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Sun 6th Jun 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Restaurateurs raid colleges amid staff crisis: Thousands of restaurants and pubs have reopened but they cannot find the staff, pushing some to raise wages, offer bonuses or limit opening hours. The job site Indeed has almost 50,000 adverts for roles in the food and beverage sector, while trade body UKHospitality estimates that there is a shortfall of 188,000 workers – equal to a 9% vacancy rate. Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, said there was an argument for ending the right of furloughed staff to do a second job – which was “preventing people from making a decision” on which role they would come back to. Recruitment problems in bricks-and-mortar restaurants have been exacerbated by the surge of the gig economy during lockdowns. Former employees have taken jobs with food delivery firms such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats, or started working in Amazon warehouses. Then there is the student dynamic. Businesses are seeking to recruit just as university students head home at the end of the academic year – meaning many will leave behind term-time jobs and take the summer off. “We’re in the eye of the storm,” said Simon Emeny, chief executive of Fuller’s, which runs about 400 pubs. “Students who have been cooped up all year want to enjoy their freedom rather than work in pubs, and former hospitality workers have sought work elsewhere where there’s more stable money.” However, the biggest single factor has been the flood of overseas workers returning to the EU. This was exacerbated by covid, but predated the virus: the government-funded Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence estimated in January that up to 1.3 million people born abroad had left the UK between the end of 2019 and the same point in 2020. In London, almost 700,000 foreign-born people had left, leading to an 8% drop in the capital’s population. Businesses have had to become inventive. Des Gunewardena, chief executive of D&D London, is launching a two-week summer camp at his 100 Wardour Street restaurant to train a new generation of chefs and waiting staff. Nick Jones, chief executive and founder of Soho House, is setting out on a recruitment tour of regional UK cities to “inspire people about roles in hospitality”. Jones has also launched “Soho Apprenticeships” for those with minimal to no experience or qualifications. (Sunday Times)

Staff shortages lead to ‘ransoms’: Shortages of skilled staff in the hospitality industry have led to bidding wars, kitchens ‘held to ransom’ over salaries and even ‘live poaching’, as firms are forced to cut trading hours. Michel Roux Jr, owner of Le Gavroche, the Mayfair restaurant, said that staffing woes have prevented a full reopening. Its lunch service has been cancelled from mid-June for the foreseeable future, despite the swathes of people desperate to book tables. “Demand is off the charts – if I had a restaurant twice as big I could fill it”, he tells The Times Magazine. He inherited the restaurant from his father, Albert, and uncle, Michel Roux Sr. “The decision to close for lunch would really have hurt my dad,” said Roux. “But he would have understood the business decision.” Hawksmoor, which runs eight restaurants in London, Manchester and Edinburgh, is offering bonuses for staff who propose friends for jobs. Will Beckett, co-founder, said that their waiters earn £35,000, far above average. “And yet still we have problems,” he said. It comes after a KPMG survey found demand for workers last month increased at the fastest rate for over 23 years as the numbers available to fill the jobs declined at the fastest rate since 2017. Concerns are acute in hospitality, with the closures prompting workers to move to other industries and overseas staff to return home. UKHospitality said last week that there was a shortfall of 188,000 workers. Michael Kill, chief executive of Night Time Industries Association, is aware of cases where ‘ruthless’ owners are sneaking into restaurants to poach employees mid-shift. “One of the things we’re hearing about is bonuses, and people being offered money, while working, to walk out,” he said. (The Times)

Secret plan to delay lockdown lift by two weeks but Boris Johnson is battling to save 21 June freedom day: Pub giants and football fans have urged PM Boris Johnson to stay firm on his pledge to lift lockdown on 21 June. Their battle cry came amid fears that any delays could plunge England’s hosting of the Euros into chaos. Kate Nicholls, of UKHospitality warned that even a two-week delay to ending lockdown would cost the industry £1.5 billion. She added: “This needs to be a full and final unlocking. Our businesses are running out of road, particularly given government support is withdrawn from 30 June.” Emma McClarkin, of the British Beer & Pub Association, said pubs remain unviable without a total removal of restrictions. Greene King said if they are not lifted, it would lose £1 million of trade for every England game – rising to ten times that if the Three Lions reach the semis and final. Chief executive Nick Mackenzie said it was ‘incredibly important’ the government stick to its plan. This would allow for standing at the bar to order and not having to wear masks walking around the pub, plus groups of more than six and mixing between households. Mackenzie added: “After the year we’ve had, and the millions the industry has invested in making pubs safe any delay would be a devastating blow. Bringing people together to watch the game on the big screen is what we do. Being able to do that again this summer will give us a fighting chance of rebuilding after a crippling 15 months.” (The Sun)

Plans to redraw roadmap include social distancing, home working and masks: Social distancing in hospitality venues, working from home and masks on public transport could all remain in place after 21 June under plans being considered to revise the roadmap out of lockdown. According to senior government advisers, the current thinking in Downing Street is that many restrictions will need to remain in place after so-called ‘Freedom Day’ to avoid another full lockdown in the autumn. It means the full lifting of lockdown restrictions are likely to be delayed for ‘a few weeks’ due to concerns over new variants of covid-19 and increased pressure on the NHS. A government source told i: “The current thinking is it would be irresponsible to risk another full lockdown in the autumn by opening up too fast on 21 June. While many businesses would have been hoping to operate at full capacity in a few weeks time, it is better than they can operate at reduced capacity rather than being shut down completely again if we hit another peak.” While pubs may no longer be required to provide table service, drinkers could be able to order at the bar from 21 June. However, social distancing in bars and restaurants is likely to remain, along with limits on audiences in theatres and cinemas. (Inews)

King warns ministers of ‘Doomsday scenario’ for hospitality businesses unless covid restrictions are removed as planned: One of Britain’s top restaurant bosses has warned ministers of a ‘Doomsday scenario’ for hospitality businesses unless all major covid restrictions are removed as planned on 21 June. Jeremy King, whose London empire includes the celebrity haunts The Wolseley and The Delaunay, said many restaurants would ‘throw in the towel’ without good news on a series of key covid-19 rules. The government is facing a ‘perfect storm’ of crucial decisions this week, he said. These include deciding whether to extend the rent moratorium that stops businesses being evicted from their premises; whether to remove social distancing requirements and the one-metre rule on 21 June; and whether to reopen the country to tourists and foreign staff. King told The Mail on Sunday: “We are at a crossroads for the hospitality industry. The government has a massive role to play if it is to prevent multiple failures across the country and prevent a Doomsday scenario. These decisions present a perfect storm for the government over the next week. They have to extend the rent moratorium for the hospitality and retail industry because if they do not, many will throw in the towel.” He called for a clear plan for “how the hospitality industry climbs out of the abyss we are currently in”. King, who was forced to close his restaurants for much of the pandemic, believes that workers must be encouraged back to offices if restaurants are to survive. He also warned that a shortage of restaurant staff – many of whom would in recent years have been from abroad – is fuelling inflation, which will see menu prices rise. “There is a double whammy of increased costs and increased wages, which is simply not sustainable if restaurants cannot operate at full capacity,” King said. (Mail on Sunday)

‘Terrified’ landlords await rent verdict: The ban on commercial landlords evicting tenants could be extended once again amid uncertainty over whether covid restrictions will be lifted this month. It is believed that Whitehall was drawing up contingency plans to delay the removal of restrictions, currently pencilled in for 21 June. Social distancing has made it hard for pubs and restaurants to return to profit, while nightclubs and live entertainment venues are banned from reopening. UKHospitality boss Kate Nicholls said the government had ‘no choice’ but to extend the ban on commercial evictions, which expires at the end of June, for three months. With retail sales recovering strongly, a blanket extension across commercial property would be difficult to justify, while a more tailored approach would need legislation to be pushed through in a short timeframe. Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, called on ministers to lift the moratorium and end the ‘scandal’ of well-capitalised businesses swerving rent. Government policy so far has fallen heavily in favour of tenants, given the millions of jobs they support. One senior property source said landlords were ‘spiritually defeated’. Property owners are eager for the government to clarify how an estimated £6 billion of rent arrears will be apportioned. Land Securities chief Mark Allan and Simon Carter, his counterpart at British Land, want arrears ring-fenced for six months and then subject to binding arbitration. (Sunday Times)

CBI urges government to extend support for businesses struggling to pay rent: The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has urged the government to extend the moratorium on commercial evictions for businesses below 30% of normal levels. The business lobbying group called on the government to let the commercial evictions ban expire on 30 June, but advocated extending targeted support for businesses in sectors like hospitality and theatres until the end of the year. However, by basing any extension on the basis of lost revenue rather than sector, the CBI argues that businesses supplying those struggling companies will also be helped. Meanwhile, unpaid commercial rents accrued up until 30 June should be ringfenced and “negotiated separately between occupiers and landlords”. The group also urged the government to “set out principles for binding arbitration on rent debt” and to “ensure there is a mechanism to deliver decisions where negotiations fail or businesses refrain from negotiating”. “With the success of the UK’s vaccine programme, a watchful easing of social restrictions and business confidence growing, now is the time to optimise commercial property interventions towards getting all parts of the economy back to business,” CBI chief UK policy director Matthew Fell said. “The blanket government protections for non-payment of commercial rents should be lifted. While some sectors remain heavily restricted or fully closed, ongoing protections should be targeted towards the firms most at risk in these sectors. The conversation about commercial rent debt needs to be dealt with separately. There is a huge deficit in unpaid commercial rents, which both tenants and landlords acknowledge is unlikely to be fully recovered. The majority of tenants and landlords have already come together for adult-to-adult conversations to settle commercial rent arrears; those businesses yet to enter into negotiations should now do so and work hard to reach an agreement, or risk court decisions that may be less favourable.” (FT Weekend)

Up to 70 UK shopping centres could close amid covid crisis: Up to 70 of Britain’s 700 shopping centres could be set for demolition after the pandemic dealt another blow to ageing malls already suffering from the rise of online shopping and over-expansion of retail space. Alongside those razed to the ground, many more malls built in the 1970s and 1980s will be at least partly redeveloped into homes, offices or for other uses as the urban landscape is reinvented as a result of changes in the way we live and work accelerated by the pandemic. At least 30 shopping centres in the UK are now at least half empty including five with more than 80% of their shops vacant as months of high street lockdowns have taken their toll on businesses. A further 34 have between 40% and 50% of their shops vacant according to a local data company analysis of centres in England, Scotland and Wales with at least ten shops in them. The analysis does not include outdoor retail parks. “There’s no doubt that the covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the challenges we were seeing across the physical retail environment, with shopping centres having been particularly exposed to categories in decline, such as fashion and casual dining,” said Lucy Stainton, the commercial director at LDC. She says the indoor nature of most schemes and their lack of ‘essential retail’, such as food or hardware, has put them at a particular disadvantage with the number of vacant units increasing as a result. “Many shopping centres have been left too long and need a radical rethink,” said Stephen Springham, the head of retail research at property advisory firm Knight Frank who estimates that about 10% of shopping centres are no longer viable. He believes a further 20% to 30% – about 200 – will need a significant overhaul, with shops retained but parts of the centre converted to homes, offices or other uses. (The Guardian)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews 111 by Modou, Glasgow: My brother sent me a video, an extraordinary couple of minutes I watched over and over: a handful of people round a table, a chef literally delivering ownership of his restaurant to his former KP – kitchen porter, a vital cog at the bottom of the professional kitchen hierarchy – by way of a cardboard box. The young guy is speechless, overcome: head in hands, he can’t believe what’s happening. The chef was Nico Simeone. I ate at the box-gifted Glasgow restaurant, then called 111 by Nico, back in 2015, before he launched the smash Six by Nico all over the UK. This might look like a recipe for hubris, but his formula of accessible, affordable six-course tasting menus, changing every six weeks, proved a seductive one. I guess it was the demands of this empire (not forgetting faith and generosity) that prompted him to hand over his original baby to 26-year-old Modou Diagne. It’s quite the story: Senegalese Diagne arrived in Glasgow in 2013 and ended up sleeping rough. From his room in a homeless shelter he tried, month after long month, to find work, hampered by poor English. Simeone decided to take a punt – “He had an unbelievable work ethic” – and set about teaching the young man everything about the kitchen, from knife skills to cooking the increasingly popular 111 menu. And now he’s chef-patron. The menu was a tasting one, now five courses for a gentle £35. But given choices at every course, it allows flexibility and rewards exploration – rather than the same meal served to the whole table, each diner gets their own bespoke version: an exhilarating demonstration of technique and composition. Which may make it sound a bit serious and worthy. It isn’t. It was a lot of fun too. There was the odd hiccup: tiny, meaty brown shrimp and celeriac, with samphire fibrous enough to floss teeth. And recurring refrains: a hero protein, a creamy foam, a sharp gel, a puree, something crunchy or/and piquant, jolly reworks of the same ingredient. There was a lot of espuma gun action, as if it were the Noughties. This is – understandably – very Nico Simeone. I’ve no doubt that, as he finds his big-boss feet, Diagne will also find his own, more unique voice too. But in the meantime, it all still worked. Menus change regularly but whatever’s served, one thing is constant: serious bang-for-buck tasting menu action. (Sunday Times Magazine)

Giles Coren reviews Harrods Social: I went to Harrods Social for lunch for the same reason that I chose to work in Harrods all those years ago, because I love department stores. Harrods Social: big, breezy and built originally as the inhouse Harrods Brasserie, before closing for lockdown barely a week after launch, and reopening last month as the latest addition to the Atherton ‘Social’ brand. The menu was a joyful little thing and I rubbed my hands with glee at the sight of all this fresh, British, seasonal stuff – Cumbrian beef tartare, Wye valley asparagus, English garden salad, south coast halibut – which is not always the way with department store caffs. Although, ye gods, the prices! My salad – a dozen good leaves, one thinly sliced Jersey Royal, four chopped runner beans and a well-salted ‘green goddess’ dressing – was marked as ‘21’. “Is that pounds?” I asked the Atherton stalwart in charge, hoping it might be dollars or euros or, better still, roubles or yen. “I’m afraid it is,” he said. “So the Cornish hake with white miso emulsion, pak choi, spicy ponzu dressing and crispy squid is – cough – £39.50?” “Yes, I know. It’s a lot. When we submitted the menus to Harrods our prices were lower than this, but they came back saying they had to be much higher.” Hence, I suppose, the £59 steak and chips and a whole Cornish lobster and chips – which is £39 at the Ivy – for £65. A side of bread and butter is £6, the mac & cheese a possibly record-breaking £29. (Although up on the fourth floor, opposite the ‘Wellness Clinic’, there is a Gordon Ramsay cafe charging £80 for a hamburger.) My food was excellent: a small bundle of gleamingly fresh Devon crab on a slice of nashi pear with tiny leaves and a sharp lemon gel (£19), followed by three spears of asparagus with its hefty parmesan sablé, the buttery heads of four morels and a ball of confit egg yolk that was not as nice as an actual egg (£19), that salad and then the hake. I also established, after a bit of chat, that the pricing truly isn’t the Atherton group’s fault at all. Not only are the prices set by the not especially bargain-hunty sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, but the chefs Atherton puts in have to come off his payroll and join the Harrods one. Harrods buys the produce. In short, it’s still the Harrods Brasserie but they get to put ‘Social’ above the door and have a Jason Atherton menu in return for a consultancy fee. (The Times Magazine)

Ravinder Bhogal reviews The Wolseley: Behind the grand facade, the Wolseley feels like its own universe – dense with wealth, cultural capital and anecdote. In the course of its 18 years, it’s become a London stalwart, a favourite of the late greats – artist Lucian Freud and food critic AA Gill. It’s discreet yet provides ample opportunity for double takes – notable Londoners and Hollywood A-listers relax gawker-free among the hoi polloi. There aren’t any icy reservationists, yet there’s a sense that you got lucky when you find your posterior perched on one of its plush leather banquettes, your face illuminated by the kind of vanity lighting that makes Instagram filters look lame. I have felt at home among the dinner jackets and champagne flutes in a cocktail dress, a sari or jeans. Despite the transient nature of its location, the restaurant has a sense of community – this is in part down to members of staff like Mr Fennell, but also serious regulars: Europeans in exile, taut-faced Ladies Who Lunch, theatre luvvies, media elite and artists are all possessive of their favourite nooks. There is equity to the hospitality here – you are greeted with familiarity and never excluded, even if it’s your first time. People don’t come to the Wolseley for the food – although it is always more than serviceable. The menu maintains a backbone of classics, as well as seasonal specials. Right now, there are tender lobes of blushing salt marsh lamb that taste of the delicate coastal flora it might once have grazed on. The chicken with Madeira sauce which promises fragrant morels, however, only manages to deliver a sharp kick of salt. The barely touched plate disappears quickly from the table with an apology and, despite my lack of fuss, it disappears from the bill, too. There are seared scallops that arrive on the shell, swimming in a buttery potato mousseline and wafting of garlic; while soufflé Suisse is a fragile, gravity-defying miracle of Gruyère suspended in egg whites that vanishes quickly in decadent, cheesy blasts. (The Observer magazine)

Tom Parker Bowles reviews The Swan Inn at Swinbrook: Oh to be in England, now that spring is here. Well, sort of. Despite sitting in the most idyllic of Oxfordshire pub gardens, all crowing cockerels, luxuriantly green grass and lusciously blooming orchards, there’s always the small matter of the weather. Dull at first, with sulky clouds, then a brief spell of brilliant sunshine, followed by an Old Testament-style deluge. All in the time it takes to sink a pint of Hooky Ale. But The Swan Inn at Swinbrook, pretty much in the shadow of St Mary’s church, a Norman beauty in whose graveyard most of the Mitfords are interred, is one of those country pubs that does the country pub thing perfectly, with minimum fuss. Decent draught local beer, a short but well-priced wine list. And a menu that takes in all the pub classics, plus a few local, seasonal things without ever banging on about their being local and seasonal at all. So a starter of steamed asparagus, topped with a perfectly fried egg, the egg laid by one of the chickens scratching around the garden. A little bit of Pecorino adds saline bite, and a few blobs of pesto an Italian wink. Another starter of roast beetroot with whipped goat’s curd is hardly revolutionary but with salty olives, sharp shards of preserved lemon and a scattering of pomegranate seeds, is light, lithe and well put together. Quietly confident cooking with no lectures about provenance or chef’s philosophy, or how the cutlery is foraged from the local garden centre. When it comes to pub Sunday roasts, I tend to steer clear. However fine they may be, nothing compares to those cooked at home. Here, pork comes with a brittle, caramel carapace of crackling, the succulent flesh tasting of a life well lived. Decent gravy, decent roast potatoes and all sorts of vegetables. More than respectable. But I devour the fish and chips, great fat flakes of cod enclosed in the most crisp and beautifully burnished of batters. Fries replace the more traditional chips, but that’s fine. I’ve now had a couple of glasses of cold Picpoul, and the small details matter less. As the sticky toffee pudding arrives, the pitter-patter of rain turns to a downpour so intense that conversation becomes tricky. But we’re under umbrellas, and we’re English. It is May after all. (Mail on Sunday)

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