When asked about how 2021 had started for her and her outstanding Brixton Market restaurant Chishuru, Adejoké ‘Joké’ Bakare could only laugh. “I’m alive,” she said. “That’s what’s important.”
Though closed, Chishuru is alive too, with Bakare packaging up a weekly menu into meal kits to sustain an income for her restaurant and her small team. Pork belly asun, with charcoal-grilled peppers and onions, brick red jollof, and a votively green kale salad. Cassava fritters; sweet, soothing degue with pear.
The restaurant opened in September 2020. In five months, It has endured two lockdowns, the dreaded tier system, and had only six weeks’ trading in its rent-free, temporary residency unit on Brixton’s Market Row. Bakare doesn’t know yet whether that rent-free period, slated to end in February, will be extended. But in five months and six week Chishuru has made a start to its life that many never see, with both its menu and Bakare’s hospitality so comfortable in their convictions that it feels like it’s been open for years. In reality, Chishuru is just getting going. it hasn’t even been allowed to express even close to its full potential: One of the best new restaurants of 2020, open for six weeks out of 52.
Eater spoke to Bakare from her prep kitchen about the impact of those turbulent five months on her and her restaurant, and what she sees on the horizon.
Was there a big or any difference between tier 4 or national lockdown for you and Chishuru?
No, for us there isn’t at all. We were plunged into tier 4 and couldn’t open, so the only thing we were doing was meal kits through Dishpatch. That’s it. Apart from the fact that I’ve now lost two members of the team; one person decided to move out of London.
How do you expect this will affect both your business, generally? And the size of your staff? With fewer customers on the streets, do you expect to have to reduce the team?
We’re bound to what Brixton Market is doing, and they are particularly strict, so much so that we’ve been audited often by Lambeth Council. They come round and do random audits, making sure people are wearing appropriate PPE, checking all our documentation is up to date. And when we were in tier 3, the council would come round and come and check that people were using track and trace, they were checking that our NHS QR code was correct and not fake. It’s been a bit more intense than it feels like it is for other places. I don’t know why we’ve got that high level of scrutiny, but it is what it is.
Coming into the restaurant part of the market, it’s quiet, but there’s still a buzz around the market itself. It’s just nowhere near what it was, that’s for sure.
Were other places in the market under similar scrutiny?
I think so, it’s hard to say. Sometimes they’ve been coming in the morning, sometimes the evening, so it’s difficult to say.
How long are you now planning for the dining room to be closed? And how much longer can you afford to stay closed?
Currently I’m just going to hunker down and wait, see what I can do. In the meantime we have to pay the utility bills and whatever, so we’re doing meal kits and then going to start pushing on selling our sauces, which people have been asking after. For me, I’m very lucky because I’m still in our rent-free period, but that ends in February, so I’m going to have to go into talks with them regarding that. I was only open for six weeks of the rent-free period I was given, so any kind of thing they can offer will help us be able to survive. Here we’ve got service charges from the market as well as utility bills, and the service charge is not cheap.
How did the very short notice closures in November and December affect you? Can you give people an idea of how that affects restaurants, in terms of rotas and supply chains...
[Laughs] Oh... don’t ask about that! I’m still suffering from it! For me, thank god, I don’t buy a lot, I only have one or two days’ worth of supplies at a time. It wasn’t ideal at all.
If you are tweaking your offering for lockdown 3, is that based on lessons learned during both lockdowns — which themselves seemed quite different — last year?
Keeping it the same, really, but I’ve recently been working out how I have to rethink our food for the meal kits. Our food is really celebration food, and I’ve been trying to work out how to kind of, lighten it a little bit, because most of the things on the menu in the restaurant don’t work as takeaways or meal kits. So we’re having to think of other things that stay true what Chishuru is, while offering diners at home a different experience. People still want them for occasions, not regular meals, but we need it to be a regular thing to actually make any money from it.
Do you stand to receive any monies in this latest round of grants from the government? If so, will it help? If not, what makes you ineligible?
Not as far as I can tell. I’ve tried applying to council grants but they haven’t been very helpful.
Appreciate this might be a hard question to answer, but what needs to happen between now and March for you to make it to spring? It seems like there’s very little room for much more to go wrong, unless the government really digs deep into its pockets?
Honestly, I don’t know if we will be able to survive until May, with what they’ve been saying. We can just get by to February, but if I my landlords are quite adamant on rent when it comes to that, I don’t know... I don’t know if we will be able to survive that. The business rates extension being renewed would help. I have a really good, really small team and haven’t been able to put them on furlough because we fell outside of a payroll deadline, so every saving makes a difference. The VAT does do a lot, especially as so many places have lost so much money through December, it’s important they don’t underestimate what difference it makes.
Maybe a better way of asking this question is: what’s the most important thing that needs to happen between now and the spring in order to give restaurants the best chance of surviving?
Most people that have the loudest voices in hospitality are also the biggest, and business owners like me haven’t been represented throughout this. I think one of us needs to stand up and say, “this might be how it works for you, but for us it’s a bit more nuanced than that, this is what we need, it’s different.” And I feel if there is going to be a minister or whatever it has to be someone who knows the trade, boots on the ground, knows the complexity of the hospitality industry, not just a bureaucrat.
The way the situation has been handled so far is why we’re suffering more. If the lockdowns had been proper and earlier, by this time we’d be thinking about reopening. I knew the winter period was a challenge, but I didn’t think it was going to be this long. It didn’t have to be this way.