Fine dining will no longer be "sexy," says Michelin Chef
Nicole Johnston in London

This month two Michelin starred restaurants in London closed their doors for good, the latest victims in the industry to suffer from the economic impact of COVID-19.

The picture is the same for many restaurants across the world.

High-end chefs and restaurant owners have been hit particularly hard and expect their recovery to be even more difficult than more affordable restaurants.

French-born chef Pascal Aussignac owns 'Club Gascon' in London's Clerkenwell area. It's the first restaurant he and his business partner opened in London. 

He has retained a Michelin star for the last 18 years. And like all of his restaurants, 'Club Gascon' was forced to close when the country went under lockdown. The recently refurbished tables and chairs are under white sheets. The wine glasses and champagne flutes have been packed away.

Aussignac says, at this stage, he doesn't know how they will remake their fine dining restaurant into something "sexy" in an era of social distancing and wearing masks. But if there's anyone who can find a way, it's this charismatic chef.

Before COVID-19 Aussignac says customers enjoyed the experience of interacting with waiting staff as they explained the dishes, and part of the ambiance involved being in a crowded restaurant with other diners. But that may have to change.

The question is, will customers want to pay for restaurant food if the atmosphere is more clinical and staff are wearing masks? Aussignac isn't sure.

But this innovative chef is also making plans to adjust to the new reality of dining. He's thinking about setting up outdoor dining and a gourmet BBQ in his herb and vegetable garden at the back of the restaurant.

Michelin star restaurants, such as Club Gascon in London, are having to come up with other ideas to maintain the 'fine dining experience' in an era of social distancing. /AP

Michelin star restaurants, such as Club Gascon in London, are having to come up with other ideas to maintain the 'fine dining experience' in an era of social distancing. /AP

Club Gascon is one of six venues he owns in London, including a restaurant, bar and bistro. The eaterie, positioned near London's famous Smithfields market, gains most of its trade from nearby businesses. But now the streets, the office buildings and the market are empty. Aussignac has been forced to furlough 100 staff.

He says for many of London's most expensive restaurants, the greatest challenge will be trying to pay their rent. In areas like Mayfair, monthly rents can cost several hundred thousand pounds.

"There are different types of landlords, some will postpone the rent and some will not. So if you don't have enough cash, you will go bankrupt," Aussignac warns.

The government says restaurants may be able to reopen in July if the infection rate stays low and businesses can guarantee the safety of staff and customers.

Serving takeaway food is one option. It's not enough to pay all the bills and rehire staff but it's a start. So Aussignac is back in the kitchen of his bistro, which is also based in the London borough of Clerkenwell, cooking traditional dishes from Gascony in southwestern France.

The menu is limited but the dishes are hearty and taste like a home-cooked meal. We had the potato gratin and casselout and a couple of bottles of wine from southwest France – including a smooth white from the Luberon valley.

After cooking and eating at home for weeks, a meal lovingly prepared by one of London's best chefs was a real treat. Of course taking it home in a takeaway box isn't as exciting as visiting a new restaurant, but these days you accept what you can't have and are grateful for what you do have.

But for the chef, the experience of cooking is very different. Aussignac wears a mask and there is only one other person in the kitchen.

Still, he says he's just happy to be back cooking, "We want to see each other. We want to share things we want to get back to our life as a cook."


Check out The Pandemic Playbook, CGTN Europe's major investigation into the lessons learned from COVID-19

Video editing: Natalia Luz