Food News

“Never give up”: Melbourne's hospitality folk share their lockdown advice to interstate restaurants

How to survive lockdown, according to the industry professionals who did it the longest.

By Yvonne C Lam
"Staying positive is the best piece of advice I can give, even when it doesn't feel like there's much to be positive about": Ben Shewry, chef-owner of Attica. Photo: Colin Page
Hospitality venues in Greater Sydney and surrounds are staring down the barrel of uncertainty as COVID-19 restrictions look to stretch for weeks ahead. Victoria's lockdown has just been extended by a week; it's the fifth time the restrictions have hit Melbourne and its restaurant industry. Meanwhile, South Australia has just entered a one-week lockdown.
Now Melbourne chefs, restaurateurs and hospitality insiders who endured Australia's longest lockdown of 2020 share their words of encouragement, hope and practical advice for their interstate counterparts.
From the importance of community and self-care, to taking the opportunity to clean the restaurant carpet, they have one enduring message for their hospitality friends: Never give up.

ON SELF-CARE

"Staying positive is the best piece of advice I can give, even when it doesn't feel like there's much to be positive about. Especially for head chefs, owners and leaders of the business, you have to be careful with how much anxiety you put on your team. We have 40 staff at Attica and that's a responsibility I take very seriously. The people here are our main concern, the business second, because even though you'd love to have your restaurant survive after lockdown, without the people it simply couldn't exist. Your staff are the most important asset. Let that lead your decisions."
– Ben Shewry, chef-owner, Attica
"As a hospitality professional you're hard-wired to be heads down, hard-working, creative, malleable and always looking to improve things. When we were faced with our lockdown, it took me some time to actually accept that we couldn't do anything about it. Accepting the situation and looking after your mental health is the best advice I could give. At home, some routine including a daily walk or exercise goes a long way to staving off the craziness. On reflection, going into our fifth lockdown, I'll be shaking off the shock and re-reading my own advice!"
– Karen Martini, executive chef and co-owner, Hero
"Stay connected. Whether it be to ask for help or support or to offer it yourself, reach out to your colleagues, your staff, your customers, your collaborators, your suppliers, your industry leaders. You can help them, and they can help you. It's easy to feel isolated during this time, and very quickly, so jump on that phone, schedule that Zoom.
– Anthea Loucas Bosha, CEO, Food + Wine Victoria
"The most important thing is to be kind to yourself. You are worth more than your productivity."
– Ngọc Trần, chef-owner, Shop Bao Ngoc
Karen Martini (seated in black), executive chef and co-owner of Hero. Photo: Peter Tarasiuk

ON COMMUNITY

"Use this time to focus on community efforts to help those in greater need. To combat food wastage, look to create ready-made meals that can be given to those experiencing food insecurity. We rallied our Filipino restaurants and food businesses to donate food and grocery supplies that were given to struggling Filipino international students who were without government support. [...] We all play a role in getting to the other side. Stay home, stay safe. Pause. Be present. And if you can, support small businesses.
– Fides Mae Santos-Arguelles and Grace Guinto, co-founders, The Entree.Pinays
"Support local! Our date nights turned into "which incredible restaurant can we spoil ourselves with this week?" and we went hard. Buy a bottle of wine (even if you don't need it), the extra dessert (gift it to your neighbour). Stay strong, stay safe, and eat well!
– Michelle Badek, operations manager, Al Dente

ON TAKEAWAY AND FINISH-AT-HOME MEALS

"Go early with the takeaway. Don't muck around. Go now, right now."
– Ben Shewry, chef-owner, Attica
"Sign up for the online platforms. Some take a 30 to 35 per cent commission, which is huge. I preferred OrderMate though; they only take a 5 per cent cut."
– Hamed Allahyari, chef-owner, SalamaTea House
"Hone in on your specialities and think about what your customers are craving whilst locked down. For us, it was our hearty curries and fresh salads – food to feed the soul. We decided to go with a 'finish at home' model, where customers were given kits with all the components and instructions ready to assemble. It required minimal steps but ensured they'd be enjoying traditional Thai cuisine in the best and freshest way possible."
– On Saengyojanr, chef de cuisine, Ging Thai
"It was a great period of learning for the kitchen, cooking things we normally wouldn't have on the menu at the restaurant. The chefs and I delved into charcuterie, with all hands on deck learning to make beautiful rabbit and hazelnut terrines and old-school aspic vegetable terrines."
– Rosheen Kaul, head chef, Etta
"We weren't afraid of reinventing the wheel. Cacio e pepe inside the tortellini? The nonnas and nonnos of [co-owners] Andrea and Davide would be screaming! Go out on a limb, and maybe you'll be surprised about the response."
– Michelle Badek, operations manager, Al Dente
Hamed Allahyari, chef-owner of SalamaTea House. Photo: Penny Stephens

ON ONLINE COOKING CLASSES

"I looked to my upbringing in order to survive the worst of the lockdown. I ran damper cooking classes online, because that's what Dad did to keep the lights on, quite literally, when we were growing up. He turned half our house into a tuckshop selling fresh damper and pumpkin buns which paid for the petrol that ran our generators.
"With online classes, be funny. Be engaging. This lockdown can't stop you from having a good time, so just throw your personality in there. You don't need any fancy equipment – I just had a laptop rested on a pile of books and shoe boxes."
– Nornie Bero, chef-owner, Mabu Mabu and Big Esso
Nornie Bero, chef and owner of Big Esso and Mabu Mabu: "This lockdown can't stop you from having a good time."

ON PRACTICAL MATTERS

"Lockdown was a good opportunity to do minor maintenance works like carpet cleaning, touching up the chipped paint on the wall, tightening door handles. There are always things to do around the restaurant."
– Kazuki & Saori Tsuya, co-owners, Kazuki's
"Set boundaries that work for you and your business. It could mean having shorter opening hours so you don't burn out, for example. You're making space to care for others during a global pandemic, so don't feel guilty if you want to close early!"
– Ngọc Trần, chef-owner, Shop Bao Ngoc
Ngọc Trần, chef-owner of Shop Bao Ngoc: "You are worth more than your productivity." Photo: Jessie Lu

ON REOPENING

"Plan it earlier rather than later. We found after doing takeaway for 112 days in a row, the business is not the same as it was pre-lockdown. The Attica dining room looked more like a warehouse, strewn with thousands of pieces of equipment for packaging, delivery and refrigeration. Converting it back to a proper fine-dining restaurant was difficult and if I had my time again, I would have given more time for the reopening."
– Ben Shewry, chef-owner, Attica

ON DREAMING

"The lockdowns gave us financial stress, but they also gave us an opportunity to stop and think about what's really important for our lives not only as restaurateurs but also as individuals, parents, partners, children of elderly parents and as a family.
"We talked about what we look forward to and those happy thoughts helped lift up our hearts. We miss Japan. We talk about what we want to do and eat when we can visit our families in Japan again. I [Saori] look forward to a big family dinner at my parents' house. Kazuki is dreaming of the day he can watch live baseball games in Japan and in the U.S. With a beer in hand, of course.
– Kazuki & Saori Tsuya, co-owners, Kazuki's
Kazuki & Saori Tsuya, co-owners of Kazuki's. Photo: Parker Blain

AND MOST OF ALL...

"Never give up."
– Hamed Allahyari, chef-owner, SalamaTea House
"We had those words sprayed in big letters in the restaurant, and that was just my pure defiance; it was a fuck you to the man, it was all of my teenage and punk and DIY mentality rolled into a ball and spat out against the wall of our dining room. It was positive rage, the idea that we will not fail. You need to have that determination."
– Ben Shewry, chef-owner, Attica
Lifeline: 13 11 14
This story was updated at 11.50am on Tuesday 20 July, 2021.