Published on 12. May 2020
What can we expect from Culinary Copenhagen?
We have had the dubious pleasure of being in professional hiatus for almost two months now, but finally, it seems to start clearing up.
There will be a spring again this year, just a few months later than usual.
In the Relæ Community, we have a much stronger connection to Italy than most of our Danish friends. In early March we could clearly understand from family members, returned colleagues, and friends back home that the wave would hit us in Denmark, it was only a matter of time.
Colleagues from restaurants in Milan could tell us how they had closed their restaurants and impatiently waited for what might be next. Some might switch to takeaway. Some felt that maybe that was, it?
At the time when Covid was mostly limited to Italy and China, the idea of aid packages and support was pure utopia. The hardest hit countries showed no sign of rescuing anyone but the sick – and rightly so – and we did not expect anyone reaching out.
It would get to us in Denmark too.
The only thing I was confident about was that it would get to us in Denmark. Although the Danes may have an idea that “Italian conditions” mean corruption, lack of infrastructure and organization, it was speaking its clear language that it was Lombardy that was most severely affected. The most well-functioning of the Italian regions. It could have been us. And maybe soon it would be?
Earlier that month, I did a speech for the staff briefing at Relæ hard-headedly proclaiming that the biggest difference between SARS and MERS and Corona was the current state of the media. The panic-response on social media mixed with the ever-increasing reliance on BREAKING NEWS from traditional media was a cocktail that was about to turn an ordinary flu into something it wasn’t.
What we should be afraid of would have to be the panic, not the virus. Guys, we can safely go to work, we can safely do our job.
Relæ, I repeated, was born amidst the financial crisis and is designed to offer great gastronomy for small pockets. We are created for crises. We’re gonna be fine.
A few days later we had agreed that a colleague returning from Milan had to quarantine for 14 days, as was recommended at the time. As we were having staff lunch in the afternoon of that same day, Alessandro, my business partner, showed me a video clip he received from friends on their way to have dinner with us – from Italy. They were incredulously showing footage of a completely desolate Malpensa airport – but you know, they were really looking forward to their dinner in Copenhagen…
It dawned on us slowly as we were chewing on through the food; it would be irresponsible to receive those guests.
With the exception of a single drunk here and there, we have never rejected any guests from entering the restaurant. And NEVER just based on where they are from. It made no sense, but it kind of felt like the right thing. These guests were even journalists. They wanted to write about Relæ for a young Italian media.
We had to tell them not to bother, stay home. It’s not responsible to quarantine staff for two weeks and at the same time allow travelling guests to expose ourselves, the other guests, and staff to contagion. They were understanding- surprisingly enough.
Not everyone was. Following up, we had written to all guests that unfortunately we could not honor their reservation if they arrived from the red-listed countries. We were even called racists – by Italians!
At that time, the biggest fear was getting someone in the staff infected. They would have to quarantine, their colleagues would have to quarantine. The synergies that define Relæ Community connecting 4 restaurants, farm, wine import, and bar seemed to be an impending issue. Most of the staff coming from abroad and living together and sharing apartments. Socially and professionally tightly knit and connected.
One infected would be the end – everything would suddenly be shut down. Everyone with a remote chance of having been anywhere risky, anyone with a sneeze ? – Stay home. 14 days.
Shutting us down would have been a public relations nuclear-disaster. You can’t have Relæ and Corona start taking up headlines – those last forever. Corona Community?
Denmark shuts down
A week later it was clear that we had to save what could be saved. Like a turtle, we pulled in the limbs and hoped for the shell to be hard enough. Corona would hit us in Denmark. Italy was completely shut down. All over the Copenhagen food scene, you could see table reservations blowing away in the March winds. But the storm had not taken off yet.
The day after the prime minister closed Denmark, we were ready with notices for most of the staff. The only ones left were the bare minimum we could sustain and later rebuild around. At best some months later, once the storm had weaned off. But in order for us to ride through anything, and in any way to be able to again offer any jobs, we had to make the hardest decision in my professional career. It’s not easy to fire someone. Never. But most often it’s because they haven’t performed. It wasn’t a good match. Or someone just fucked up. It is a conflict you don’t ask for, but at times can be necessary.
But this time it was people we loved and respected. Some who had been a part of the team for several years. It was done face to face and in small groups. It was tough. Really tough. For all of us. I could see everything just dissolve in front of us.
Only later did the government fundings come to surface.
Suddenly, a few weeks after giving notice, we were given the opportunity to call back the employees and then furlough them with a slightly reduced wage. A model that asked for no one to be fired but in return would subsidize 90% of the furloughed employees’ wages.
Far more pleasant phone calls followed up. Some might have been emotionally shaken by being let go but all were suddenly secured a pay and for now, saved.
The generous government funding sent us all home on a long break. And here we are, now with cautious expectations of a delayed spring being a reality. Restaurants may now open on May 18 – but no one really knows how. Not quite yet.
I think we have received much more than we would ever have expected from the authorities. I am incredibly proud and happy to live and work in a country where we have been helped to such an extent. Colleagues around the world seem to have been left hanging in the wind.
The crisis will come
But with spring the true crisis will come- because we have only postponed it. We don’t know what running a restaurant will be like. I fully understand that health authorities and the state must write guidelines and rules for all sorts of kinds of realities and I am very aware that we just run a restaurant. We are not vital – we are not hospitals and we cant make sanitizer or latex gloves.
Relæ restaurant was established as an antidote for the financial crisis. We would offer gastronomy at affordable prices to guests that would in return accept sitting closely together and for a limited amount of time. That model has been a success not just for us, but for many others. It seems to be a model that might have been a cure for one crisis but may not be suited for what is coming up.
We are, with anticipation, looking forward to understanding the future restaurant. It is all unclear still. One meter or two meter between the tables? Or between the guests? Plexiglass? Gloves? Masks?
It is not in our control what the world’s current state of health will allow us to. So we could just take this time to cling on to what we had and hope that it will all be as it once was. Or we can take advantage of the opportunity that lies within all the big bumps on the road.
We have time to think. We can think it all through from one end and turn it upside down. We can revise our values and what impact we want gastronomy to have on society. Revise our sense of quality. The way we cook our food. Isn’t this time calling for even more simplicity? Less manipulation? We do indeed need a breath of fresh air.
We can understand and accept that the world will be more difficult for us, but that it will, therefore, be more exciting.
Keep feeding the soil
Quietly, we have continued to feed the soil. We have kept sprouting and planning for great things to go on a plate again one day. Farm of Ideas lives on because we still believe in the Relæ Community.
We have been representatives of local, organic, and simple gastronomy since day one. Today we have a clear belief that there will be room for us in the newly revised version of Culinary Copenhagen 2.0 waiting for us out there. A Copenhagen without tourists (maybe) for a long time, a Copenhagen without that much money in its pockets – but perhaps a Copenhagen that has taken the time to better understand the value of the simple, the good, and the organic. We will be there, as Relæ 2.0, Manfreds 2.0, Bæst 2.0, and Mirabelle 2.0.
Because right now we are in the most exciting process since we opened. I want us not just to reopen but to resurrect for a new era to come. As contemporary as we were 5 and 10 years ago. We are here to supply our city and neighborhoods with organic and approachable gastronomy of the highest level. And one way or another we can do that again soon.
We can’t wait.
Christian F. Puglisi