When Boris Johnson announced that restaurants could open from today, it surprised many people who had been expecting the beleaguered hospitality industry to be one of the last in line to come out of lockdown.
Since the announcement, restaurateurs have been trying to digest Government guidelines on how to make their businesses Covid safe. It is a challenge for everyone, but none more so than the Michelin-starred chefs, for whom attention to detail, exemplary service and unique experience are their watchwords.
Andrew Pern’s Star Inn at Harome is the only one of Yorkshire’s Michelin restaurants taking the plunge and opening from today. It will still be a Michelin starred restaurant but not as it used to be.
“It will be different and we just hope that people will understand and bear with us,” says father of seven Pern, who first received a Michelin star in 2002 before losing it nine years later, only to regain it in 2015.
Although he has had to furlough his 100-plus staff, he has made no redundancies, working through lockdown to make meals for NHS staff with the support of local suppliers. He admits that Boris Johnson’s announcement that restaurants, pubs and hotels could open from today came as a bit of a surprise, and that he had expected it to be September.
“The fact we can open inside, even with a limited capacity is an added bonus,” he says. “It means we will be able to operate between 50 to 60 per cent. Financially we had pretty much written off this year, so to be able to open at all and to get staff back into work is a bonus.”
But Whitby-born Pern says that diners will find a very different Star Inn than they were used to. Table service must be kept to a minimum, they will not even keep cutlery on the table.
“It has been a challenge as the Star Inn is a listed thatched building with small rooms, but we have tried to do it all with a bit of Yorkshire humour, and just hope that people will go with us,” he says.
The tasting menu has been replaced by an à la carte menu and snacks, and the outdoor area extended to create The Star in the Garden complete with bar and executive portaloos.
“There will be lots of new signage to help people, all in Farrow and Ball colours and hessian rope showing people the new routes,” adds Pern.
Staff won’t be wearing masks or gloves, but will wash their hands after every visit to the table which will be cleaned thoroughly after each diner has finished. The Star’s bedrooms will also open from today, although there have had to be changes there, too.
Two of Pern’s other restaurants, The Star in the City in York and The Star in the Harbour were also due to open today, although his fourth, Mr P’s in York remains closed, as its small size means distancing safely won’t yet be possible.
“It is going to be a challenge but I am also excited, it is a bit like going back to when I started,” says Pern. “You have to think outside of the box, we will make it work and we are just thankful to get back in business.”
Over at the Michelin-starred Black Swan at Oldstead, Tommy Banks is taking a slightly different approach.
“I’m all good now,” he says, with a wry chuckle and a heavy emphasis on the last word. “At the very start of this, it was pretty bad.”
Banks, who also has a second restaurant Roots in York, was once Britain’s youngest Michelin-starred chef. Twice winner of the Great British Menu, he is no stranger to pressure.
He was “distraught” in those first few weeks of lockdown, he admits, as he closed the restaurants suddenly and worried about having to let staff go.
One scheme in the works for some time had been ready-mixed cocktail deliveries, so that was launched quickly, proving popular.
The biggest success, though, came in food boxes, which launched a couple of weeks later, delivering oven-ready meals to people’s doors.
It was a game-changer, proving so busy he was able to bring 25 staff back from furlough, and even as the restaurants prepare to reopen, it will stay on as a new arm to the business.
“I thought if we could make no redundancies, we would have come out of this well,” he says. “That’s what we’ve managed to do. It means we can be a business that succeeds.”
The restaurants won’t open immediately as there is work to be done. Spacious Roots in York will be first, on July 24, although sharing platters will be replaced by smaller tasting menus.
The Black Swan, which is undergoing planned refurbishment, will follow on August 13, its three dining rooms offering some reprieve in allowing for social distancing.
“I’m not someone who can sit still,” says Banks. “We are flying to start opening, it feels almost like two new restaurants.”
In South Dalton, at the former coaching inn the Pipe and Glass, Michelin-starred chef James Mackenzie says it has been a “rollercoaster” few months. Alone in the kitchen, he has been preparing meals to take away. There is a great irony, he says, when there are usually 14 chefs running a steady stream of service.
“The support has been there,” he says. “People have been saying ‘thank you to the team’, I don’t think they realised it was just me.
“Some of the chefs will be laughing at me doing all the washing up. It’s as needs must. It’s a family business, it’s up to us to make it work.”
The Pipe and Glass will not open today, but on Thursday as staff undergo training. There will be a reduced menu, extra hand-washing and sanitising stations.
It will not be as busy, concedes Mackenzie. It can’t be, with fewer covers, no parties, and people spending less on alcohol. “It’s a fine balance,” he says. “Everything is a minefield. It’s been slowly less nuts all the way through. Now it’s full steam ahead to get open. The reality has hit.
“It’s going to be a learning curve. We can put everything in place, but it’s not finite. It’s about learning to curve with it, and adapting.”
There is a challenge in fine dining, in such a strange set of circumstances, he adds: “Staff can’t stop to chat. It’s totally odd, to what we are as hospitality people.”
Yorkshire’s most recent Michelin-starred restaurant, The Angel at Hetton, will reopen on July 17 having undergone a ‘‘reincarnation’’, with chef Michael Wignall, having spent the time refurbishing the building, which dates back to the 15th century in parts.
There are new bathrooms to ensure greater space, with everything from taps to hand-dryers now, ‘‘no touch’’, new bedrooms, and work under way in one of its three restaurants.
“We were going to do it anyway, this has made us think about it a bit more,” he says.
“It’s a bit of a no man’s land. No one knows what will happen, we’ve seen how much it’s changed just in the last few months. We can only prepare for the guidelines we have.”
Staff are undergoing training, tables are being spread out to ensure social distancing, and personal thermometers are being issued to all staff.
Wignall was in Hong Kong at a private event in February when the virus first emerged, and could see what was coming in terms of closures.
He is “surprised”, he adds, that the order has been given to open as early as today.
“We’re fortunate in Yorkshire we only rely on about 24 to 26 per cent travellers from abroad,” he says. “London is going to have a difficult time. Hopefully everybody will pull through. There will be people that fall aside. We just have to think strong.
“We can’t turn back time, what’s happened has happened. We’ve just got to make the most of it, and look forward.”