When the coronavirus hit Italy, chef Massimo Bottura had to temporarily close his restaurants, which include the three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena, as part of the government-orchestrated lockdown. Like everyone else, Bottura and his family were suddenly confined to their home, only able to venture outside to buy groceries or for emergencies.
Bottura explained that his daughter Alexa came up with the idea of filming him cook and sharing it with his Instagram followers as part of an unfiltered cooking show they have named Kitchen Quarantine. “I didn’t even know Instagram TV existed,” Bottura said, “but Alexa told me not to worry and she did it.”
The nightly demonstrations have proven hugely popular, with hundreds of thousands of people tuning in starting at 20:00 (CET) to watch Bottura, one of the world’s leading chefs, conjure up dinner for his family. “Despite the loneliness and being isolated in our homes, we can connect and talk to people all over the world,” he explained. “This is something very special.”
Bottura and his family have already spent three weeks in lockdown and likely have many more to come. All over the world, people affected by the coronavirus pandemic are turning to the internet and finding food-related ways to navigate this new territory together.
In Vancouver, Canada, Lee-Ann Strelzow and her husband Tony Strelzow started organising recipe challenges as a way to unite her family, spread across parts of the United States and Europe. A couple of times a week, they compete to see who can make the best-looking version of the same dish, by sending one another photos or video testimonials of the finished product. The winner has the honour of picking the recipe for the next challenge.
Strelzow explained that the recipe has to consist of basic ingredients like eggs, milk and flour, and can’t be too complicated. “You’re not going to have my parents do filet mignon, nor are you going to be able to find it at the moment,” she said. Breakfast foods seem to be a popular option so far.
Although physically distant, Strelzow describes how the challenges have brought her family closer during this difficult period, as they are messaging one another far more frequently as a result. She said it has also given her something exciting to look forward to while stuck at home. “It’s pretty boring staring at my husband all day,” she joked.
Also bringing people together virtually is Milan-based Fabio Attanasio, who was forced by the current events to move his birthday celebrations online. For the occasion, he invited 40 of his friends to a cocktail party on Zoom, and his girlfriend made him a cake with candles that he blew out in front of his computer screen. He said one guest cheekily asked him how much he had saved by moving the drinks online and whether it was the reason he invited so many people.
Having not left their apartment in 20 days, Attanasio and his girlfriend have also started to enjoy dinner dates with their friends. They recently FaceTimed two other couples after all agreeing to make the same meal of meatballs with vegetables. He said that by cooking the same dish, they were able to break the ice more easily at the beginning and that from there on it just felt like any other meal. “In some ways it was even better than a normal dinner,” he said. “You don’t have that awkward moment at the end where you are in someone else’s house and you want to leave, and they want you to leave.”
Many stuck at home during the pandemic are using the situation as an opportunity to spend more time in the kitchen. Vicky Bennison, who started the popular YouTube channel Pasta Grannies, showcasing Italian nonnas making traditional pastas, said that recently a lot more people have been sending her photos of their creations. She has also noticed parents using pasta-making as a fun activity to do with their homebound children, with pici, which she likens to plasticine snakes, appearing to be a popular pasta choice for the occasion.
Bennison said that her YouTube channel, with almost half a million subscribers, has also seen a spike in activity. She described how newly uploaded videos have recently been receiving twice as many views, which she partly attributes to the nature of the content.
“Grandmothers are very comforting in times of anxiety,” she said.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Jeremiah Tan is also turning to his 85-year-old grandmother for inspiration. Tan recently convinced her to type up her secret recipes, many of which had been passed down to her from her own grandmother. “I don’t mean to be biased,” he said, “but my grandmother’s cooking is the best.”
Tan said that prior to the lockdown he would cook twice a year at most, but has so far spent every day of home confinement in the kitchen and is enjoying making meals for his parents and siblings. Now that he has honed his skills with online recipes, he is planning on tackling his grandmother’s stack.
The first one he wants to attempt is chicken chop, a Malaysian dish consisting of fried chicken, fried potatoes and a sauce Tan describes as “fantastic”. He first just has to recalculate the quantities, as his grandmother’s recipes could feed about 100 people. “For the chicken chop, I have to leave out 20 chickens!” he said.
While Bottura already spent a lot of time in the kitchen prior to the pandemic, he says that the extra free time has resulted in him cooking things he hasn’t made in decades. “Like yesterday night I was making patate duchessa (Duchess potatoes), something I haven’t made since 1986,” he said.
Bottura describes Kitchen Quarantine as a positive idea to have come out of a negative situation and suggests that it will be around for a longer time as a result of its popularity. “In such a heavy period, we need a little lightness,” he said.
But for some like Carie Wan, who lives in Guangzhou, China, lockdown has ended and life is slowly going back to normal, albeit a new normal. Wan was recently able to dine in a restaurant for the first time in more than six weeks, an occasion she shared with her 97-year-old grandfather and his caregiver.
In order to be able to sit inside the dim sum restaurant, they first had to have their temperatures checked and fill out a form with their temperature reading, name and passport id, and check whether they had recently visited the Wuhan area. Wan says that the past months have given her a new appreciation for dining in a restaurant.
“It felt so nice to finally be able to go out and eat and do something normal,” she said.