London’s Indian restaurant scene is pretty damn good, from street food fare to trusted neighbourhood locals and fine-dining establishments, but no one does it better than Benares.
The multi-award-winning restaurant in Mayfair has become one of the best-loved for Indian cuisine in the capital, and we were lucky enough to sit down with the man behind the food, Sameer Taneja, Executive Chef at the restaurant, to find out how lockdown was for him, how the restaurant coped in such uncertain times and why the future is looking bright for Benares.
How has lockdown been for you personally?
This deadly virus has turned the world upside down. It has been terrible for so many people and so many businesses, but lockdown gave me the opportunity to spend some quality time with my family and kids, which has been a wonderful thing in such a difficult time.
The hospitality industry has been hit really hard. How have you coped?
It has been hard for us but we have tried to stay positive and hopeful. As soon as lockdown was announced we looked at alternative ways to keep the restaurant operating and to meet demand from our regular clients, quickly launching our home delivery service, [email protected]. As well as feeding customers, we also wanted to find a way to support all the amazing NHS workers and Emergency Services working tirelessly on the frontline, so we started an initiative driven by our owner, where with every order we received, we donated a freshly cooked, hot Indian meal to these key workers in our local area. Over the three months of lockdown, we have donated 10,000 meals, which is an incredible achievement for the whole team and all our customers.
Professionally, lockdown was devastating but personally it was a time to do things for myself and with my family. I have never had an opportunity or time like this before.
Has it affected the way the restaurant will run in the future?
It definitely has in the short term but only time will tell for the long term. The capacity of the restaurant and number of diners we can welcome into the restaurant has reduced in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines, but we are looking to continue [email protected] to make up for the lost revenue.
What changes have you had to make?
Our entire operation has been reviewed and restricted to follow government guidelines. Just some of the changes we’ve had to make include shortening our menu in order to operate with fewer staff in the kitchen at any one time, having menus which are accessed electronically via QR codes, introducing face coverings for staff, and implementing an enhanced cleaning regime.
How are you adapting to the new social distancing measures at the restaurant?
We are very lucky to have a large dining room, including four private dining rooms, which allows us to meet the measures and ensure customers feel safe whilst dining with us. We’ve changed the layout of the restaurant to allow for physical distance between guests and partition screens have been added between tables.
What did lockdown look like for you?
Professionally, it was devastating, but personally it was a time to do things for myself and with my family. I have never had the opportunity or time like this before.
Who did you isolate with and how did you find it?
With my family, it was the best time in the world. My kids finally got to spend lots of time with their daddy and we did plenty of cooking together, had lots of laughs and lots of fun.
What will you look back on with fond memories?
Having this time to bond with my kids, and their smiles to wake up to.
And the most challenging?
Not knowing what’s coming next and having to live day-to-day waiting for the government to announce new rules and make new plans.
Have you enjoyed more time at home?
Oh yes, the little extra time I got was simply beautiful, though as the restaurant was open for deliveries and to feed the NHS, I still had to be at work.
How are you staying calm? Have you managed to have any me-time that you don’t usually?
I worked on my inner engineering at home with sessions lead by Indian author Sadhguru, which is all about enhancing your mental clarity, emotional balance and wellbeing. My me-time = kids’ time! Nothing gives me more pleasure than spending time with them. I’ve also had more time to read books, watch TV and enjoy long walks in the woods.
Let’s talk food. What have you been cooking?
Simple home cooking and a bit of baking. A rule from Mrs Taneja was that everyone, including the kids, had to participate in cooking meals.
Best thing you ate during lockdown?
Everything was good as we ate it together. We tried to make few fermented drinks, which was interesting and a good learning experience.
What kept you entertained?
It felt like the whole world was cooking during lockdown and social media was full of cookery shows and demos. I wasn’t regularly watching one in particular but I watched plenty of different shows. The only thing I was listening to regularly was Sadhguru, which fed my soul.
How did you spend the weekends in isolation?
I had six weekends in lockdown, and each one called for a special treat. Meeting with family and friends on Zoom was always fun too.
What will you take away from the lockdown experience?
— Always be prepared for the worst and gather strength to face it.
— Keep and spread positivity.
— Respect the life you have, as it is the most beautiful thing God has created.
What are you most looking forward to once we come out the other side?
A bit of normality.
What’s next for Benares?
The restaurant is now open and taking bookings which is great news! We took a short pause with our [email protected] deliveries while we focuses on reopening the restaurant, and will be resuming this service on Saturday 18th July.
Benares, 12a Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London W1J 6BS