How coronavirus has exposed the food chain and what we can do to fix it

Giulia Sgarbi - 30/04/2020

With restaurants, hotels and cafés closed, small-scale farmers and producers are left without a buyer for their fresh goods and ingredients. As the coronavirus pandemic exposes the flaws in the food system, chefs around the world are coming to the rescue

For cooks and diners alike, the first few months of 2020 have marked a stark change from business as usual. As restaurants, bars, pubs and cafés shuttered across the world and people were confined to their houses waiting for the worst to pass, we all became familiar with supermarket shortages – from toilet paper and antibacterial wipes to pasta and flour. But while supermarket shelves depleted, a different kind of product stockpiled.

Many of the world’s best restaurants rely on a network of trusted producers – farmers, butchers, fishermen and suppliers whose high-quality, unique and sometimes rare products are the very cornerstone of the restaurants’ existence. Some grow special ingredients that feature in signature dishes that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The relationship formed between these farms – often family-owned, small-scale and organic – and the restaurants they supply is one of mutual benefit and dependency.

As restaurants were forced to close around the world, that essential chain was suddenly broken, often with little to no time for producers to adjust. And thus, storage rooms started filling with unused ingredients that might never see the light of the day. But from different corners of the globe, from Thailand to Slovenia and Mexico, a handful of chefs became determined to support those who had made their businesses – and their success – possible.

A flaw in the system

For many world-leading chefs, the sudden arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in the food chain. “The day after we closed the restaurants, Eben Proft, our pheasant farmer, arrived with his weekly delivery of 90 pheasants,” recalls Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

“Eben’s farm is one in a group that came to rely on Blue Hill to buy specific crops or animals. And that wasn’t by accident. More and more over the years, we’ve suggested exclusive relationships with certain farmers, and the lesson of Covid-19 – one of many – is that it exposes weaknesses in any system. An exclusive relationship, which is often baked into the farm-to-table model, works in a perfect world. It’s ideal. But suddenly, under Covid-19, it’s idealistic too,” he reflects.

The impact of restaurant closures on small-scale producers across the world is difficult to quantify, as in every local reality, struggles take on a different form. In Thailand, when chef Thitid Tassanakajohn was forced to switch to a delivery-only format, sales across his three restaurants – including his flagship Le Du – dropped by 90%. Therefore, his suppliers’ own sales dropped at a similar level.

As closures spread across the world, many other chefs faced the same issue. “Hiša Franko has always been the first partner of the farmers, so we were the first to understand that they are in the shit now. There is too much milk, too much lamb, too everything. The food chain collapsed,” says Ana Roš, whose restaurant is based in Kobarid, Slovenia. In Buenos Aires, Pablo Rivero – the owner of restaurant Don Julio – was tormented. “The closeness and the bond we have with our producers transform us almost into a family, so the anguish is multiplied. In the end, we are all part of the same project,” he says.
Ana Roš's beekeeper in Slovenia

Restaurants can shutter indefinitely in the space of days, but the earth obeys different rules. “When a restaurant closes its doors, the land doesn’t stop producing and farmers don’t leave their fields,” says Patricia Guerrero, on behalf of Enrique Olvera and the team of Mexico City-based Pujol. Dylan Jones, chef of restaurant Bo.Lan in Bangkok, adds: “Many farmers’ markets are shut down due to the social distancing rules, but the seeds that farmers planted in the soil 45 days ago still require hard-core love and care, and fruit season is coming.

“Producers don’t have enough time, energy, equipment, nor the initial investment necessary to preserve or process their produce. This wakes us up to see who the people truly crucial to preserving food security are, and who consumers should pay respect to.”

Creative solutions

Fortunately, chefs are problem-solvers by nature. Faced with the tragedy that was plaguing their producers, and with the strict limitations imposed by lockdowns, they began to draft solutions designed to help their restaurants and suppliers alike.

Acting as middlemen, some cooks in different corners of the world decided to buy their suppliers’ produce anyway, but instead of cooking it as they used to, they packaged it and sold it to the final consumer. In New York, Barber created ResourcED, a programme that facilitates the sale of fresh, organic and local produce to the public through grocery boxes, focusing especially on those farmers for whom his restaurant was a principal source of income.
The contents of one of the ResourcED boxes

Further south in Mexico City, as well as across the world in Thailand, others are moving in the same direction. Pujol now sells weekly food baskets online featuring the harvest of the restaurant’s network of producers in Valle de Bravo. In Bangkok, Tassanakajohn created the #MarketfulBox initiative with several other local chefs, through which they have already been able to sell thousands of kilos of high-quality produce that would have otherwise gone to waste. Many more restaurants in the 50 Best family have adopted a similar approach, including Atelier Crenn in the US and Quintonil in Mexico.

For Jones, the sale of ingredient boxes is essential not only to ensure that produce isn’t wasted, but also encourage Thai farmers at a difficult time. “All the hard work we put in over a decade to encourage our producers to convert to organic and sustainable practices, keeping and passing on artisan know-how, preserve nature and work with it, might go to waste if they stop producing due to this crisis. Proving to them that there are people out there who appreciate their work is essential,” he says.

Every restaurant adapted to the new reality in different ways. In Buenos Aires, Rivero turned Don Julio – an award-winning steakhouse known for unique cuts – into a butcher’s shop to help sell his suppliers’ products. The restaurant still buys the whole animal, which it processes in its workshop and puts on sale as steaks, sausages and other delicacies. “With these sales, we are allowing our producers to balance their accounts and we are supporting their production, so they can keep generating the quality that we need and not sell badly [at a lower cost] because they are desperate,” he says.
Don Julio's skirt steak and Rivero with his beef supplier

In California, chef-and-farmer couple Kyle and Katina Connaughton of restaurant SingleThread partnered up with Sonoma Family Meal to keep cooking during the lockdown – though now, they are cooking for the elderly, immigrants, farm workers and vulnerable families. “Through the Sonoma Family Meal donation meal program and our takeaway menu, we are supporting local farmers and artisans by buying their products and paying them quickly to keep cashflow close at hand for them,” says Kyle.

Through surplus ingredient donations, fund-raising efforts and monetary contributions made to Sonoma Family Meal, the team at SingleThread started producing 200 meals a day for the non-profit, while they also continued cooking take-away meals for their clients. “We are using the products from our own farm as well as the other organic farms in our area, and we are buying local meats, heritage turkeys, ducks, organic chickens, beef, lamb, as well as cheese and dairy, all produced locally. Most of these producers rely on restaurants, so we are buying as much as possible to make up for their shortfalls,” adds Connaughton.

For restaurants based in big cities, such as Mexico City and Buenos Aires, pivoting to sell produce to the public is relatively easy. But for a restaurant like Hiša Franko, based in a town of less than 2,000 inhabitants at the heart of the remote and beautiful Soča Valley in Slovenia, creating the logistics necessary to sell big amounts of produce is a challenge. “We’re analysing the products that are in excess and using them in new, beautiful combinations using our creativity and techniques,” says Chef Ros.
Kobarid, Slovenia (image: Jost Gantar)

“We started making high mountain ice cream with bee pollen and forest honey from our producers’ excess milk, but we need a network of logistics to place these products on the real market. It cannot be only Hiša Franko with our small kitchen and the small quantity of ice cream we can make. It needs to be bigger scale. I expect to see amazing sour milk ice cream, ravioli filled with fermented cheese, or sundried porcini being sold in shops in London, New York or Australia once this is over.”

But what will it teach us?

The quantity and variety of initiatives put in place to protect producers is a testament to the resilience of these restaurants and their networks – but they can only be temporary measures. Chefs are looking to the future to prevent a similar situation from happening again, and many are calling on consumers to do their part to fortify the food chain. “If I were to do it all over again, I would insist on a more resilient network of relationships [with our producers] – retail, wholesale, processing, etc. – to ensure that in times of crisis, there is protection,” says Barber. “How you can help the producers depends on where you live, but a good, simple mantra is to buy local. How about this, too: ‘community, not commodity’. Not bad for a slogan.”

Small, high-quality producers – such as those who supply many of the world’s best restaurants – aren’t able to sell their products to supermarkets and are therefore lacking a safety net during the coronavirus closures. But the crisis is opening our eyes to the struggles of these families. “Those who shop in supermarkets today must choose to save and help people by buying local products from small producers,” says Don Julio’s Rivero. “You have to think about families and not companies. It’s an opportunity for the consumer to internalise; to worry about who they are buying from. You can give a political meaning to your food shop.”
SingleThread's vegetables from the restaurant's farm

Jones of Bo.Lan’s advice for the post-coronavirus world is simple. “Buy direct, especially from small-scale farmers and producers. Know where your food comes from and understand that vegetables can be ugly – natural things don’t come in one uniform size and shape, unblemished and pretty all the time. Try something new, in season and local, because lot of small farmers and producers experiment with different varieties in small amounts. Value and appreciate their work. Go visit a farm after Covid-19 to understand the effort required to put food on you plate.”

“The best thing people can do is to support their local farms and restaurants,” concludes Connaughton. “Shop at farmers’ markets or buy great local and artisanal products. If we don't support them, we’ll lose them. Support independent restaurants at any level, from your local taquería to your neighbourhood spots, and the fine dining experiences that are special to you. We all vote with our dollars, pounds, euros, yens etc. Support good food systems, support sustainable agriculture, support locally grown and made. If you don't, who will?”

Head to our coronavirus page for more content on how restaurants, bars and organisations are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and stay tuned to our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter channels, where we are sharing initiatives from around the world.