“It was devastating,” says chef Jake Finn, who was due to open his first restaurant, Lila, last month. “I had been working tirelessly, endlessly, trying to pull this together. It was an accumulation of my whole career thus far. To get so close, to it just being ripped out of my hands, obviously, I was in a bit of a slump.”
Finn is speaking a month after Lila was due to open in London’s Notting Hill. After 16 years in the industry, rising from an apprenticeship at the Ritz to its sous chef, before working in everything from Mayfair fine dining to street food to managing a high street chain, Finn had finally secured the spot he’d always dreamed of.
Lila was to merge Finn’s passion for Mediterranean food with cooking over charcoal and fire, something he’d grown accustomed to at the likes of Jason Atherton’s Social Eating House and Peruvian restaurant Coya. For obvious reasons, Lila never opened.
By January, with the final negotiations for the site underway, Finn began to notice things slowing down in the restaurant industry. He’d been watching reports from China and, on a trip to a central London restaurant with his girlfriend, decided to wear a mask. “She said ‘you’re nuts’,” Finn recalls. “Now she says it’s incredible I had that foresight.” It wasn’t until early March, however, that the project was officially called off.
“All of a sudden I’m at home doing puzzles on a Monday in the middle of the day,” says Finn. It didn’t take long, however, to get back on the stove. “The short version is, my girlfriend said ‘what the hell are you doing?’” It provided a kick up the back side, and Finn resumed doing the thing he loves: cooking.
On the weekend before the official lockdown, Finn bought some foil trays and started cooking for friends and family. The food was comforting classics such as shredded chicken with sticky caramelised onions, beef lasagne and salmon Provençal, a nod to his Mediterranean influences.
Initially free, on his first day, March 21, Finn delivered to eight people. It quickly snowballed, mostly spread via word of mouth, and two weeks later Finn was cooking for 32 families out of a regular household kitchen. He soon realised he had to charge, otherwise he'd quickly go broke.
Two months on, Finn is delivering within inner London and certain parts of north London and Hertfordshire. Customers order via his website, 36 hours before delivery days on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, everything delivered by himself and one friend.
Pre-ordering allows Finn to prepare from a fairly extensive menu of restaurant-quality fare. Those early dishes are there, alongside confit duck leg with hispi cabbage, aubergine parmigiana or tuna ceviche. Finn now cooks from a pub in north London where he's rented the kitchen, allowing for more space and a wider offering.
Dishes are mostly for four and come with simple instructions, such as 30 minutes in the oven. There is an extensive “BBQ-ready” range, too – pre-marinated salmon, prawns, steaks, ribs.
“The menu was a challenge,” Finn admits. “I didn’t want to do a load of braised meats and stews. It’s about keeping it exciting, really tasty and hassle free for the customer. There’s enough hardship at the moment, so taking the stress out of someone’s day, cooking for a family, means so much to them.”
After we speak, Finn drops off my dinner, a welcome night off, with no pots and pans to scrub, no thought needed. I’m delivered a quinoa vegetable salad, beautifully tender lamb meatballs in tomato sauce, a soy-marinated salmon to cook on the barbecue, and a stunning cheesecake. It is homey fare; I don’t feel as though I’m at a restaurant. But it’s all delicious and, most importantly, allows me to switch off from the overused stove for a night.
Finn has been forced to put his restaurant dream on hold and switch to delivery. In some ways, he feels lucky that he was due to open in April, rather than, say, February, just before the lockdown hit. “I count myself fortunate, it’s better that I didn’t have to open. I would have been horrific. I just feel terrible for all those that have done that. It’s just crippled the industry and destroyed lives.”
Does he still dream of a bustling restaurant, filled with noise, the clinking of wine glasses and the crackle of fire? “It’s going to be really tough, when everything opens, people’s mindsets will have changed, the way people interact with each other will change. Everyone is adapting. But I’d love to, one day.”