PARIS – While French chef Michel Solignac labored over his hot stoves, his baby son Nicolas would watch him from his playpen in the corner of the kitchen. The now 30-year-old Nicolas grew up with cooking in his genes and, quite naturally, took over the restaurant when his father hung up his apron a few years ago.
The coronavirus has now shattered their world.
“A sledgehammer blow,” Michel Solignac says.
The cash reserves that he squirreled away over decades for a rainy day when the restaurant was thriving have carried the business through this disastrous year. But the little that's left will be gone within six months if Nicolas can't reopen the restaurant and bring back paying customers soon, Solignac says.
“We have to cling on," he says. “His mother and I didn’t build all this just to watch it collapse.”
Wearing his tall white chef’s hat, the 63-year-old retired restauranteur joined a protest Monday in Paris by bosses and workers from France's catering, hotel, event management and other service industries battered by the pandemic year, when the world-famous pleasures they offer have largely been put on hold in the name of curbing infections.
Ranging from mournful wedding organizers and out-of-work cocktail waiters to distraught chefs and anxious hotel directors, the crowd of around 1,000 people pleaded for respite, for more financial aid from the government and, for those forced by the government to close, to be allowed to earn a living again.
Waitress Sandra Barbette said she desperately misses “the sharing, the conviviality” of serving the regulars in her Paris restaurant shuttered like other French eateries and watering holes — except for takeout service — since October. That and other lockdown measures have helped bring down infections, but also have come at great cost to the French way of life.
“Clients have sent me text messages to say, ‘We miss you,’” Barbette says. “I love my job. I miss it so much.”
Restaurant and bar owners who are getting government aid said the payments are merely keeping them on life support, but nothing more. The government has indicated that restaurants and bars might be allowed to reopen from Jan. 20 if infections don't surge again. But the economy minister said Monday that he couldn't guarantee that the date will hold.
While Solignac came to Paris to demonstrate, his son was back at their restaurant in the Correze region of south-central France, preparing takeout dishes.
That lockdown business brings in only a fraction of the money they used to make, but it does help keep their minds off their many worries, Solignac says.
“Psychologically, I don't know how I would react if I was obliged to shut down," he says. “It really would hurt.”