Left completely to my own culinary devices during Lockdown 1.0, I forlornly accepted that, despite my collection of recipe books that threatens one day to topple and half-kill me, my kitchen routine revolves around the same four or so recipes, two of them featuring pasta bow-ties in some sort of slippery sauce. I may once have been a ferocious screen-grabber of recipes, saved to make “when there’s more time”, but what March-August 2020 taught me was that no amount of languorous house arrest would see me acquiring, scraping and braising my own artichokes, or fashioning a beurre noisette at 6pm, after I’d spent the day waving a Wi-Fi router in the air and mooing like a cow.
Home-delivery restaurant kits weren’t quite a thing back then, and sometimes lockdown dinner was just a handful of dried fruit out of the packet, eaten standing by the sink. Or a large bowl of Nestlé Curiously Cinnamon with oat milk: these vibrant, sunset-coloured, exhilaratingly sweet bullets of carbohydrate with a zippy, maltodextrin kick are an utterly perfect transference of solace and hope directly into the gullet.
Thank heavens, then, that this time around, hundreds of restaurants across the UK have plotted ways to stay in my life. The delivery kit era is here, with names such as Hoppers, Dishoom, Patty & Bun, Padella – in fact, anyone who is anyone in the food world – joining in. Some are offering more of a ready-meal scenario: I’ve already got Indonesian chef Lara Lee’s kit on order for next week, greedily bagsying two, because I want my fridge full for a week with recipes from her book Coconut & Sambal; spiced corn fritters, sweet potato satay, nasi goreng and plenty of tomato sambal. Many other kits, meanwhile, require a little chopping, frying and building to bring out your locked-down soul’s inner René Redzepi.
The Elite Bistros’ boxes, for example, are like an emergency delivery of happiness to anyone who is missing the Sunday pub lunch. I sent my younger brother the braised featherblade of beef, creamed potato and glazed carrot package, bunging in a banana loaf to stack up with candied pecans and clotted cream.
There are Instagram videos to show you the ropes if the instructions are too taxing. Rarely – in fact, never – have I felt so appreciated as a sibling, and heavy hints have already been dropped about Elite Bistros’ “Christmas Day Boxed Off” kits, which chef Gary Usher and the team behind, among others, Sticky Walnut in Chester and Hispi in Didsbury will send out filled with turkey (or stuffed butternut squash) and all the trimmings; it also features potted mackerel with sourdough crisps, a very boozy Christmas pudding with cultured brandy butter and some pistachio fudge.
Back in April, I’ll admit to thinking that most, if not all, of these DIY kits were costly and gimmicky, the final gasps of good restaurants fighting for survival. Why, I grumbled, would anyone want to pay “going out” prices to stay in and build their own bao, say? And could a Smokestak beef brisket bun ever taste the same when you’re eating it in your living room with a row of pants drying on a radiator?
But I’ll eat those words. I now cannot quite imagine the restaurant landscape without them, even when things do get back to “normal”. Brands can these days reach places they’d never previously dreamed of. A week or so back, I spent an evening making Meatliquor’s chilli dogs (vegan dogs are also available) in a remote corner of the Lake District National Park, when, at the best of times, I’d have had to drive 116 miles to Manchester for anything remotely like this sort of high-quality, fancy hotdog loaded with chilli, jalapeños and onion.
The Meatliquor kit – like all the others currently being despatched nationwide – allows us to send the gift of a night out at our favourite restaurants to those who are shielding, or who live miles away from a city, or who have recently had a baby, or who are just gloriously antisocial. It’s a genuinely useful present that sparks joy in even the grouchiest heart and supports an industry that’s on its knees. The £30 hotdogs at-home box contains four large white rolls and five Big Apple beef hotdogs, because they assume you’ll mess one of them up, which made me smile, because I did.
Sure, many of these kits require a modicum of grunt work in the kitchen, but the results are impressive, especially once you’ve daubed French’s American mustard in “a tight zigzag” over your DIY dog. Incidentally, I advise getting some of Meatliquor’s pre-bottled cocktails, too, especially the one called Game Over, because it contains vodka, rum, tequila, triple sec and absinthe, and because I can think of no better way to totter merrily through Lockdown 2.0. The good news is, it’s not game over for restaurants just yet.