Theatrically sanitised restaurant meals, untouched by human hands and wrapped in meters of plastic are our new food fetish. ♦
This story was originally published in The Indian Quarterly.
For as long as humans have recorded images of the world around them, they’ve recorded images of their food and diet. The earliest figurative cave paintings feature animals like bison and deer, which must have looked to paleolithic eyes like tasty, pick-up-only meals. Visual feasts, painted in the tombs and frescoes of the ancient world, continue to be reproduced in art and then photography through the millennia, zooming closer and closer in on the food itself. With every update, our phone cameras and editing apps are more finely tuned to capture the tactile experience of eating: whether via filters that jack up contrast levels to make sauces gleam—approximating the sparkle of perfectly salted food on your taste buds; or via microphones that pick up the grating of a breadknife through crust, the Velcro rip of a cabbage being torn along its core, or the diverse repertoire of masticatory sounds in mukbang videos.
In much of the restaurant world, life was already imitating Instagram. Photo-friendly lighting, décor and dishes constitute a standard aspect of concept design. But since this March, with the doors of restaurants shuttered to customers and kitchens emptied of workers, the visual consumption and digital sharing of food has reached new heights. Through the early parts of the lockdown, a new food trend whipped around the globe almost weekly, creating a virtual community of dalgona coffee drinkers, banana bread bakers, sourdough fermenters, tepache brewers and sowers of focaccia gardens.
Taste is a synaesthetic complex of perceptions. Beyond the tongue and teeth, both the cooking and eating of food involve colour and shape, texture and aroma, and even extra-sensory emotions or memory. Food can be made with love or bitterness. We may eat alone to banish stress or break bread together to forge solidarity. Naturally, our social media feeds are equal parts inspirational candy, FOMO, and—especially in the context of the Indian lockdown—over-seasoned guilt about the hunger of others.
Still, sitting at home and scrolling through images of food stripped of the usual sensory accompaniments of eating was the ultimate tease: look but don’t touch. But as we gingerly emerge into the unlockdown, ordering in or dining out involves a sort of reverse optical illusion. For all the hype about “contactless” dining or “no-touch” delivery, the cardinal rule, as several restaurant people told me, is to make sure it looks like you don’t touch.
This is true of all spheres of life during pandemic time, from the brutal chemical spraying of migrant labourers in Bareilly to the apologetic temperature checks at the one gate that grants entry into an elite Delhi colony. But it especially applies to higher profile restaurants, the kind that already have a social media presence. Roadside dhabas, shawarma shops, idli-dosa outlets and kabab joints are mostly operating with a “this is India” shrug and a facemask looped lazily around an ear. Ahead of the Ram Mandir foundation laying, I saw news photographs of people, some wearing masks, some not, squatting around steel basins to glovelessly roll Desi ghee and Australian gram flour into 1.11 lakh ladoos for the ceremonies. Who cares about safety and hygiene when you’ve got god on your side?
Those of us who worship at temples of gastronomy require more reassurance. For restaurants in the Indian cities worst affected by Covid-19, signalling safety has become a part of daily operations as delivery, fine-dining, and bars open up. This has largely been self-imposed. By August, no one had come around to check anything, a partner in a group of restaurants told me—other than the odd excise inspector with parched revenue streams. In any case, official policies fluctuated wildly and often independent of a scientific findings, across regions and different phases of the pandemic. At one point, there was a rule that bikes could not carry pillion passengers, though doubling up was necessary without public transport, and perfectly safe if riders were already sharing quarantine bubbles. To circumvent this, riders would get off before barricades, walk through, and get back on.
Beyond general lockdown rules, restaurants took the initiative by adapting guidelines copy-pasted by the FSSAI from international recommendations, and a more detailed checklist for “covid-proofing” the industry released by the NRAI in partnership with a Bengaluru tech firm called Releski. Releski also released an update to their hospitality e-learning app to train employees to deal with Covid-proofing in multiple languages.
The technological hack is India’s new jugaad, and news reports and chatter around restaurant re-openings have tended to focus on “innovation” around safety and hygiene. “Every other day I get a call from a vendor about a new product to deal with safety,” the restaurant partner told me. These agents hawk everything from “contactless” or “air” menus, to doorstep sanitising machines that range from a simple dispenser to an entire tunnel, to crockery disinfection units like large-scale versions of UV ovens in nail salons. Disinfectant circulates via air purification units. In the US, robot food start-ups have seized an opportunity to reposition their brands as hygienic, rather than futuristic.
But while the material costs of safety and hygiene are high (some stand-alone restaurant owners counted their initial investment in lakhs, with monthly costs upwards of Rs. 30,000) modifying customer and staff interactions are actually the bigger task. “I think this is a human challenge more than anything,” the co-owner of a central Delhi restaurant told me. “In restaurants your whole environment is built around interacting with your server, the experience is supposed to be warm. With the kind of distance that has to be maintained, that’s hard.”
Around the world, restaurants have come up with analogue methods like distancing hats, wearable tables, bubble or greenhouse dining, dumbwaiters, and teddy bears and mannequins in chairs to ensure social distancing that is also viral-photo-friendly. In Bengaluru, a hotel ran a pop-up restaurant—basically fancy room-service—but most Indian venues are using simpler solutions like plastic dividers, spaced tables, and planters. Contactless ordering is ubiquitous (Zomato gave restaurants six months of free access to its service, and QR-based menus are easy to institute), “but people still ask for a menu, which you’re not technically supposed to have,” the co-owner said. “Every time someone insists, we have to print one out, and then throw it away. Why can’t we just have a laminated one and sanitise it between service?” She added, “No one is checking up on any of this. It’s just in your favour to make sure that the guest feels safe.”
In over three weeks since reopening, only two people had used the contactless option at a restaurant in a residential colony market, one owner told me. While the co-owner of a restaurant in a South Delhi mall observed that “a lot of people say, ‘no, we want a server, we want recommendations and help with the menu.’ Partly it’s wrapped up with the sort of servile culture we anyways have in restaurants. Right now, if you walk into a restaurant, you’ll be treated like a king.” Despite their unpopularity, the rise of virtual menus is pushing restaurants to adapt their offerings to the screen in different ways. “No one is interested in reading five pages,” the restaurant partner told me. “So people have as short a menu as possible, and obviously stress things like immunity, superfoods, and bestsellers up top.”
Inside kitchens too, restaurants are grappling with how best to implement standards that can get in the way of both humane working conditions and good cooking. “Nobody is really talking about the fact that there’s no way you can have social distancing in a kitchen,” the restaurant partner said. Several people pointed out that many anti-Covid measures are already part of ideal best practices: washing hands frequently and in between stages of prep and cooking, disinfecting fresh produce, using gloves while handling meat or salads, keeping nails trimmed short. Other recommended measures are actually dangerous. “There’s sanitizer flowing everywhere,” the chef-owner of a gourmet fast-casual place said. “But not near the grill, that’s a fire hazard.”
She said they had tried “the shoe cover things,” but they barely lasted a few hours in the bustle of the kitchen. As for gloves, the FSSAI’s directive to change gloves between every activity was variously described to me as “vague” and “ridiculous”. “You can’t wear gloves in the kitchen, because the gloves melt very quickly in the heat, and if you touch a hot pan or something, it might catch fire. You’d only wear them when tossing a salad or something, which you do anyway,” one owner pointed out. She added, “We have very strict rules now, like you can’t touch anything. When we’re doing mis, it’s gloves on. If the food is on the pan and if by chance you touched it, or your finger went in it or whatever, it’s going to be binned. It’s constant vigilance… if you touch it, nope, you’re going to have to eat it all.”
Gloves “feel really silly,” the gourmet fast-food owner said, “and I’ve always been against the amount of waste. But friends say no, keep it for now as it makes people feel safe.” She recounted a pre-coronavirus incident where a man messaged her after a take-away order. Observing the staff in the open kitchen “not wearing gloves or any hand protection” had “killed my appetite,” the man wrote. However, he noted, “the food was good.”
Customers are more attuned to hygiene now, increasing the pressure on people doing an already physically-intense job. “You have your mask on and you’re waiting for people to come in but you also don’t want them to walk in unexpectedly,” one owner said, “Because someone will walk in just as you’ve removed your mask to drink water, and you feel so guilty.” When she first opened her restaurant for delivery, “the entire month was really bad, really depressing. We were trying to save electricity so we’d be sitting there for fourteen hours in the dark, waiting for an order…”
Diners also don’t realise that the smoke and humidity inside kitchens make face-shields impossible. “Especially in an oriental kitchen,” the restaurant partner pointed out. “Cooks start sneezing because of the chillies, and then people are looking at them like they might have the virus.” Another chef pointed out that “The climate isn’t something that’s taken into account in such guidelines. Maybe it’s fine if you’re working in a big airconditioned, ventilated kitchen. The mask itself is inhuman, almost cruel, when you consider the Indian environment.”
On their own initiative, some of the more considerate business owners have created sensible rules for their employees, starting from the kitchen but extending to living conditions and transport. “It is not possible to have a mask on for nine-hour shifts,” said the fast-food owner. “So we’ve said to step out, take it off, take a time out. We’re never going to hustle the way we were before this happened. It’s about what we can do.”
Many have tried to ensure that their staff are able to live within a social bubble. During the early-to-middle phase of the lockdown, when people were ostracizing and evicting doctors, one organic shop owner mentioned that he’d had to rent rooms for his staff when their neighbours refused to let them into their buildings after running deliveries. A restaurant with a conveniently nearby guesthouse did the same for all staff who didn’t have their own vehicles. The more responsible owners made sure that no one on duty lived with other people who were going out to work, or with elderly parents.
On top of the uncertainty of how best to work safely in close quarters, there’s a lot of turnover among staff, as many people who left cities for their villages and hometowns in the past few months have not returned. “In the villages there’s a lot of fearmongering about returning to cities,” one restaurant owner told me in August. “They say we’ll come back when things are better, and we say we can’t wait until you come back.” Meanwhile, those who can afford it have put employees on furlough and imposed a quarantine period for anyone returning to work.
But diners are typically less interested in the problems of buying insurance for formal and off-the-rolls staff; or in employees having to sign mandatory declarations that they are working under their own volition. What counts for patrons is the perception of hygiene, communicated via visual cues like sanitiser bottles and masks. As restaurants pivoted to delivery, many of them included notes describing the sanitation measures they had put in place, or how best to sanitise your dinner. Meals came swaddled in plastic and festooned with sachets of sanitizer. Those who could, used their own delivery people rather than app-based services.
The restaurant partner told me he went to a mall to “see what they were doing. You end up sanitising your hands every 15 minutes. You’ve consumed 500 ml of sanitizer by the time you leave.” His restaurants are also sanitised top-to-bottom every 10-15 days – “two people come wearing PPE and disinfect the whole place. Actually, these are more for social media,” he added.
It’s all about managing expectations. While a few restaurants, like Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, and Leo’s in Delhi, announced brief closures due to Covid-positive cases over social media, others have not felt the need. As one owner told me, “At that time, revealing the cases was optically the best thing to do for them. We also had a couple of people who turned out positive during the lockdown, but before we opened. And I know of a few who’ve had cases but not said anything.” Some people told me they tested all their employees before re-opening, but for others it was too big an expense.
A combination of crisis fatigue, media fatigue and palate fatigue means more people are returning to restaurants. Early on, these were mostly loyal patrons with higher incomes. The mall-restaurant owner described them as the type of customer who “is just stuck in the house and wants to get out—they are ideal in that they don’t care too much, but also trust you—they just want to go somewhere they can actually spend money.”
Even so, the restaurant partner told me in August. “Between Covid and the people who are generally OCD, we’ve dealt with a few cranks. People have come in, like, astronaut suits. A woman came in wearing something that looked like a scuba mask. People are very paranoid, they are asking questions like, how is the salad handled. And they’re still mostly ordering 100 percent cooked, hot items.”
Since then it feels more and more like we’re all willing participants in the cursory performance of pandemic protocols. “Our DIY kits are doing really well,” one owner told me. “We send out large orders, for gatherings that maybe people shouldn’t be having.” As we absentmindedly palm dollops of sanitiser, cautiously meet in small groups, and start eating out again we know deep down, as another owner said, “It’s never truly contactless—it can never be—by the end of it we will touch your plate at some point, even if it’s just to bring it out to you.”
Perhaps the Ram Mandir ladoo makers and the corner kabab shop just made peace with that reality first. It would require an ascetic’s will to stick to all the restrictions governments have attempted to impose while following the strictest science around Covid-19. For most of us, participating in something bigger than ourselves—even just exchanging money for food made by someone else’s hands—is more elemental. Call it faith or ignorance, or just doing the best we can. Once in a while, the illusion cracks and the chasm of potential disaster looms. One owner narrated the story of “a British man who looked over his balcony just as the rider took off his helmet, and happened to see his mask falling off. He yelled at the rider, who also got defensive. The customer threatened to tell everyone our delivery was unhygienic”—presumably on social media. “But then, like eight hours later, he called back to say ‘I’m sorry, I was just having a bad day.’”