists, it will become an F&B industry full of chains, as they are the ones who can afford to close and reopen again and again.

Mei Mei’s Borough Market storefront after dark

In terms of dining out in a pandemic, I would just ask for customers to understand that we are doing our absolute best to accommodate and provide. I could have closed our business, or my team could have decided not to return, but we love what we do, and we love our industry. Please clean up after yourselves, don’t ask for dishes that we don’t have on the menu and tip if you can. We still experience some nasty reviews and unfortunate behaviour at the restaurant, and it hurts us. We are doing our best to be positive and keep the business alive, so just choosing to give feedback in a simple and polite manner instead would go a long way.

It’s hugely important that customers treat everyone in the hospitality industry with humanity and grace. We put ourselves out on the line to provide an essential key service – even if you don’t personally consider our food to be essential, it is essential to others. There is a reason we are classified as key workers, so why don’t we get the same respect as nurses?

SEE ALSO: Opinion: Will Singapore’s theatre scene survive the pandemic?

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