Travel IndustryBooksSmarter ShoppingSports

Confessions of a foodie, locked down in London

June 28, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

On a hot Tuesday last week, I climbed a hill in north London that winds lazily towards Highbury Fields, a neatly manicured park surrounded by stately townhouses, when it became clear—something had changed. 

The day before, non-essential shops had opened in London. Every door front had a feeling of gentle, purposeful activity. Makeshift cocktail stands were assembled near open doors. People busied themselves with spring cleaning—entire families roped into paint jobs and window washing, floor sweeping and half-finished DIY. Though it has been warm in London for months, with an Easter of scorching summer temperatures, the street, plastered with handwritten signs—WE’LL BE BACK!—felt as if was emerging from a long hibernation, bruised, and gingerly hopeful. After all, what choice did they have? 

A lentil, apple and preserved lemon salad with herbs and radishes, from the British food writer Diana Henry.

From March onwards, my life has largely shrunk to a neighborhood—perhaps it was the same for you—with nearly every open shop, café, greengrocers, and restaurant taking on outsized significance, each loaded with tender memories of “before,” signposts from a relationship I had been so sure would never end. Here was the pub where I used to pay absurd sums of money for a watered down drink and a dish of chili nuts pulled from a communal jar. Here was the restaurant where I split an appetizer with a friend, and we both agreed it was fine to double dip, and then used our hands. 

But I miss those memories, even if some remain blurry. I miss restaurants. I miss packed tables, and loud music, and eavesdropping on the people at the next table, or trying to be more interesting because, you know, they’re also eavesdropping on you. I miss that part of my old life.

I’m not proud to admit it, but lockdown offered me something I wouldn’t have gotten any other way: a truly captive audience of diners.

In the pre-lockdown days, I often fantasized about what my perfect weekend looked like. It usually involved bringing all my closest friends to a large house somewhere somewhere remote, with no dining options nearby, and serving them a series of elaborate, perfectly executed menus. In the hours leading up to these meals, I imagined myself reigning over the kitchen, a friend or two completing menial prep tasks and serving me occasional drinks, while eagerly committing to doing the washing up afterwards. In the fantasy, I was different, too: calm and absurdly competent, in control but not “controlling”—a kind of gourmet savant who, once we were all sitting in front of my glorious spread, was also capable of “letting go.”

An early attempt at bagels on my patio in North London.

If it needs saying—I am none of these things. But in lockdown, as traffic slowed to a dull memory and my boyfriend and flatmate’s only escape was the ability to pace around the block, I realized I had an opportunity to put myself into boot camp for my glorious, but totally amateur, culinary future. I needed the inspiration—although I am an obsessive cook; until relatively recently, I was also a famously bad one—and I had competition. From China to Italy to California, everyone else was also upping their game, out of necessity, boredom, anxiety, or all three. My neighborhood WhatsApp cooking group, although undoubtedly a source of companionship and cultural exploration, seemed to double as a gathering place for the local A-types. I took to posting only when I had made something that involved deep frying—or a pastry.

So, I cooked. In my house, we all started cooking, actually. Despite my singular ambition, the sheer frequency of meals—they never seemed to stop!—demanded a running rota among the three of us. Managing the hours of a childless lockdown, and the mounting anxiety, produced a frenetic spiral of culinary excess: over two months, we rarely made the same meal twice. There were bagels, there was Korean Fried Chicken (that one produced a hot oil burn), there was banana bread (of course), and chocolate Guinness cake and pancakes and a vast universe of curries, cheesy stuffed flatbreads, homemade bao, vegetarian ramen, fish tacos and pad thai, and, one night, not long after my boyfriend, exhausted, requested one evening a week where he could stay in the bedroom and “eat crap,” there were a series of frozen supermarket pizzas, which we all confessed we had missed.

Other than Sainsbury’s frozen pizza, we were both eating better, and spending less money on food than we had in years, and all it required was that we spend at least a quarter of our waking hours on a heavily seasoned merry-go-round of chopping, cooking, and cleaning. The remaining hours, when I wasn’t working, became colonized by cooking, too: reading cookbooks, staring into my fridge, calculating, strategizing. I had no ambitions of going professional—the hardship restaurants are currently facing drove that home—but I did want to come out of lockdown as a good cook. When my family tasted this pasta, or ate this soup, they wouldn’t even recognize me, I thought, with the determined glee of a woman in the midst of a manic transformation. Nothing good may come out of this pandemic, but my God, I will know how to improvise a sauce from scratch. In the mean time, while lockdown seemed like it would last forever, I privately worried it wouldn’t last quite long enough for me to master homemade ravioli that wouldn’t burst at the seams.

But amid this frenetic culinary effort at finding some control amid a global pandemic, I was also finally gaining a sense—in a packed, exhausting city—of the rhythms of food, the rhythms that restaurants were tied into when I relied on them relentlessly: of marinating, soaking, proofing, seasoning. These rituals, more so than the Michelin-starred efforts to push myself to new culinary heights, were soothing. Thinking about the day when I would be able to serve these dishes to my family in Canada, to my friends was, as the months wore on, more soothing still.

A cauliflower and paneer salad with cilantro sauce, from the Californian food writer Nik Sharma.

As the U.K. continues to reopen—next week: pubs and cinemas—there are options beyond staying inside and cooking with an insane intensity. There are delis, and picnics, and takeaways emerging from cafés and restaurants up and down my block, painted and primped and inching towards some uncertain, post-lockdown future. I no longer have to cook all the time, and my boyfriend and flatmate no longer have to stay inside and eat my food.

And I’ve found myself missing restaurants, too. I miss the packed tables and the loud music and the people watching. I miss the idea of multiple dipping sauces, and starters, and I miss the ritual of ordering two desserts between two people, to share. I miss so many things that won’t, for some time, be on offer.

In other words, I miss restaurants, but I no longer miss restaurant food.