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On the Table: The return of table service is a joy

“It’s difficult to express in words how elated we are. . .” Reopening for table service on its suntrap of a terrace - after almost a year of chairs sitting empty - is joyful for the team at Cambridge Cookery, writes MD Tine Roche

On Wednesday, April 14, I reopened our large terrace, almost to the day 13 months after I emptied our fridges, froze what we could freeze and sent my small and long-standing team home with doggie bags of milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables and everything else that was perishable.

Matt Hancock had declared that, while cafés, bars and restaurants could stay open, people were not allowed to visit. We knew what was coming so we chose to close a week before lockdown was declared.

If I had known then that, but for a few months in late summer and early autumn, the business I first started around my kitchen table 13 years ago would be closed for almost a year, I honestly don’t know what I would have done. I am glad I didn’t know.

I know that owners of tens of thousands of independent businesses up and down the country will have felt what I did. Utter devastation and incredulity that the bustling business I had worked so hard to create was falling silent due to circumstances over which I had absolutely no control.

The happy hustle and bustle, the delicious smells and the laughter in the cookery school - around which everything we do pivots - fell silent. My beautiful, almost 100m sq teaching kitchen where I, and my fantastic team of Leiths and Cordon Bleu trained teaching chefs and bakers, have hosted so many upbeat team events, bid welcome to so many hen parties, taught thousands how to fillet fish, make pasta or create sourdough and where we have encouraged so many children and teens to get into cooking laid empty and echoing, seeming vast without happy people in it.

Many of the children we have taught over the years first came to us when they were in primary school and left a decade later with a certificate enabling them to do a season as a chalet chef, or with a hard earned DofE Gold award. We have hammered in the importance - and joy - of cooking from scratch to generations of Cambridge children, and have had so much wonderful feedback from parents.

We have had some hairy moments, but mostly we have had fun. Fun with children who could not believe that they were instructed to pour flour straight on the table and crack eggs into it to make fresh pasta dough. The mess, the cleaning up, the industrial quantities of flour.

Since early June last year and until a couple of weeks ago, I have kept a small part of the business open, with the help of my amazing front of house manager and barista extraordinaire, Teresa. The two of us have been open to take-outs four days a week, serving the same loyal customers, most of whom have been coming in every day, to take away a coffee, something to have for lunch, a piece of cake for afternoon tea or to order dinner for the weekend.

We have come to know our regulars quite well during this year of loneliness and anxiety. We have talked about working from home while looking after young children, about anxious teenagers, about elderly parents passing away and of the sadness of having a socially distanced funeral. Some of our regulars didn’t go out, apart from their daily walk to us. The comfort taken from these daily exchanges was mutual and so very important to us all.

We are very much a local social hub. Our customers are part of a community. If this year has shown us one thing, it is how vital human contacts are for our wellbeing; in fact, for making life worth living. It’s difficult to express in words how elated we are to yet again be open to table service and to seeing, hearing, smelling and soaking up the vibe of a happy, busy café.

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