A toast to 46 little food wins from the COVID-19 pandemic

Jill Dupleix
Illustrations by Simon Letch.
Illustrations by Simon Letch. 

Oysters delivered to your door, online tutorials from the world's top chefs, happy hour whenever you choose. The pandemic has been catastrophic for our hospitality sector, but for some players – and many of us – there have been bite-sized upsides to the lockdown. We were forced into our kitchens for way longer than we were used to. We emerged with new skills, fresh loves, and a revitalised appreciation for the humble dishcloth.

1. Chefs on social

Apparently chefs only cook at home if someone's pointing a phone at them. There was a lot of fun stuff, but a favourite was watching Jamie Oliver and his huge band of improbably named children whipping up everything from hand-rolled gnocchi to banana ice-cream.

Illustration by Simon Letch.
Illustration by Simon Letch. 

Without sophisticated production values or expensive stylists, the dishes looked more approachable – read, easier for the rest of us to cook – than ever. (Recipes from Keep Cooking and Carry On.

2. Proper breakfasts

When WFH means commuting is MIA, a better breakfast re-enters the frame. Bye-bye muffin on the way to the train; hello oatmeal, fried eggs and French toast. Cue also a new generation gazing in awe at parents reading actual newspapers at the table.

Pate on croute at Philippe, Melbourne The Age Good Food Guide 2017

Pâté en croûte at Philippe, Melbourne. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

3. The classics are back

Nostalgia for all things pre-pandemic included a reawakened fondness for traditional French cookery. Melbourne's Philippe Restaurant is delivering Quenelles Lyonnaise, a fluffy fish mousse, and pâté en croûte, elaborate layered meats in a pastry crust. Belle!


4. Frenemies for life

Sometimes lockdown felt like we were spending five hours a day wiping the kitchen bench. Every time you turned around, it was covered in crumbs. Kitchen cloths and tea towels might now be our frenemies for life but they're also the quiet soldiers that got us through.

5. Kondo-ing the kitchen

Spending so much time with our own kitchen bits and pieces made us appreciate the best of them (the SolidTeknics skillet, the butter press that turns home-made splodges into neat prisms, anything enamelled). But there was collateral damage. Good riddance, olive-pitter that does nothing but make the second drawer hard to close.

6. Brunch, baby

Oh, the slightly nervous thrill of sitting in a cafe for the first time in two months, ordering bacon you haven't grilled yourself, and eggs you haven't fried yourself.

7. Say cheese

A dairy lobby in France started a fromagissons campaign to encourage people to eat more cheese, on account of sales plummeting and traditional cheesemakers suffering. Happy to help, any time.

Ratatouille on toast.

Ratatouille and soft-boiled egg on toast. Photo: William Meppem

8. Things on toast

There is a land, beyond avocado, beyond baked beans, where no man has gone before. A land where uneaten ratatouille goes on toast, as do leftover pizza toppings and nicoise salad. Plus, blue cheese and honey, kale and mushrooms, ricotta and figs, and, rather spectacularly, last night's shepherd's pie. (Don't knock it 'til you've tried it. With tomato sauce. Here are 20 top toast toppings)

9. Cooking for neighbours

With more people at home, and vulnerabilities to the fore, neighbourliness was a lifeline. The only thing better than leaving soup on a doorstep was finding a pie on the porch. (How to ace food care packages.)

10. Producer love

Several initiatives helped top food producers flip their focus from restaurants to consumers. In Victoria, the #greatduckproject shone a light on Great Ocean Ducks and up-skilled diners on how to cook duck at home. In NSW, oyster growers got together to sell oysters direct to consumers under their East 33 banner (and shipped to Melbourne, too). Given the country's best seafood was no longer going to restaurants or overseas, home cooks were able to get their hands on sashimi-grade tuna, premium scarlet prawns and buttery toothfish.

11. Fancy takeaway

Few did takeaway as joyfully, deliciously and collaboratively as top Sydney chef Josh Niland. His Paddington-based Fish Butchery posted a perfectly pitched menu of sustainable fish dishes online each week, from pink ling potato pie to Petuna ocean trout wellington. Engineered to support small-scale fishing folk and retain a sense of the magic of dining out, while ensuring the pick-up meals survived the commute home, Mr Niland At Home ticked all the (takeaway) boxes.

Koshari (lentils and rice) is a carb party.

Egyptian koshari (lentils and rice) is a carb party. Photo: Anna Kucera

12. A new "It" dish

Koshari is an Egyptian staple, a vegetarian carb-fest with rice, pasta, lentils and chickpeas, topped with fried onions, tomato sauce and chilli relish. Made from inexpensive pantry staples, this new "It" dish has austerity cred as well as being ridiculously comforting and filling. Make it at home or check if it's on the menu at Cairo Takeaway in Sydney or Bar Saracen in Melbourne.

13. Dishwasher gratitude

Every cup, mug and glass in the house has been on high rotation, making the dishwasher the best-loved appliance in the kitchen. Thank god dishwasher tablets didn't go the way of toilet paper.

14. Soy caramel

Eating chef-prepared food at home has been a highlight of isolation, and sometimes the condiments have brought as much joy as the main event. In Melbourne, Sunda chef Khanh Nguyen's soy chilli caramel, to be heated to a ferocious bubble then poured over poach-in-bag barramundi, inspired us to make our own – now and forever more.

Chicken shawarma bake with sweet potato, feta and cranberries. Summer traybake recipes and sheetpan dinners for Good Food, January 2020. Images and recipes by Katrina Meynink. Good Food use only. One tray wonders.

Katrina Meynink's chicken shawarma traybake with sweet potato, feta and cranberries (recipe here). Photo: Katrina Meynink

15. The traybake, rediscovered

We learnt to chuck everything onto a roasting tray, toss with olive oil and bake on high. Pumpkin, onion and sausages. Kale, onions and chickpeas. Chicken, potatoes and tomatoes. Potatoes, potatoes and potatoes – or was that just us?

16. Order from chaos

Who's not coming out of this with the most pristine, beautifully organised, everything-in-its-place kitchen drawers you've ever seen? Instagram, meet Real Life.

17. Nat's What I Reckon

Give thanks to the stand-up comic known as Nat, for his expletive-not-deleted video cooking demonstrations on YouTube, and for giving us a good giggle about what does and does not go into spag bol.

18. Grow your own

Seeds became hot property as gardeners stockpiled, swapping broccoli seeds for kale as supplies disappeared, and the rest of us rediscovered the joy of soil under nails and little green shoots. Had this gone on any longer, there'd have been unlawful seed swaps in shady laneways.

19. Meal planning

In normal times, deciding what to cook meant a desperate web search via phone at the greengrocer while semi-legally parked. In pandemic days, it meant leafing through old cookbooks, negotiating with others present and penning a shopping list for the next expedition. More consultative, better appreciated. (See our weekly meal planners here.)

20. Cooking by day

WFH made cooking part of the work day, integrated between office tasks as seamlessly as ham and cheese between two slices of bread.

21. Getting off the couch

We've been dining at the table again and loving it, complete with candles and conversation. Bonus: soft, slouchy leisure socks are completely acceptable dinner wear.

Jill Dupleix's Chicken noodle soup.
Photography by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Jill Dupleix's chicken noodle soup (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem

22. Good smells

Grilling bacon, roasting lamb, making chicken soup, zesting lemons … This whole thing has been like one long aromatherapy session.

23. Super-helpful supermarkets

They stepped up and they deserve some credit for giving us signage and sanitisers, protecting their staff and providing for the elderly and disadvantaged.

24. Red wine

Substitute white wine if you belong to an alternative religion. See also: wine home delivery.

25. Happy hour at home

Most of us took advantage of the lack of commuting to institute our own happy hour, pouring ourselves an increasingly complex drink that got earlier by the day. Who said you had to wait until 5pm?

Continental Deli Bar Bistro, Newtown. Photo: Hollie Adams Continental Deli's Mar-tinny

Continental Deli's 'Mar-tinny'. Photo: Hollie Adams

26. Pre-batched cocktails

Cute little bottles of booze – deployed responsibly – turned the end of the day into something to dress for, whether it was home-delivered, canned Mar-tinnies from The Continental in Sydney or negronis from Bar Americano in Melbourne. And they're here to stay. As we head back into bars and restaurants, there's a greater emphasis on things pre-packaged and less-handled. It's not the end of the personal touch, just another way of packaging excellence.

27. Freezer love

Thank you, our own personal Antarctica, for our peas, chicken stock, salmon and steady supply of frozen mince. If there's a next time, we'll buy you a freezer cousin to keep in the garage.

28. Smiles in aisles

There was a little retail rage early on, but there was also an odd and welcome sense of community as shoppers two-stepped to stay a trolley-length distance, and graciously insisted that someone else take the last bag of arborio rice.

29. Treats. If not now, when?

We deserve them. Have the chocolate. Finish the ice-cream. Buy more biscuits. We're worth it.

30. Extraordinary bread

Yes, we baked our own sourdough, with varying degrees of success, and every chef with a wood-fired oven turned out beautiful loaves. But one – the rye bread from Cafe Paci in Sydney's Newtown – transcended the rest. Sticky of crust and dark of crumb, it's one of the best things to have come out of the pandemic. So is the sourdough pizza (radicchio, goat's curd and honey, yes please) by ring-in chef John Paul Twomey at Baker Bleu in Melbourne's Caulfield.

31. Cookbooks: the reunion

Dragged out and dusted off (cough, sneeze), they've taken centre stage once again, piled high by the armchair. Welcome back, old friends.

32. Zoom dinner parties

Especially important for those at home alone. Let's just hope you found the "enhance my appearance" filter when hitting the red wine.

33. Tuckshop Fridays

Clever parents cherry-picked the things their kids liked about school and brought them home – like once-a-week "tuckshop" burger treats. But not so much that the kids didn't look forward to going back to school, you understand.

34. On the pulse

We fell in love with beans again – just when we had time to soak them, too.

35. Farm fans

Food security isn't generally top of mind but the pandemic highlighted how important it is to have strong supply chains. Australian farmers are crucial. We don't eat without them. And with Australia growing enough food for 75 million people, many others rely on our produce, too.

36. Waste not

With food availability in sharp focus, we've refused to let vegetables go squelchy in the bottom of the fridge. We've de-mummified stuff in the back of the freezer and approached the pantry with the zeal of explorers.

37. Reducing landfill

Whether it's planet-friendly or not, we haven't loved all the takeaway packaging. Here's to that easing off as dining-in returns.

38. Upskilling

We made our own yoghurt (right), whizzed our own cashew butter, sprouted our chickpeas and grew our own mushrooms. We fermented, pickled and preserved – but what we learnt, most of all, is that we can do anything we set our heart on.

39. A fairer, more balanced restaurant industry

After the wage-theft issues of the past few years, it's been a pleasure to see chefs and restaurateurs step up to acknowledge their own front-line workers – floor staff, kitchen staff, dish-washers, food deliverers – with more respect, support and even meal programs, in both city and regional areas.

40. Tableside action

With communal feasting and share plates on hold as dining out returns, expect restaurateurs to dust off their back room trolleys and wheel them tableside for carving shared roasts, divvying up lasagne and shaking cocktails.

41. Better safe than sorry

As restaurants gear up, we'll learn to love cutlery in cardboard sleeves and the art of putting our own serviettes on our laps. Hygiene also means those public pinch-pots of sea salt and pepper will be MIA, too.

42. Improved diner etiquette

While restaurants tiptoe along a financial precipice, diners will need to front up, spend up, then clear out and go home – and probably acquiesce to a pay upfront, no-refunds business model. No-shows, under-ordering and laptop lingering will be awfully bad form.

43. Fringe benefits what?

Running a restaurant will be perilously difficult for a long time, and there will be more closures along the way. Time, then, for a frank discussion about a couple of perennial thorny issues, namely the fringe benefits tax and penalty rates.

44. The end of the buffet

Frankly, we're calling this a win. Crowds of people handling the same utensils as they breathe over groaning tables of pink prawns, warming trays of roast meats and fountains of chocolate? No, thanks. The buffet will still lurk behind perspex screens, but it won't be self-service, and there won't be any more kiddy paws in the chocolate buttons.

45. Lights on, doors open

It does the heart good to see boxes of produce arriving at the doorsteps of local restaurants again as they re-open; watch people deep in conversation with each other over a glass of wine at tables for two; and dine out with other people in the same room (people you don't know, but with whom you now have so much in common). You don't know what you've got until it's gone.

46. Less-pretentious food

We've missed the warm buzz of dining more than we've missed the squiggle of emulsion topped with an air-dried wisp of sea anemone. Give us deliciousness, hospitality and great produce that is fairly priced for all concerned. We want a genuine connection when we dine out, not a trophy dinner. Here's to all the good times ahead.

This article originally appeared in Good Weekend magazine, for more features visit The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.