Covid-19 times – reflections with Talib Hudda

Canadian born Talib Hudda is one of those young chefs who travelled the world learning the secrets of cuisine from some of the world’s greatest chefs. He has then settled in China and he was just about to open his first own restaurant, called Refer, in Beijing when coronavirus broke out.

How did your city change because of coronavirus? 

The city changed in a way I have never seen before (ever), an immediate shutdown of travel and public spaces. Masks on (normal for Beijing when the pollution was bad 3 years ago), so I would say that Beijing changed by the measures taken – which were fast and direct, and made it all the better to contain something so elusive. The city became deserted and everyone took the precautions to stay home and avoid traveling during a very important time of year, not easy when it’s a time to be with family.

The worst thing about it was that the businesses here took a strong hit. Those already seeing financials fails prior to Chinese New Year were faced with options (the same as abroad) to cut staff and/or let them go or close their business after years of operations. There are businesses here with serval chains and independently run restaurants that see huge cost of labour- taking that hit to make sure that they still pay their staff and the sacrifice to help their employees in this hard time.

A good turning point to all this are the questions that developed and attributed to a new consciousness I believe. The question of “where does my food come from and how is it handled?” I think people started cooking at home more and became aware of the products they buy – as well as getting in the kitchen or bond over cooking at home and sharing a meal is a delightful cherry on top during social distancing. So many people are exercising at home and reading books, catching up on things they probably never did before.

What was your first thought when coronavirus appeared and what do you think now?

First thought was “ what is this and where does it come from?” I’ve never been to Wuhan so I was wondering how close am I to this. I remember a bit of SARS as a child as well as the mad cow disease and how it affected people’s metal state (less social media back then). My first concern was how crazy are people going to react to this… I think now (maybe more than ever) how social media became a platform to help keep heads on with positive stories and allow for mental relief.  Negatively, it’s how much of a detriment it can be to mental health by causing concern over false information. I strongly feel for many things and in this case particularly “if you’re not part of the solution you become part of a problem” in today’s civilisation it’s too easy to get confused which wagon to hop on too.

You were just about to open a restaurant…

It’s been hard these last months. I was set to open my new restaurant in a very affluent area of Beijing called Sanlitun. The area called North Taikooli which is lively and normally flush with crowds young and old. It has an overall nice atmosphere and fun things to do.

My days were planned (overly in this case) for a May opening. Things were set and plans were made. Since the shutdown didn’t happen yet (around January) I planned on developing the whole menu including recipe testing, confirming business plans as well as my whole year essentially.

A simple route was made of going to the market then to the test kitchen and lastly to check construction daily – balanced while developing an app, adjusting budget plans and insuring sponsors and suppliers were on track with shipments. That all got put under a slow-motion camera essentially where instead of being frustrated about deadlines – becoming overwhelmed with whether I am still going to open a project I’ve spent years on, traveled and made relationships for (with artists and craftspeople ) all to bring to Beijing. Now not knowing will my next pay-check come (it is a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time.)

This is a hard time for all working in hospitality – also for the suppliers of restaurants, farmers, those who offer services to the restaurants. What should we do to support each other and survive also economically?

It is all about the next step, we live in the age of refinement- why can’t we think of technological advances in farming to not only help grow and build up local suppliers and beat larger brands, value brand prices for better quality and also help the local economy simultaneously. It’s a big step but for the greater good. Also, for me, I have been looking for the better products that are usually grown and sourced locally – the only way to be a better chef is to have better products so my goal is always finding the moral path of what I put on the plate and what I eat. if its local sometimes it’s better than overseas.

What are you doing to stay positive?

I’m testing, I do what makes me happy which is cooking and creating. Those are the two disciplines I have been taught and that keep me self-motivated.

How do you see life after coronavirus?

Im honestly a little financially skeptical as any restaurant owner. But I don’t think it should a be a deterrent for the future. I do see a bit of a slow start which is accepted, I know my goals this year will be adjusted. I only hope that after the coronavirus will be over people will become a bit more self-conscious to what joys there are in life.

This time “at home” is also a time for reflections. Do you think it will create some change in how we work and live our future?

I think people will be more aware of what steps are needed to live better. But I’m not sure if its definite. Human nature is a sucker for repeating mistakes. Only thing we can do is shed light on it and hope we make our future better. It could be small steps or dramatic leaps.  it all depends on your outlook personally.

What would be your personal message for your colleagues and other hospitality people around the world?

I’d say take this time to reflect- what can be done better to improve the future of the industry for the betterment of local economy and how can we be better people for the betterment of mankind.

Andreja Lajh


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