[Post-Covid-19 New Normal] How the coronavirus led to the rise of the at-home-chef

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[Post-Covid-19 New Normal] How the coronavirus led to the rise of the at-home-chef

Chefs at Alla Prima wear masks as they cook, a practice which started after the outbreak of the coronavirus. [LEE SUN-MIN]

Chefs at Alla Prima wear masks as they cook, a practice which started after the outbreak of the coronavirus. [LEE SUN-MIN]

The coronavirus pandemic has put restrictions on many aspects of peoples’ everyday lives, and while many have embraced working from home and found solace using video conferencing services like Zoom, one area that it seems people are not willing to compromise on is food.
With many stuck working at home or taking their classes online, what was once taken as a daily essential has now become an opportunity to break up the monotony of a day indoors.

Ready-to-cook tteokbokki, or spicy rice cakes, from Miro Sikdang in Seoul. [SG DINE HILL]

Ready-to-cook tteokbokki, or spicy rice cakes, from Miro Sikdang in Seoul. [SG DINE HILL]

Simple home meal replacement, or HMR, kits are no longer cutting it, and people are looking to their favorite restaurants to up their delivery game, or if they didn’t have such services before, to start.
When it comes to actually dining out, diners seem to be more comfortable visiting their favorite spots rather than trying somewhere new, or alternatively, are looking for restaurants that offer social-distance dining or limit the amount of customers they take at a time.
“When it comes to catering to local diners in the time of the coronavirus, it seems like restaurants that already had regular customers have become even more popular with their fan bases,” said chef Yim Jung-sik of Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant Jungsik, who plans to open a new more casual restaurant next month inside a small hotel in Garosu-gil, southern Seoul, that serves Vietnamese inside.
He added that it’s the franchised and smaller restaurants that haven’t been able to develop their own brand that are struggling the most amid the pandemic.
Before people began venturing out to their favorite restaurants again, a new trend in delivery and takeout items became evident.
When cases of Covid-19 first began to surge in Korea, people stocked up on the daily necessities and basic items that could last a few months.
However, when it became apparent that the situation would last longer than anyone expected, a demand for more carefully curated packages that offered restaurant-style fare began to grow.
Wicked Wife, a restaurant and wine shop in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, began creating custom packages to cater to the needs of customers practicing social distancing.
Leigh Young-ji, the owner, started putting together Netflix Pairing and Picnic Pairing sets through food delivery app Baedal Minjok to directly appeal to both the people staying at home watching TV or those trying to get out in nature for a break from their homes.
There are different options for picnic sets including one with canned wine, potato salad and olives for a filling picnic or a bottle of wine that comes with truffle potato chips, the perfect accompaniment to munch on while binging on your favorite Netflix series.  
Picnic Pairing set offered by Wicked Wife, a restaurant and wine shop in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. [WICKED WIFE]

Picnic Pairing set offered by Wicked Wife, a restaurant and wine shop in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. [WICKED WIFE]

“I thought coming with an easily understandable and functional sets would be much more successful than offering consumers creative dishes," said Leigh, adding that she was inspired to come up with the service after seeing many other stores in her neighborhood struggle or shut down.
“With people’s desire to simultaneously get what they want, wherever they are, and get the best item delivered to their homes for convenience, the future of the dining scene will greatly involve the most advanced version of live commerce as well as subscription services.”
With the delivery industry booming, talks have turned to authorizing the delivery of alcohol.
Currently in Korea, the delivery of wine purchased from a retail store is forbidden with the exception of a select few items like traditional Korean liquors such as makgeolli, or Korean rice wine.
It is also possible to order alcohol from a restaurant when you order food, but the total price of the alcohol cannot exceed the total price of the food.
Many are calling for that limit to be eliminated to allow for the delivery of wine and other alcohol from specialty stores.  
Adapting to make new habits and new communities
For many home cooks and those that enjoy spending time in their kitchens trying new recipes, the coronavirus has offered an opportunity to try new recipes and improve their skills.
In addition, the wider reliance on delivery services has seen an opportunity for farmers to have their produce delivered fresh to the doors of consumers.
There has also been a recent trend of professional chefs working with farmers to plant more exotic items rarely seen in Korea, leading to an increase in the number of smaller-sized farms to supply these restaurants.
Lee Yoon-kyung, who frequents restaurants but also enjoys cooking at home, was one of the first customers to receive home deliveries of fresh produce from a service that assembles packages offering a variety of items, including Jaranda Farm.
She is also an avid supporter of local farm Junhyuk’s, run by farmer Lee Jang-uk, and gets up-to-date information about whenever a package of fresh produce becomes available.
Lee Jang-uk tries to communicate actively with consumers to hear what they want and figure out what demand is out there so he knows what to plant for the coming year. He even invited a chef at a well-known restaurant to be part of the group chat on a messaging service application so that the home cooks could get tips on how to advance their skills and improve their dishes.
“There wasn’t as much desire for exotic ingredients that are not so widely available to individual consumers before, but after talking with chefs often and closely, I started to grow more affection for the produce I get in each package, and look up recipes to best utilize the items I get,” said Lee Yoon-kyung, explaining that she also closely examines all the ingredients she receives to give the farmers feedback about how to better pack fragile produce for safe delivery.
Although the amount of times she dines out a month has decreased, she says she still feels connected to her fellow foodies who love to eat and cook thanks to social media, which offers a chance for her to see what others are enjoying for their daily meals.
“Cooking at home doesn’t necessarily mean having people gathered in one place and eating together,” said Lee. “Posting online about what they’ve eaten that day and talking with people who have the same interests creates a different type of communication.”
With more people spending time at home, chef Lee Ji-won, who runs a cooking class called Salon de Ikkoi, says she’s been getting more business and has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of people inquiring about her classes and their availability.
Existing students share photos of the dishes they learned to make, sparking the interests of their friends and followers.
Home-cooked food. [LEE YOON-KYUNG]

Home-cooked food. [LEE YOON-KYUNG]

The fact there is only a limited number of students, around six per class, also adds a sense of security and safety for those attending, said Lee.
“I think such cooking classes that allow people to not only to learn how to cook but also to mingle with others with similar interests in an intimate setting will continue to be popular,” said Lee, adding that after you’ve learned some simple cooking techniques, meal kits begin to seem relatively pricey.  
Will restaurants disappear?
Will already established restaurants shut their doors? Will new ones open?
Despite the worries, many culinary talents and investors who had plans to open new dining spots before the coronavirus hit, are continuing with their plans — with some adjustments.
Chef Hyun Sang-wook, who used to lead the kitchen at popular Asian fusion restaurant Dotz in central Seoul’s Hannam-dong, is now thinking about opening a new spot, which will serve as both a restaurant and a kitchen for food delivery.
The idea was conceived even before Covid-19 hit, and now with the growing demand for delivery options, he senses more than ever the need for a competitive brand.
The new restaurant and bar is part of a new project called Mkitnice, short for “make it nice,” and is named Jade and Water after its location in Oksu-dong, central Seoul, as ok means Jade and su means water.
“The trends keep on changing,” said Hyun. “You always have to keep an open mind and be ready to make small changes, but that doesn’t mean that the dining scene will drastically change.”
Surviving in the notoriously tough restaurant industry is now more uncertain than ever before and no one can escape, from mom-and-pop kitchens to restaurants opened by foodies or wealthy investors.
But everyone agrees, they need to offer memorable experiences.
“In a way, the ones that were ready to survive in the industry will survive and those who weren’t ready won’t,” said Jason Jun-tak Oh, who’s opening a 〈i style="font-size: inherit;"〉yakitori, or chicken skewers, bar named fOf in Seoul, adding that so far the government has enforced strict lockdowns on restaurants and prevented them from opening like in New York, so there is still room to make a successful business.
“Maybe in a good way in the long run, investors and chefs will think more about what content they are going to fill up the new restaurants with to draw the attention of foodies, and overall standards will only continue to improve.”
BY LEE SUN-MIN   [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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