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On the Table: Why we need to stick together

As we adjust to the new, socially-distanced normal, we need to stick together in order to stay connected and stave off loneliness, writes Cambridge Cookery MD Tine Roche

Tine Roche, Managing Director of Cambridge Cookery - credit Richard Marsham (39790035)
Tine Roche, Managing Director of Cambridge Cookery - credit Richard Marsham (39790035)

Come on, come on, let’s stick together. . . so sang Bryan Ferry and so say I. The past six months have deprived us of so much human contact, with a devastating impact on mental health. In isolation, we seem to have become wary of others, not just expressed through taking wide berths when we pass in the street, but most notably on social media.

Facebook and Twitter were being criticised even before the pandemic, during which they have become platforms for polarisation, dogma and ousting. When we don’t have a chance to calibrate our views via daily interaction with friends and colleagues, whose views might make us moderate or change our own, it appears that we grow suspicious and hostile to others.

For the hospitality industry, the effects of the lockdown have been devastating. We operate with notoriously modest profit margins, in particular in the independent, high-quality sector. Whether we are restaurants, cafés, bakeries, bars or organisers of events, we know that the food is only one aspect of why we attract customers, and also why we love our work. Just as important is ambience, offering a place where people feel happy, safe and looked after. It is the withdrawal of the latter which is so utterly devastating not just for the businesses, but for our customers.

Most of us go out not merely for the meal or drink per se, but for the joyous experience of being with others in a warm and happy environment. It is a big part of working life too. Going out for a drink after work, playing sports together or sharing a team-building activity are all vital parts of working life. It serves as a glue in the world of work, helping cement loyalty to one’s employer and to one’s team. Deprived of that, relegated to a solitary working day in front of the computer, the attachment and sense of loyalty start to dissolve.

I have heard the same sentiment expressed many times over the past months - feelings of isolation, of being reduced to delivering work in a robotic fashion, of desperately craving collegial interaction. While some will have welcomed the opportunity to work from home, a great many people have not.

I suspect many organisations are looking at the costs of un-coupling employees from their workplace. Detached from the physical environment, it appears that employees quickly lose the sense of being part of the corporate ethos, of being “on brand’, if you like.

I think teams will be in acute need of re-coupling in real life, not just on Zoom. We have run team events for more than 10 years, and at the completion of every single event, we receive glowing, even euphoric, feedback. Cooking and eating together creates a fantastically happy shared experience, weaving the threads that create the fabric which makes a successful team. Now, more than ever, it is vital that employers bring their teams together, not on Zoom, but physically.

If there is one thing that has had a huge surge during lockdown, it’s home cooking and baking. I am not surprised as the act of preparing food is about so much more than the mere goal of arriving at something edible. When we cook, we feel safe. Manual activities, preferably a bit repetitive, bring a sense of calm. It is a classic expression of mindfulness: when we engage in an activity which requires some, but not intense, focus, we allow the brain to wander and roam, resulting in a sense of wellbeing and contentment.

Granted, it may not have felt quite like that every evening during lockdown, when cooking a family meal after yet another day stuck at home, juggling work, home schooling and frayed family nerves all at the same time. Or when cooking alone, for one, deprived of the company of others around the table. But in the right context, cooking and eating with others is therapeutic and joyous.

Since opening the cookery school to both classes and team events in 2008, I have been on a steadfast mission to spread the love of real food, of cooking from scratch, in defiance of most of the food fads that I have been asked to accommodate or adjust to over the past 12 years. We have a stronger focus on plant-based food than when we first started, but other than that, we stick to the same classic format of sharing our knowledge and love of locally sourced, seasonal, organic produce and preparing it without pretence, just with lots of love.

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