We talk to London’s top chefs about how they are dealing with the strange ‘new normal’. Lina Stores head chef Masha Rener talks about how home-cooking with top ingredients is here to stay.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Masha Rener, head chef at Lina Stores in Soho and King’s Cross
How has coronavirus affected your business?
We were forced to close everything for lockdown across all of our sites, but thankfully, because we had the deli on Brewer Street, we were able to create an online grocery platform really quickly. We worked so hard to make sure we could deliver to our customers nationwide so people at home could order everything they knew and loved from our website.
When were you able to open up and how did you celebrate?
We reopened the deli on 15 June when the government made the announcement and we made sure that we had everything in place so it was safe, limiting the number of people allowed in at one time. Having our first customers back in the deli after months, being able to become a hub of the community once more, was an exciting moment. We kept it quite low-key in terms of celebrations, but we sat down as a team and toasted with a couple of Amaro cocktails. We’ve just opened Lina Stores King’s Cross as an al fresco terrace so I think we’ll celebrate a bit bigger this time.
How are you managing the ongoing effects of the virus?
At Lina in Piazza and at the Greek Street restaurant we have reduced seating, more space between tables and hygiene stations. At Lina in Piazza we have one way entry and exit systems marked by stickers on the floor and we are limiting booking sizes to six people. At Greek Street it’s four people max. All the team wear face masks and we have plexiglass in the delis as well as additional hygiene stations inside.
How have you kept sane when the restaurant was closed?
The truth is we never had the time to even wonder ‘what if’: as soon as we closed we started the online shop and we were also fundraising; we raised over £26,000 to enable us to deliver thousands of meals to people in need. Inevitably there were moments where things weren’t as busy and I was able to spend priceless time with my kids, which was lovely. I’m from a town near Umbria, so when I went back, I had a lot of home-improvement projects to focus on – my terrace has become a greenhouse.
What did you miss most when the dining scene was shut down?
Interaction with diners. I love seeing people eating and enjoying my food. My Lina Stores team is like a little family so it was hard not seeing them every day and working side by side. As I went back to Italy to lockdown, my life was completely turned upside down due to the restrictions. It was hard not seeing the friends and colleagues that I have in London.
Where was the first place you went to eat/drink when lockdown was eased?
I had a Panino porchetta from this amazing street food van near my home in Umbria. They’re the best, stuffed with melt-in-the-mouth pork on the soft bread. When I came back to London, the first thing I did was walk on the canal down to Camden Market, I love it down there.
Do you think things in the restaurant world will go back to ‘normal’
It will be a very long time before the world goes back to ‘normal’.
People have been rediscovering cooking at home so I think the restaurant DIY kits are here to stay. We were able to create fresh pasta and pizza kits that enable people to explore home-cooking in an easier way and also recreate some of their favourite restaurant dishes at home.
Also, as many people may work from home more in the future and not come into central London daily, people will still buy products online – our online grocery has been a way to bring a taste of Lina to people’s homes. While there are still going to be a lot of restaurants struggling for a long time, eating, drinking and socialising are a fundamental human need so it will come back, albeit slowly.
Are there any silver linings to what’s been an awful few months?
Broadly, I think people will realise how important socialising in person is, how it can’t be matched by video calls and the like, so people will want to come together more, I hope it will mean a strengthening of bonds, it has done for me. Spending time with my family has been so important. In a way it has been a good moment to stop and be present and have downtime with my children, despite everything. On a personal note, I also put on some weight, finally, so for me, that was a small triumph!