A chef cooks in the kitchen of a closed restaurant offering take away food and drinks as the French economy braces itself for the effects of a second national lockdown | Kiran Ridley / Getty Images
French chefs and restaurateurs fear for more than their businesses as the country shuts down once more in response to COVID-19
If you put aside the masks, the bottles of hand sanitizer on each table, and the contact-tracing forms distributed along with menus, last Wednesday looked like a normal pre-COVID -19 lunch hour at Paris’s Ibrik Kitchen, a popular Balkan canteen. Regulars filled the intimate dining room without hesitation and relished bites of chiftele and baked feta, questioning whether it might be their last restaurant meal for a while.
“See you in a month, maybe?” was the refrain from Ecaterina (Cathy) Paraschiv, owner of the four-year-old restaurant and its sister coffee shop, as diners zipped up their coats and returned to the streets of a city once again at the mercy of the pandemic.
Later that evening, President Emmanuel Macron would address the nation and announce the next round of measures to slow the spread of the virus, which is surging across the country. Rumors and predictions had been ping-ponging between restaurant owners in industry WhatsApp groups for weeks; all the back-and-forth was stoking anxiety among Paraschiv’s peers. That anxiety was quickly replaced with resignation when their fate was revealed: a nationwide shutdown that would last at least through December 1 with only essential businesses (bakeries, pharmacies, supermarkets, and wine and tobacco shops) remaining open. And just like in March, restaurants would have less than 24 hours to prepare for the closure and to adjust for takeaway business, should they even want to.
“For the last three weeks, we’ve all been on edge. Part of that is due to a lack of clear communication from our politicians,” said Paraschiv from one of the banquettes in her restaurant the day after the announcement, as her staff prepared for their final day to sell off as many dishes, and even ingredients, as possible. For weeks, she had been dealing with out-of-stock products from her suppliers, who were scaling back due to the rumors, disrupted deliveries, and uncertainty about how much to buy and prepare. “It’s been a war of nerves,” Paraschiv said. “On top of that, there’s the impact on our staff, who understandably expect us to provide answers and protect them while us owners are questioning whether the government is really in control of the situation. Frankly, I take the news as a liberation.”
In some respects, Ibrik has been fortunate: Staff have been put back on temporary “partial unemployment” (a government measure to prevent mass unemployment), and unlike many average-sized restaurants in France, Ibrik met the tricky conditions — based on the number of salaried workers and loss of revenue from 2019, among others — to have payroll taxes waived. There’s still the issue of rent and the ongoing construction work on Paraschiv’s forthcoming Balkan deli, a new venture slated to open in February 2021, but, she says she won’t pursue takeaway or delivery. “You can’t adapt your business overnight and I don’t want to fill the pockets of the usual food delivery services,” she says, referencing Deliveroo and UberEats, both of which have been the subject of several investigations for exploiting couriers, many of whom are migrants, across Europe.
Food apps have been the source of more than just a moral dilemma in France. To many, they’re a cultural challenge to the critical role that dining and gathering around the table play in everyday French life. With many food businesses unable or unwilling to bend to the mounting pressure of a more Anglo-style delivery culture, the shutdown only seems to amplify the tensions in France between preserving local food traditions and adapting to a modern gig economy.
Still, if the Ibrik owner appears untroubled by the unknowns of the coming months — the question of cash flow, and what the industry will look like on the other side of this round of confinement — she attributes it to a sort of mantra she repeats to herself. “Life is neither fair or unfair; we’re at the mercy of nature and there are things bigger than us,” she said. “Remembering that helps me move forward.”
Laura Vidal, sommelière and co-owner of La Mercerie, 483 miles south of Paris in Marseille, has found optimism harder to come by, a struggle exacerbated by the feeling of being jerked around in the weeks leading up to this latest lockdown. In response to rising cases in the region at the end of September, the French government forced only restaurants and bars in Marseille and nearby Aix-en-Provence to close for what was then the second time this year. The backlash, including from local municipal authorities, was immediate: Some restaurants disregarded the order and continued to operate while other owners demonstrated against the forced closure in the street.
“It’s the first time I’ve participated in a rally, but I had to,” said Vidal, who has run the Mediterranean neo-bistro with chef Harry Cummins and Julia Mitton since February 2018. “The measure felt unfair, like the government needed to pin the surge on someone, so they went straight for the restaurant industry as if to say, ‘See? We’re doing something about it!’ But at no point since deconfinement in May were there inspections conducted to ensure we were respecting all sanitary protocols. None of our peers were checked on, either.”
Marseilles’s targeted restaurant shutdown was reversed two weeks later, but the damage to local confidence had been done, leading many in the industry to perceive the measures as politically driven. And just as Vidal suspected, the industry’s October reopening was short-lived. “Right after the announcement was made, Cummins started looking at what ingredients could be transformed, pickled, or frozen, and what we could give to staff,” Vidal said. “Since we sensed this was coming, we weren’t overwhelmed with product like last time.” The restaurant is, however, beset with fixed costs and what Vidal cites as the biggest hurdle of all for her and her partners: supporting themselves.
“As owners, we’re not entitled to any financial support. We didn’t pay ourselves during the months we were closed, but that’s not sustainable for long,” she added. In the background, Cummins and the team can be heard cleaning the kitchen and moving bottles around to prepare for their new temporary business. To keep some cash coming in, Vidal and Cummins have begun selling wine packs and plan to partner with their various suppliers to get fruits and vegetables directly into the hands of consumers.
They’re also banking on a particularity of French culture to help them rebound. “I’ve always believed that the French treat going out to restaurants and feeding themselves as a form of self-care,” Vidal said. “I hope we can rely on them returning en masse, as they did during the summer.” While she is aware that there is no place completely free of risk from contracting the virus, including restaurants, she feels the messaging from leaders on the “problem” of dining establishments risks persuading consumers that dining out is inherently dangerous. “If the government continues to brainwash people into believing it’s at restaurants that they’ll get the coronavirus, then it’s going to be very challenging.”
For Stéphane Jégo, the fast-talking chef-owner of the 18-year-old institution L’Ami Jean, in Paris’s 7th arrondissement, the damage of this open-and-close dance may be irreversible. And it’s not just financial, but psychological, too. “This time is even more complicated than before,” says Jégo. “The government outlines health and hygiene protocols — taking out seats, distance between tables, disinfectant, masks, staff training, tracing — we bend over backwards to ensure we meet them to continue operating, and here we are, taken for fools yet again, having to recalibrate our businesses overnight.”
The restaurateur is on a short break from preparing the first batch of Jégo-to-Go orders, and I can hear the rumbling and clicking of delivery motorbikes resounding in the background. With 12 employees, down from 18 at the start of the pandemic, and an annual average revenue that puts his business just above the threshold for aid, the chef doesn’t qualify for any payroll tax relief. On top of that, he’s still waiting to receive the funds for loss of business that he lobbied for (and won) from his insurance company during the springtime shutdown.
“The government has promised entrepreneurs 10,000 euros for loss of business this time around — that covers one day for me. It’s nothing! I need to bring in 9,000 euros per day to cover costs, pay my staff, and ensure cash flow,” explains Jégo, on the verge of tears. “It was a good day in the last two months if we brought in 2,700 euros a day. To really get help, you need to be on the verge of bankruptcy. But we don’t want aid or promises, we want to work.”
According to Jégo, France’s lack of enforcement of basic health and safety measures during the summer and early fall makes the latest shutdown especially hard to swallow. Echoing Vidal, he expresses frustration with the lack of inspections and punitive action against restaurants flouting the rules. “Instead of shutting down places that disregarded protocols all along, the government struck all of us equally. But which is better: Allowing us to continue working if we adhere to strict measures and assist with tracing, or the clusters that invariably form within homes? Because I can tell you that I’ve delivered orders for groups of 10 in individual households during the curfew and that’s not any safer.”
Ultimately, Jégo is worried not only about his own circumstances but what these measures mean for the industry at large. “This isn’t just about restaurants, it’s about the whole ecosystem, about the survival of singular French know-how and a gastronomic heritage France claims they want to see protected by UNESCO,” he says. “It’s about the growers and producers that work with chefs; it impacts the dishwashers and cleaners who rely on this work and even students who work to pay their way through school.” If nothing is done, Jégo fears a total erosion of the country’s culinary legacy. “What will be left is uniformity, led by investor-backed groups and chains, delivery apps, and dark kitchens. Is that what they want for this country?”
After the last egg was fried and the final pistachio-rose cake slice served at Ibrik kitchen on Thursday, Cathy Paraschiv lowered the shutters and headed home to her husband and two young children. The next day, she and her staff would return to clean up and prepare for at least a month at home. During this lockdown, schools will remain open. Without needing to play teacher and boss this time, she hopes the next several weeks will bring her a little rest and some time to strategize. “I’m actively choosing to focus on my next project,” she says with a smile. “This isn’t the end.”
Lindsey Tramuta is a Paris-based writer and the author of The New Paris and The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris.