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The rise of Michelin-starred Bethnal Green Da Terra restaurant halted by Covid-19

Since only opening a year-and-a-half ago, Bethnal Green restaurant Da Terra has been making a name for itself in the British restaurant scene. After winning its first Michelin star back in October – the only restaurant east of Shoreditch to possess one – Da Terra seemed poised to cement its name on a national level after being shortlisted for GQ’s 2020 Food and Drink Awards earlier this year, in the Best Breakthrough category. And then, Covid-19 hit.

‘It was amazing when we got shortlisted,’ says Rafael Cagali, Executive Chef and co-owner of Da Terra. 

‘Because at the beginning it took a while to make a name for ourselves, to be recognised,’ he explains.

‘Then we finally got the star in October and that was incredible; we were getting busier and we were getting a good mixture of local and tourist diners.’

After earning praise in titles like the Telegraph and The Nudge, they earned a place on the GQ shortlist earlier this year alongside other internationally renowned names like Sketch and Connaught Bar. And then, Covid-19 hit.

Da Terra is one of the many examples of the local restaurateurs in this area whose upward trajectories have been disrupted by coronavirus.

‘Throughout March, as the virus started spreading, we started seeing more and more cancellations,’ says Cagali. We were open until the government ordered us to close on March 20.’ 

But whereas many of our other local restaurants and cafes have deftly adapted their services to suit the lockdown restrictions offering only takeaway or delivery – this flexibility is not an option afforded to fine dining restaurants such as Da Terra. 

‘We didn’t have any plans to do delivery or takeaway. Our business model wasn’t made for delivery or anything like that – we only have one menu that changes so doing deliveries or takeaway or anything like that wouldn’t work for us.’ 

In the meantime, Cagali says his fellow fine-dining chefs who cannot operate their businesses are making the most of their time off by volunteering, or building their profile online by sharing recipes

‘Doing recipes online can be a good way of building up your profile and getting some publicity while your restaurant is closed.’ 

Cagali himself is making the best of the situation, and is taking this time off to relax at his home in Essex. But even as we ease lockdown restrictions and businesses are on the cusp of  opening up, the worries of restaurateurs aren’t over, thanks to the likely future of food and drink businesses having to follow social distancing guidelines. 

‘It’s a small restaurant, so we have to find a business model that is sustainable,’ he says, referring to the likelihood of guidelines on limiting the number of tables. 

So does this mean we might see more fine-dining restaurants offering more delivery or collection services? Cagali is sceptical.

‘That would mean coming up with a whole new menu, and we have to find a way of making it financially sustainable. At the moment our food sources and deliveries – they aren’t catered to that.’

Facing down the barrel of social distancing guidelines in the near future, other fine-dining restaurants around the country have already started changing how they operate in the near future, offering ‘private party’ bookings, where the whole restaurant is rented out for one group, or even offering drive through and collection-only services. 

Facing an uncertain future, Cagali and his team may have no choice but to innovate – something no doubt, they have done before as a young establishment bursting onto the restaurant scene and claiming the East End’s only Michelin star. 

If you liked this article, you might like to read more about Da Terra, the only local restaurant with a Michelin star.

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