When we’re faced with a challenge like we are now with this worldwide pandemic, it is all too easy to resign ourselves to feeling helpless.
But it is more important now than ever to stay positive and think about all the things we can do, not just to help ourselves, but to help others too.
Although I’m saying that, it’s not always easy to practice what you preach. And that’s not to say that I’ve not experienced feeling low, like I’m sure many people have. Because of coronavirus, many of us have been furloughed, made redundant or, for those of us who are freelancers, many have lost almost all work.
For me, that means cookery demos, book events and TV appearances are currently not able to happen. And because of this freelance nature, it makes me wonder what will happen to all of us in the coming months.
But to look at the positives, I’ve change my view on many things – I used to feel like I had failed as a mother because I was busy all the time. Lockdown has helped me be here for my daughters more. Teenage years are hard anyway, but with lockdown, it’s only made it harder as they’re used to socialising at school and outside of it.
Reet is doing her A-levels, turned 17 in mid-March and had her first driving lesson cancelled, while Neev has GCSEs next year.
But since schools closed, they’ve adapted to the change: they get up in the morning and get on with their school work. I’m also enjoying the fact that my daughters, who used to hate running, now run with me – and that would never have happened before.
Another positive is food. Over the past few weeks, it’s food that has helped me to feel better, in several ways. As a family, we all now discuss what we would like to eat, and then we plan, cook and eat it together. I’m also finding that testing recipes, cooking, taking photos of them and posting on Instagram is therapeutic for me.
Throughout lockdown, I’ve posted 76 recipes on my Instagram, which actually wasn’t too challenging – I bought ingredients in bulk and the local independent shops here in the southwest have been wonderful. This also gave me the chance to chat to people online and give them tips – and at the moment, it feels like I need them more than they need me.
Another positive is that I also finished a project I’ve been working on for a while with artisan gin makers 6 O’clock Gin. The gin is made in Bristol and we worked together on making one that reminded me of my childhood which is made with mango, lime and ginger. We finished it with meetings and tastings over Zoom, which also gave me something else to do with my time.
The need to diversify
Lots of people and businesses have diversified, but it’s not possible for everyone. The hospitality and food and drink industry has been one of the worst hit, with high rents still to pay despite being closed. A tentative reopening date for pubs, cafes and restaurants is looming around the start of July, at the very earliest, meaning they will have been closed for almost four months, with a huge loss of earnings.
Many of those in the industry have had to change how they work and what they offer to ensure that they survive beyond lockdown. Some restaurants have turned to takeaways and delivery services for the first time, local pubs have reopened as grocery shops and wholesalers to the catering industry have now made their products available to the general public. For the restaurant industry, which I was in for so many years, it’s a truly challenging time, and I know many restaurant owners are unsure whether their businesses will even survive after the pandemic.
It’s hard to say what the restaurant industry will look like once lockdown ends. I think many people will still be wary of sitting down in a room with complete strangers in confined spaces, worrying about the risk. But without changing the distancing rules from two metres to one metre, many small businesses may be destroyed. There are plenty of people though, who are waiting for their favourite restaurant to reopen so they can support them by having takeaways.
The reality is, even before coronavirus, it was already very hard to survive running a restaurant, as there’s so many overheads – rent, business rates, utilities and more – which all still need still need to be paid even when they’re closed. Once they do reopen, restaurants will need to find ways to keep the customers coming and keep their business afloat.
I closed the doors to my restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen, in Thornbury, just outside of Bristol, for the last time in August 2019, after six years of trading. My lease was up and it felt like it was the right time for me – my book Zaika was coming out in September and I wanted to focus on its launch, and everything around that. I was in talks with opening another restaurant and I am so glad that we did not rush that, and I pushed it back due to my other commitments.
But since March and those commitments, I’ve needed to find new things that keep me busy and keep my passion for food alive.
One of those things I started to keep me busy – and to channel my anxiety – was to do something positive to help others. I started by cooking meals for NHS staff in Thornbury and the surrounding areas which my husband Gundeep delivered to them at home after their shifts. Then I decided to think of ways to raise money to combat Covid-19.
What my friend Ruth Wong and I came up with was cooking dine-in meals for people. We set up a JustGiving page where people could make a donation of £15 for a meal for two that I cooked for them, and they collected from me, which we did for six weeks on Tuesdays and Fridays. We called in "dine in with Romy Gill for the NHS" and I cooked dal, sabzi (mixed vegetables curry) and rice: it was vegetarian meals as that was easier. We didn’t ask for any donations, but twice Nick from Total Produce donated ingredients to us.
All the proceeds went to NHS Charities Together to support NHS staff, volunteers and patients impacted by the crisis. Our initial target was £1,000, but we ended up raising £2,155. I also cooked extra food, which was taken by my husband to feed frontline NHS workers at their homes as well.
A very different birthday
Aside from work and cooking, like many people during this time, I recently celebrated my birthday – and while it was very different to normal celebrations, I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed my birthday more and experienced so much love. I cooked my last fundraising meal for about 40 people, Gundeep made pizza, Reet made pavlova, and Neev helped decorate.
My friend Simone made me a wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi cheesecake, and Ruth gave me prosecco, cupcakes and flowers. My neighbours and many other friends showered me with wine, flowers and other gifts.
The way I felt, knowing that others were thinking of me, reinforced my conviction that even the seemingly smallest of things can make a huge difference to others. I make sure I text, call or message people via social media to check they’re OK: it’s been so hard for many people who haven’t been able to see their loved ones, or in some sad cases, to say goodbye to their parents or other family members.
The virus has made one thing very clear: everyone – no matter their background, culture or wealth – is being affected in the same way. We need to make sure we look out not just for ourselves, but for others too.
We still don’t know how long it will be until life returns to normal, or what that will even be, so it’s so important to do what we can now for our own personal happiness – and making other people happy makes me happy. This lockdown has taught me that we shouldn’t take life for granted or spend too much time chasing the never-ending rainbow, as we never know what is around the corner. I miss my mum, who passed away last year, and worry about my dad alone in India, but we are all in this together.
Romy Gill is a chef and food writer. Her debut book ‘Zaika’ is available to buy now. Follow her @romygill