Life has changed beyond all recognition. The world hasn’t stopped but it’s certainly slowed in a way I would never have imagined eight weeks ago. This is week seven of lockdown, seven weeks since I touched another person, ate in a restaurant, ordered a round at a bar, used public transportation. I should have been to Dublin, Copenhagen, New York and New Orleans, weep. I don’t expect I’ll travel abroad for a long time. I really hope I can get up the road to see my family soon, that is the furthest I need to travel this year.
I desperately miss restaurants. I always knew I loved them but just how much is astounding. I miss the noise, I miss sitting at a different table, I miss having questions about the menu and struggling to choose what to eat. I miss speaking to lovely people who love what they do, who understand how hospitality touches people in a magical way. I miss someone else doing the dishes, so many fucking dishes.
So, while things are pretty shit, I want to talk about something that isn’t. These days the smallest things can make a huge difference to our mood. Everything is amplified, good and bad, so it’s more important now than ever not to be a dick.
Pidgin, a small Asian influenced restaurant, just past the glorious green expanse that is London fields, had been on my list, a never ending, unyielding, always being added to list, of places to eat, for such a long time and yet I never made it there.
When, one by one, all the restaurants shut, I wept and while weeping, I felt guilt, terrible guilt that I should be upset because I was a voyeur to it all. I wanted to support the industry where I could and on seeing Pidgin start doing a three course set menu for take away, I was delighted. Finally, I’d be able to eat there. Well sort of.
My first week, I ordered for a Friday night, a good way to mark the end of the week and celebrate the weekend. Originally, I would run there but, recently, I’ve stopped as Broadway Market is too busy to navigate and runners are the new pariah.
Now I savour each step of the walk, through a silent Columbia Road, past Hackney City Farm devoid of all animal sounds, to the relative throng of Broadway Market, before the vast expanse of London Fields and then one final street of Victorian Houses before I reach my destination.
Originally, the menu changed every week. Now, after seven weeks of lockdown, menus change every two weeks. There are 300 meals and getting one is akin to getting a seat at Noma. And to me, this means more than a seat at Noma, so much more. A hundred meals are released at 1pm ish on Sunday, sometimes with a cryptic clue, sometimes not, the remainder at 9pm. I have two alarms set on my phone now to ensure I don’t miss out. I have twice interrupted a date to make sure I do not miss out.
What made Pidgin somewhat of an enigma in the industry was its weekly changing menu. Changing not just one dish or swapping out an ingredient but the entire thing every week. They offered a set four course meal at lunch and at dinner and I very much hope to sit one day in one of those 28, (or 14 if social distancing remains) seats and have Laura explain the menu to me. To have each dish placed in front of me with a quiet pride, to be offered a wine pairing, to have the plates cleared, never to be seen by me again.
Over the past seven weeks, dishes have included,cold smoked mackerel, charred asparagus, napa cabbage, treviso, yuzu kosho buttermilk dressing, black lime and sunflower seed togarashi, followed by crispy fried pork pavé, thai style waldorf salad, tom yum emulsion, potato gratin and finished off with fermented black bean and sour cherry, sticky toffee pudding, jerusalem artichoke caramel, hazelnut, Galliano creme fraiche.
Meals require some heating and finishing at home. Generally, the starter and dessert are ready to go. I plate each dish with something bordering on obsession. This week I sought out the menu before leaving to collect it, so I could think about how to plate it. I have considered buying new dishes to change things up!
When I started going to Pidgin, it was to support a local business and to have one night off from cooking, it has become so, so much more. My weekly trips nourish my soul, lifting that brown paper bag with my name clipped to the side, truly lifts my heart. It marks the end of another week, of making it through, of keeping going. When Chef Mike humoured me by complimenting my plating and I was crowned plating champion of the week after my first pick up, I felt like my lockdown peak had definitely come too soon. When Laura knew my name as I stood on the kerb the following week, I felt special, in the way you do when people you like remember you. Laura and I message during the week, I’m as excited to see her as I am to pick up dinner and I’m always excited to pick up dinner.
What Pidgin has become is everything a local restaurant should be; it is a place of love, of belonging, without ever having stepped inside its door, I feel both tremendous excitement and calmness. In a strange way Pidgin has made me feel part of something wonderful. When I stand at the window and Laura and I chat, I really do feel like everything will be ok in the end. At Pidgin I feel like in some small way I have become part of a family. I am made to feel special and I both hope and selfishly don’t that everyone is made to feel as special as I am. And just like a homing pigeon, I will return every other Friday for as long as I can capture one of those all important brown paper bags, filled with good things to eat, and a whole lot of love.