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Restaurant owner faced with dilemma between people’s lives and livelihood

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Restaurant owner faced with dilemma between people’s lives and livelihood

As a young chef, I felt lucky to train at several prestigious Michelin-starred restaurants. Despite creating incredible food, the atmosphere was formal and diners rarely interacted outside of their groups other than with waiters. In the digital age, our big cities are becoming increasingly disconnected and I observed solitary diners, even couples and friends, sat…

Restaurant owner faced with dilemma between people's lives and livelihood

As a young chef, I felt lucky to train at several prestigious Michelin-starred restaurants. Despite creating incredible food, the atmosphere was formal and diners rarely interacted outside of their groups other than with waiters.

In the digital age, our big cities are becoming increasingly disconnected and I observed solitary diners, even couples and friends, sat expressionless at their starched tablecloths. I aspired to somehow bring everyone in the dining room together. I bit the bullet and left my job to pioneer social fine dining with my own venture, The Water House project.

Here, strangers share a meal together sat at two communal tables. In this intimate environment, they talk, shake hands and sometimes even more (we’ve even had marriages stem from our evenings).

What started as a pop-up around my kitchen table boomed and we opened our first permanent premises in Hackney, East London earlier this year. Everything, and everyone, was coming together. Until coronavirus struck and the start of “social distancing” took hold.

Uncertain customers are now starting to cancel their bookings. It’s even harder for local drop-in restaurants who rely on regular business to continue operating. Their front windows now bear empty tables with optimistic candles burning on top of them.

This is financially catastrophic for this industry and its employees, which already operates on very tight margins, the UK average being 3-5 per cent.

In our minute space, we cook for a maximum of 32 people, so we’re technically below the magic number of 50. We employ stringent cleaning measures on top of our usual 5-star hygiene. We supply diners with alcohol gels. Our small team all feel well but symptoms can take a week to manifest. Are we doing enough to protect potentially vulnerable diners?

Our government’s initial Keep Calm and Carry On message was at odds with the lockdown we’re seeing among our European neighbours. On Monday, America closed all restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. As outlined in Boris Johnson’s first daily coronavirus briefing, the official guidance is for the public to avoid restaurants.

This leaves the British restaurateur with an impossible moral dilemma: to remain open or to close?

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Staying open keeps your business afloat and your employees in work, but potentially endangers your customers. It signals that everything is fine which is increasingly out-of-touch when, at the time of writing, the number of UK cases hit 1,543, with 35 deaths, and this is forecast to increase exponentially.

To close leaves staff without work, some without savings, and most restaurants unable to help them survive. Lockdown and full “social distancing” would compound the societal disconnection which The Water House project originally aimed to address.

Balancing the economy, social liberties and mental health impacts against the cost of human life as body counts soaring globally, is a utilitarian calculation that a humble chef is unqualified to make.

Until now in my short career, my largest ethical concerns were responsibly sourcing fish and meat that had lives happy lives, supporting local grocers with minimal carbon footprint and paying my staff a fair wage. It’s an uneasy feeling for a chef to be potentially dicing with death as well as vegetables.

I think I speak on behalf of many in the hospitality industry in saying we are crying out for more assertive direction from our head-in-the-sand government.

Gabriel Waterhouse is a chef and founder of The Water House project


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