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As Coronavirus Keeps Diners Out of Restaurants, Instagram Offers a Kind of Community

An app rightly criticised for its uneasy relationship with truth is coming into its own as a message board and forum for chefs, front of house, and diners everywhere

A solo diner enjoys pasta at Ombra Ombra/Instagram

Welcome back to Insta Stories, a column examining the London restaurant scene through the often-problematic medium of Instagram. This week’s entry will likely be the last one for a while, so thanks for reading.

News of the week

David Chang’s characterisation of the issue facing the hospitality industry as a “real life trolley problem” certainly gets to the agonising dilemma confronting London restaurant operators as they weigh up a response to COVID-19. But if anything it undersells just how nightmarish this particular predicament is: at least in most examples of the trolley problem the parameters are clearly defined, and the consequences of each action are clearly stated. With no clear guidance, no free financial safety-net, and no idea of how long things will get worse before they get better, it is impossible for anyone to make anything like an informed decision — which may explain the wide range of responses from an industry just trying to get by whilst keeping friends, family, staff and customers safe. Shutting down completely, without any insurance against lost revenues and recurring costs like rent, could, in most cases, be something close to suicidal. Staying open, potentially furthering the spread of the disease, clearly runs up against the government’s belated and infuriatingly open-ended advice. Perhaps delivery will be a salve, perhaps business models can bend without breaking, perhaps the financial stimulus package will provide a crumb of comfort. If not, one of London’s most vibrant, diverse and durable industries will have effectively been forced to fend for itself, in its time of greatest need. Hundreds of thousands of employers and employees — and millions of customers — will be hoping that it somehow makes it through.

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@steele_haigh and I opened Mei Mei last year in one of the busiest and most challenging times at Borough Market. It’s been a whirlwind of a journey and I feel everything is being thrown at this new little independent business. I definitely don’t think we’ve got anywhere near to where we are without our wonderful team who help make my dream of owning a kopitiam in Central London come true. Head Chef Chrisitan, who’s been cooking the poached chicken perfectly, to Chloe who’s helped be my sidekick, not only keeping me sane, but rock some wicked pastry ideas, Julio for being a work machine to Chris and Rolaine who both can “pull” a perfect teh tarik and brew kopi the traditional way. We’ve pushed to keep everything as traditional and “legit” as possible given we are doing a cuisine that’s based on the other side of the world. If you want a small slice of Singapore, and your stuck on your “staycation” I suggest you come down to @meimeilondon while you still can and stockpile up on kaya, sambal and all our food (full menu and drinks menu for takeaway) and help me and my team keep our dream alive. We have put several measures in place to ensure my team and the guests well-being and being in such an open air space corner of Borough Market helps tremendously. All seating has been spread out, we only accept card and we sanitise all equipment / counters and wash our hands regularly. Due to reasons out of my control, we can’t do deliveries from our stall but if you wish to preorder please do DM @meimeilondon and let us know what you’d like us to prepare for a swift take-away collection. Please note we can only accept collections within our opening times (10am-5pm today, 4.30pm last orders) Please support #local Much love to our regulars as well for being such during this tough time - Liz

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Dear customers These are challenging times and it is important to me that the bakery continues to provide good bread and a community focal point while we all face uncertainty. We are well so far and working hard to bake as much as we can to meet demand. Some additional and hopefully useful information below: Our email address is sales@margotbakery.co.uk - please email with questions or orders as we are not always able to answer the phone. We sold out of bread very early today and are encouraging preorders and prepayment. We need 72 hours notice for orders (the bread takes over 2 days to make) We want to make enough bread for everyone who wants and needs it so please preorder if you can and pay by card or online if you can. We will also have a 2 loaf limit for purchases for now. Please be kind to staff who are working hard to serve you and keep you safe. They are not responsible for how quickly the bread sells or for any policies that are in place. We have reviewed all hygiene and cleaning systems and I am monitoring govt. advice and doing everything possible to keep the team and customers safe and well. Please stand back from the counter and follow instructions from the team. Please dispose of your compostable, disposable packaging in the bin provided. We are minimising contact and contamination as much as possible. Please takeaway if you can or sit outside. Please maintain distance between yourself and other customers as much as possible and queue as directed by the team. We may need to move to takeaway only in coming days. For now, seating indoors has been reduced. If you are self isolating and are local, please email and we will try and arrange no contact delivery. More to come on this soon. If you are not local, we can book a courier to deliver to you. Please email. If you know of someone or are someone who needs bread or anything else that we may be able to help with, please email in confidence and we will help. We are adding some additional staple groceries to items on sale alongside the usual butter, organic eggs, some fresh fruit and veg and Oatly milk. If you have a particular need or request, please email... continued below...

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A note to our customers and community.

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Good news of the week

If hospitality will never be the same again, then Instagram might also be about to change forever. A huge reduction in restaurant visits means a huge reduction in photos taken at those restaurants; a once-in-a-generation event like the present global pandemic is likely to lead to a significant re-evaluation of how platforms can be used in the service of those in need. Already, there have been examples of accounts sharing tips on how best to prepare for the lengthy period of self-isolation that we are all about to endure, or highlighting ways in which it is possible to help out local restaurants without walking through their doors. It is this, perhaps, that offers the strongest sense of hope for the future: humans are capable of incredible kindness and goodness; this crisis will be so much easier to weather with these qualities at the fore. For now: stay safe, stay inside, and stay supportive of the restaurants and people that make this industry what it is, and what it will, hopefully, continue to be.

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Following my previous post, you want to start making space for perishable items aka meat, fish & my favorite: stocks. Before you buy anything see what you already have, look at it like you're doing spring cleaning. Freezer space is the most valuable, and I would go for the following, in order of priority: - meat/vegetable stock: use a resealable bag, keep all your stocks and frozen products flat on a small tray so they take up as little space as possible. You can then take out the tray to have beautifuly lined up products. Stocks are the bases of your cooking. For example: lentils, ragu or noodles soup. - fresh proteins: meat, fish or tofu! Freezing tofu changes its body structure and turns it into a sponge, perfect for absorbing flavor. You can then braise your tofu with more aromatic flavors . I try to freeze only minced meat or off the bone meat, as it will take less space. Also: minced meat offers more versatility. It can be used in dumplings, bolognese, chilies, Dan Dan Noodles, etc... If you go to the fishmonger they can filet you your fish and you can then use the bones to make stock. - if you don't eat all the food you have prepared (e.g. if you are by yourself) you will need space to freeze cooked meals prepared during your quarantine time. - Pesto or Salsa Verde: fresh herbs will be rare if you don’t have your own little garden. Pre-make it with your mixer and freeze it in ice cube tray. Keeps it green! Berries are great frozen think of Smoothies and co.. - store bought products: I secretly have frozen peas in my freezer, but just buy what you really think you will eat. Don’t buy something just because you think you have to. Be rational in your decisions. Lastly but most importantly: what you freeze is valuable and can be used just once. As soon as you defrost it, you’ll have to eat it.

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Now that your fresh proteins are away, here comes the most versatile player of our food chain: Carbs & Fiber. Before emptying the shelves of tesco, draw out a game plan for yourself. I eat approximatively 120g of carbs per meal. Therefore I would need just about 5kg of carbs for a 3 weeks period. That’s nothing. Dry Goods are lifesavers and we have so many choices! Again you want to plan smart and as you will also keep eating these on a daily basis post-corona. - Pulse & Grains are beautiful and so healthy. Cook them with your well kept onions, dry herbs, stock & no salt, and you’ll have a beautiful meal. My go-to for recipes book for these are @trullo_restaurant cookbook & @rocketandsquash "On the side" Cookbook. Hopefully you can use them as references when you’re not feeling creative... I’ve also got a couple of ideas : think green lentils for a perfect French side or red lentils for a spiced dhal. And if you need any advice on the how to cook, feel free to DM me. - Noodles, rice & instant noodles (naughty) all can be found a small local stores on Mare street or go to Chinatown... Again the list is long, and I’m here to help anyone who are struggling between the 1000 types of rice noodles... - Polenta, Couscous, Bulgur wheat, our overlooked heroes. - Spices and dry herbs! Think of flavors! These will accentuate your cooking and sometimes you might have to rely on them if you don’t have anymore stocks or proteins. I’m a big supporter of @renspantry , she’s my spice queen and I’m sure you will not be disappointed. - Flours. We rarely think about getting it, but if your local supermarket runs out of pasta, the only way is to do it yourself. Or make noodles or perhaps dumplings wrappers and use up your minced from the freezer. And I almost forgot, you can even make Foccacia at home, Naan ! Pita bread ! Those things that perish so fast when store-bought can actually be done by your bare hands. Gram flour makes beautiful falafels, or crispy panisses... All of these are to show you the possibilities, if you get something excessively, you are taking it away for someone who could do with it more immediately. Remember, we can only go through this together.

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Ok so Italy, Spain, Danemark, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and more are in lockdown, so if you’re living there this might be helpful ... in the UK the reality is that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few weeks. A lot of us are already facing job insecurities, especially for freelancers. Some of us must self-isolate for safety reason. There is no reason to panic. See it as an opportunity to refurbish your pantry ;-) and wait for the Government................. What I have listed below is what I always try to have stocked up because at the end of the month I’m always broke ;-) Another resaon for informing you guys here is also to help you not waste time queuing at your local supermarket. People have been sending me pictures of empty shelves and I’m worried that a lot more people don’t know that there’s more to cooking then pasta and rice. So keep your eyes open for deliveries from your favorite restaurant and suppliers in case you can’t get out. For example @natoora is doing a great job ] Store bought ferments: Cured meats are like ferments, they will keep for ages. Saucisson Sec, whole Coppa etc. My French side made me buy 5 of them which I already ate half of it. Parmesan is a fermented cheese. It contains lactic acid bacteria that can help your gut, My go-to for Cacio e Pepe and many other dishes. I’ve kept it for months in a sealed bag to keep it fresh. You can also preserve any dry cheese like this. Anchovies. These little things are just so good, the salted ones in jars and tins are your go-to. Miso, Fish sauce, Gochujang : Flavor Bomb to add to your rice, lentils - even Miso flavored polenta sounds good to me. Kimchi: support my local favorite place @snackbarlondon and get some of their ferments for your kimchi soup...Other reco Sauerkraut, Gherkins, @littleduckthepicklery kraut and co are really really good. I love reading @kathekacz Home Ferments: Fermentation has always been part of our history and culture. In the beautifully written book of @sandorkraut you can learn how easily it all can be done. If you don’t want to read it, this is how I do it: ( read comments as apparently I’m writing a novel here.. )

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I spent a few minutes over lunch thinking about how sharing over social media may or may not evolve over the next few months. I took twitter off my phone and am trying to reduce clicks to the news cycle; not in a head-in-the-sand way, it’s just too distracting and worrying and better to limit access imo. But it feels like there’s still joy to be had over here. What type of content are you after?? Loads of people are doing good work on the stocktaking and pantry cooking front (check among others: @anais.vanmanen, @melissa.hemsley, @pippyeats and also @ellypear’s books), and I’m not sure there’s value in me adding to this. So I think I’ll probably mostly remain relatively spontaneous; I know I still enjoy simply seeing what others are cooking (without agenda). That said, as I ate this simple but delicious herring with red nam jim (salty, sweet sour and only a little hot), I wondered how everyone plans to keep FLAVOUR in their lives? Is there any interest in me posting bits and pieces that could potentially add variety to your staple meals? Rubs, dressings, sprinkles, dips and sauces that are flexible ways to brighten up whatever fresh and dried ingredients you’ve got? Maybe I’ll do some cookalongs. Hmm…. With all that in mind, my shopping list for this evening isn’t about dried carbs, but: salted anchovies in oil, parmesan, nduja, good olive oil, lilliput capers, moscatel and sherry vinegars | miso, instant dashi powder, nori, soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil | fish sauce, tamarind, dried shrimps, chillies, ginger, lemongrass and garlic for the freezer | curry leaves for the freezer, garam masala | black beans, sichuan chilli paste, more soy sauce, chinkiang vinegar | za’atar, tahini, sesame seeds, cumin and coriander seeds, plain nuts and seeds, pomegranate and date molasses, pul biber | chipotle in adobo, masa harina | interesting bread flours and dry action yeast | Marmite, Worcestershire sauce, honey . Join me? Stock up via @belazu @souschefuk @rootedspices @arabicalondon and your local corner shops and asian supermarkets.

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