Can't wait to hear the daily specials again? Neither can Canvas restaurant critic Kim Knight.
The car broke down, the camping ground cabins were freezing, Mum got lost in the Wanaka maze and I discovered, halfway up the Christ Church Cathedral north tower, that I was a little bit scared of small spaces and a lot scared of heights.
A road trip can change your life. Three weeks around the South Island, aged 10, was memorable for many reasons. Every night, after tea, we were allowed an entire row of Cadbury chocolate. One night, we went to a restaurant.
Booth seats. Brown wood. Plastic cows stuck in Dad's steak. I ordered a Fisherman's Basket and had never seen so much batter in the same place. Fizzy drink with ice and a straw. Slurp the sugar, the fat, the neatly chopped iceberg lettuce. You could choose exactly what you wanted to eat and none of it was anything Mum would have cooked. In 1980, at a Dunedin Cobb & Co, I fell in love with restaurants.
When Covid-19 came to New Zealand, people died and people lost their jobs and people couldn't cradle their new grandchildren. The sudden inability to order a steak was, by comparison, not the end of the world. Except that restaurants had become our world.
A 2019 Restaurant Association survey of 1000 customers revealed New Zealanders no longer confine eating out to a special occasion. Some 45 per cent of respondents said they dined at restaurants and cafes at least once (and up to three times) a week; 42 per cent ordered takeaways or home-delivered meals at the same rate. Back then, our national hospitality spend was $11.7 billion a year.
Those figures feel as foreign as a hug.
This month, the Restaurant Association is imploring us to support local, to deal direct, to avoid the third-party delivery app that charges up to 35 per cent commission on orders. Thirteen days into level 4 lockdown, chief executive Marisa Bidois told the Epidemic Response Committee that $1 billion had already been wiped from the hospitality industry. Headlines suggested one in two businesses might never re-open.
Dear Restaurants, I miss you.
When the winds of change heralded the return of takeaways, the first thing that blew up my driveway was a McDonald's wrapper. Later that week, I ordered a burger and fries from a non-internationally trademarked fast-food outlet. By the time I'd decanted the milkshake into a glass, the chips were as cold and lifeless as locked-down Queen St. The burger was a greasy ghost. Imagine a highly anticipated small-town high school reunion where you discover the rebellious cool guy now operates a party hire franchise? That was dinner.
The first restaurant was a soup. I think I've written that sentence before, but I still marvel at its truth. In eighteenth-century France, the word "restaurant" described a concentrated broth - a restorative.
Since 2016, when I simultaneously began a Masters in Gastronomy and became the Canvas restaurant critic, I've eaten at 200-plus different restaurants. My last restorative supper was at Barulho. Smoky paprika and olive oil in everything including the chocolate mousse. We shouted to hear ourselves and ordered paella and tempranillo, smug in the well-travelledness of pronouncing the "ll" as a "y". We were gloriously excessive. Now, every meal is for the same two people in front of the same two news presenters at the same coffee table. My cooking has become epic but, bloody hell, I'm bored.
Author Rebecca Spang describes the restaurant as a "publicly private place"; Joanne Finkelstein writes that dining out "puts our sensibilities on display". We define ourselves by not just what we eat but where we eat. Dinner as performance, restaurants as a stage and now we're at home with no audience. I miss the noise, the aesthetics, the voyeurism.
At level 3, we can (and should) order meal-kits, contactless three-course dinners and Mother's Day feasts. Some of the country's most famous chefs are hand-delivering (look who's coming to socially distanced dinner). It's nice, but it's not the real thing. At the time of writing, the rules for level 2 had not been clarified. In America, restaurants are removing tables to make more space. From the Netherlands come images of waterfront eateries where customers sit in tiny glasshouses. Multiple apps provide the ambient noise of European coffee shops and Japanese train station counters.
We eat to survive but we eat together to thrive. Belgian Congo-born anthropologist Pierre van den Burghe, says, "Cuisine is the symbolic expression of our sociality." We evolved as food-sharing animals (baby humans are hopeless foragers; breakfast in bed comes after a candlelight dinner) and "through the communal and ritualised ingestion of food, we reinforce social bonds and express at the most fundamental level".
So often, home cooking is ingested on the run or after the commute or when we're just too tired to care. Restaurants make us pay attention to the food - but also to each other.
My family didn't actually eat out that much. Perhaps this is why I can remember early restaurant meals with such pomp and exactness. Consider the ham steak at Greymouth's Union Hotel. Pink meat, yellow tinned pineapple, red glace cherry. A tri-colour meal of such monumental unnaturalness it was like eating a dream or a video by Duran Duran.
"Would you like to go out for dinner?"
At Revington's I ordered crepes and so did he. When they arrived, he asked, "Why did they bring me a pancake?" We learn about food much faster now. The modern, middle-class kid doesn't have a favourite restaurant but they do have a favourite noodle house or sushi joint.
In 1825, the so-called father of gastronomy, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin described restaurants as "the finishing touches to the history of cooking". Stuck at home, I put a strip of pork belly in the oven and a frying pan on the stove. Butter and onions sweat slowly. Little crescent moons of apple swell and collapse. Some cabbage. Some wholegrain mustard. A glug of cream. A distracting group text from friends. Photos of a new puppy, cravings for a proper flat white and what are we all having for dinner anyway?
I run to the kitchen. The cabbage is manilla folder brown; thick gloopy bubbles are gaining speed. I scrape and stir. A frantic competition between cook and chemistry. More cream. Even more cream. It is camera-finish close to burnt and contains more dairy than a cow. It tastes like the most restaurant thing I have ever made. It tastes like danger.
Every night, restaurant chefs take food to the edge. They break the rules, push boundaries. They do it over and over again, on purpose, for our pleasure. I miss their bravery. I miss their hospitality. I miss restaurants.