In the kitchen of the four-star Château de Courban hotel in the heart of Burgundy’s vineyards, chef Takashi Kinoshita would normally be preparing the three, five and seven-course gastronomic menus that have earned him a coveted Michelin star. On an ordinary weekend, the restaurant would be fully booked with diners travelling hundreds of miles, including from the UK, to sample Kinoshita’s food.
But this is no ordinary weekend.
With the hotel closed because of the coronavirus crisis, Kinoshita is technically – if temporarily – out of work. So, instead of cooking for his usual guests, he is turning out dishes for the doctors, nurses and staff working round the clock at the nearest main hospital in the eastern French city of Dijon.
On Sunday, the chef will set off in a borrowed refrigerated van to deliver 100 simple three-course meals to hospital staff. “In Japan, if there is a catastrophe the cultural response is to make something to eat, so I’m very happy to be doing this. I was wondering what I could do to help at this time, and cooking for the health workers is a pleasure,” Kinoshita, 40, told the Observer. “Besides, it’s my job. Where else would I be but in my kitchen?”
True, it is not the usual fare of oysters à la japonaise or cerise de l’Yonne and foie gras. For the hungry medics, Takashi – who is cooking while wearing a mask and gloves as well as his chef’s whites – is creating a more hearty repast of quiche with vegetables and trout, mixed salad spring rolls in soft wraps and cream-filled choux pastries.
“We are making what we can using what we have in stock and ingredients donated by local producers who didn’t even think twice before showing their support and solidarity,” he said. “It’s different from creating a gastronomic menu because the health workers need to eat something quick, substantial and balanced.”
France has confirmed more than 35,000 cases of Covid-19, with 2,314 deaths recorded as of Saturday night, up 319 in a day. Of those being treated in hospital, more than 3,700 were in intensive care. A government-ordered lockdown was extended last week for another fortnight, to 15 April – but the prime minister, Édouard Philippe, has warned it could be prolonged again “if the health situation requires”.
Frédéric Vandendriessche, who runs the Château de Courban hotel, says news of the order for all restaurants, bars, cafés and non-essential public places to close came halfway through dinner on 14 March. “The restaurant was full and we didn’t know as we were working. Suddenly we had clients asking if they had to eat up and be out by midnight. It was a terrible shock, like something out of a film,” he said.
Vandendriessche’s father, Pierre, an interior decorator, bought the 19th-century house as a family home in 1998. Twenty-two years on, it now has 24 rooms with showers and slipper baths, a spa and pool.
Like many small and medium-sized businesses in France hit by the lockdown – about to enter its third week – Vandendriessche hopes the government will come good on its “solidarity fund” to guarantee loans and its promise that none will go out of business. The hotel’s 30 low-season staff are on “partial unemployment” with 86% of their salaries covered by the government. Vandendriessche says the hotel is making up the difference plus four hours of overtime staff normally work each week.
“Our priority is to look after the people working for us so they continue working for us when this is over,” he said. “When all this is over we will need everyone to make an effort to boost the economy.
“But we wanted to do more, particularly Takashi; a chef who isn’t working is like a lion in a cage. We looked at the perishable food that we didn’t want to throw away and posted an appeal asking for donations of food. Within two minutes we had the first reply,” he said.
Kinoshita, who grew up in a Tokyo suburb, came to France in 2002 and after working under several illustrious chefs and a spell in the kitchens at the Élysée palace, became master of his own kitchen at the Château de Courban in 2015.
“The élan of solidarity has been incredible,” said Vandendriessche. “When you see the news and you see these people who are on the front line you want to help.
“We are an hour from Dijon hospital and at the moment we can only make 100 meals and deliver them once a week on a Sunday using a refrigerated van loaned by another local person. There are 300 health staff at Dijon hospital. If the lockdown goes on then hopefully every one of them will get a meal.
“It’s not nothing. After all, a Michelin star chef is symbolic of French gastronomy.”