The recent easing of lockdown has been music to the ears those of us who regularly justify spending the majority of our budget on eating-out. From personal experience, a diet of meat, potatoes and a few vegetables is able transform the desire to visit a favourite restaurant from a mere want to a yearning need.
Don’t get me wrong the food at home is fantastic; it’s filled with variety and interest. Yet there is something that’s lacking, a simplicity to being given an option and having it appear rather than planning a week’s shopping every Thursday. Thankfully chefs and restaurants looked down from their place on high and, filled with sympathy, blessed us with their sacred recipes.
When reviewing this philanthropy, two key motivations for the savvy restaurateur appear that interest me. Firstly, by releasing their recipes restaurants are able to retain a place in people’s minds. You can’t forget about how good Nando’s chicken is when you can make it at home. Secondly, the release of recipes by popular restaurants had the effect of watering the eating-out drought. People loved that they could copy a meal and shake up their weekly routine. Restaurant themed evenings popped up and a bond formed between diners and their favourite restaurants.
This brings me to my exploits with lockdown recipes. In our house we went down two very different routes; on the one hand we dabbled with Pret a Manger Chocolate Chip Cookies, and on the other we delved into the sophisticated world of Le Caprice.
Our latter endeavour was one begun with some trepidation. Le Caprice is both a London institution and a family favourite. The restaurant that sits behind the Ritz hotel is an oasis of fine dining in the tumult of Piccadilly, boasting a minimal black and white décor and a level of privacy that draws many an interesting diner. However, all good things rarely last and Le Caprice has surrendered and fallen to the pressures of lockdown. It is this that inspired our sojourn into their cookbook, while not being released as a result of lockdown, the book was opened by us as a consequence of the entrapment.
As an homage to the restaurant I took it upon myself to make a few favourites: Eggs Benedict, Chilled Beetroot Soup with Creamed Horseradish, and Salmon fishcakes with Sorrel Sauce. Unsurprisingly each was a delicious and somewhat more thrilling sensory experience than some of our staples. The joy of the recipes is in their ease of creation; little effort, high reward seemed to be a consistent and delightful trend throughout. By attempting to recreate each dish a little bit of the restaurant’s essence invaded the kitchen reminding us of life outside and the return of normality.
Yet, while immediately satisfying this faux-experience becomes rather harrowing. The excitement of choosing what you’re going to make fades with the subsequent making and eating. What is left at the end of a meal is the dissatisfaction of wallowing in all the reasons why that meal is fantastic and delicious and everything I needed it to be, if only I had been in the restaurant. Here we have the clinching issue with cooking from a restaurant’s released recipe; we see all of the bits that are missing from the meal.
In a general sense the ‘event’ that is eating-out is lost, we can no longer congregate on a street corner and choose where to eat, there is no idle chat as we scrutinise menus, there is no sense of being a small part of a larger whole (a role which I’m most comfortable with while in a busy restaurant). On a more personal note from Le Caprice I missed the burble of chat as I wait for my main to arrive, or the stairs that lead past photos of past enchanting guests on the way to the loo. While you may have the physical evidence of the meal in front of you (the bare bones if you like), the essence, the heart and the soul of the restaurant is absent.
Never is this fact more evident than when I made the Pret cookies. Don’t get me wrong they were great, I might even stretch to the best cookie recipe I have found. But that’s all they were; great, I could eat them whenever and be satisfied. With a proper restaurant I want more than that. Through some unfortunate instance the coming of lockdown and the broadening of our recipe horizons has allowed Le Caprice to stand with Pret and feel comfortable there; its unique spirit is unable to surviving crossing the barrier that is lockdown.
So where does that leave us? Lockdown recipe provision by restaurants is an undeniably great thing in most cases. Bringing some interest and excitement back into the kitchen. But if you want to retain an unblemished opinion of somewhere I would suggest a strategy of avoidance. You’ll come out of lockdown blinking in the light of a multitude of previously lost culinary opportunity but nonetheless a little bit happier, I think. Having said that if it’s a tribute meal like ours was, I’m all for it, because it’s the closest you’re going to get.