Pandemic holds few lessons for European chefs, mostly misery

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

A customer, right, waits to pick up an order at Sergio Herman's Le Pristine restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. Of all the many challenges the pandemic throws up for all kinds of professions, this one has been particularly tough: How to put a three-star chef into a takeout box. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

ANTWERP – Necessity is supposed to be the mother of invention. If that were the case for the high-end restaurant industry, the coronavirus pandemic should have offered ample opportunities for creativity and renewal.

Instead, it is turning into a bitter struggle for survival.

Many a three-star Michelin meal has been put into a takeout box and sent out on Deliveroo scooters, as renowned chefs in Belgium and elsewhere try to scrape through a second pandemic lockdown that is likely to threaten even the lucrative Christmas season.

Sergio Herman, who has run three-star, two-star and many other establishments that have wowed the Michelin powers and the most refined palates around the world, doesn't really see any positives to come out of working against and around the pandemic.

"Sometimes you feel that whatever you built up over the years is slipping like sand through your fingers. It gives you this kind of fear," he told The Associated Press.

Across much of Europe, still the apex of the finest dining in the world, exclusive restaurants have lost the precious appeal of the luxury dining experience — from the moment of taking your coat at the door, to eating several inventive courses with the finest silverware, to basking in sommelier tastings, to savoring the after-dinner sweet and having that little extra chat with the chef.

“All that cannot just be replaced by a box and a plastic tray. That is just impossible," Herman said amid the whirl of his new restaurant, Le Pristine, in the Belgian port of Antwerp, where he mixes the terroir of his native Dutch Zeeland with an Italian approach.

Throughout much of history, religious strictures forced cooks to think outside the box and still produce sterling cuisine despite the limits. Poverty also imposed challenges, and in Italy the creativity to do so much with so little even created its own style — Cucina Povera.