1 May 2020

How a top Auckland chef is facing the Covid-19 lockdown struggle

From Checkpoint, 5:50 pm on 1 May 2020

Despite several days of queues at takeaway stores across the country, the next few weeks will reveal how many food businesses will actually be able to survive the impacts of Covid-19.

William Chung was "almost" born in the back of a kitchen on Auckland's infamous Karangahape Road - in one of the city's first ever Chinese restaurants. 

It was a busy night in 1983 when his pregnant mother, carrying Chung, noticed her waters had broken in the kitchen of their family-owned Chinese restaurant. 

It's a story Chung, 36, tells fondly - and one that has indirectly steered the course of his life so far. Now owner of two pan-Asian style food eateries, the kitchen is where the trained chef says he feels most at home.

"I was raised in the restaurant, it's in my blood," Chung said.

"My parents opened up a restaurant and they were both working there. I was just sitting in the back there as a little kid, running around, watching them make all the dim sums and cut all the meat and that was my playground growing up."

With two busy parents and four kids - staff were always happy to help babysit.

"When the waitresses had their break they'd play with me. Take me up to Deka, buy some transformers.

"We pretty much hung out under the counter, had our naps there."

They're distant memories now, but ones that he has built his career and businesses on.

After graduating from culinary school and travelling the world working as a chef, he returned home and started his own eatery in Penrose - in a location he described as a "ghost town."

"The car park was like an old Western movie with the tumbleweeds. There were pretty much spiderwebs everywhere in the middle of nowhere.

"We got a good deal there, six months free rent. We went in and just cleaned it up. Painted the place ourselves. Got a loan from my dad which pretty much bought three pieces of equipment and we just went from that."

Five years on, Chung's restaurant - Big Fish Eatery - is now the busiest spot on the street.

Before the alert level 4 lockdown, they were serving a packed house almost every night and due to high demand, he opened another branch in Stonefields last year.

With more than 7000 followers on Facebook and a 4.5 Google rating from over 700 customers - it was a dream come true.

And then Covid-19 hit. On 23 March New Zealand escalated to alert level 3 - and was just over 48 hours away from a nationwide lockdown.

The news came on a Monday, just after William loaded up stock after another busy weekend. 

By midnight on Wednesday - like many other businesses, he closed his doors not knowing when he'd open again.

"I think the hardest thing for a chef is when you see garnish like micro herbs, these beautiful flowers that aren't edible but they make the food look so pretty. When you see those and they're expensive and they'll go off because there's nothing you can do. You can't eat them.

"I tried to give away as much veg as I could to the staff and to my parents before we locked down and I think I was eating curled cucumber for like a whole week for breakfast and lunch."

During lockdown the bills didn't stop. Chung was still paying rent for machines no longer in use and of course, the lease of both properties.

The wage subsidy scheme helped keep staff on the books but as the days disappeared, so did the capital.

"We came back with massive bills and also all the stocks that we had in our freezers, all the veggies that we wasted. Massive bills and just no customers.

"When I looked at the bank account, yeah it freaked me out. So I tried not to look as much because there's nothing you can really do."

The country's arrival at alert level 3 has come with eased restrictions and a week of queues at takeaway stores across the country. 

But the next few weeks will determine how many food businesses will actually be able to survive the impacts of Covid-19.

Chung said it was a relief to be back in business - but it was a balancing act.

There are jobs to juggle and new safety standards changing the way the everyone operates.

Chung split his team of 24 staff across two restaurants into five bubbles.

They are all wearing masks and they have a hand-washing schedule where every 30 minutes everyone has to stop and wash their hands.

On top of the pandemic, Chung's family is going through their own health crisis and he cannot take any risks.

"My son got diagnosed with leukaemia in February so and we've just been going through treatment, he's been on chemo and his immune system's really low.

"So basically, we have to make sure that I'm safe and that I'm not bringing anything home and that everyone here is safe and that we keep our work bubble."

More government support

In eight weeks, the government wage subsidy scheme will run out. 

On Friday, the government announced the Small Business Cashflow Loan Scheme, available to businesses employing 50 or fewer full time employees. 

The scheme will provide $10,000 to every business and in addition $1800 per equivalent full time employee.

It was welcome news for Chung, who said he was trying to keep all his staff employed.

"Everyone's job is on the line. We're just trying our best to keep it going and keep everyone happy. We may not be able to open both restaurants when we go to level 2 just because people are probably still scared to come out."

"And it's not just us, a lot of big strong popular restaurants - everyone's just closing left, right and centre right now so it's a very hard time for hospitality."

All his staff are trying to adapt. 

Front of house staff are now out on the streets delivering food and some are in the kitchen prepping food for the first time.

Many of them are on hospitality working visas and Chung said he was unsure what they would do if he could not employ them.

He said the last few weeks have been filled with anxiety but he's hopeful his team can innovate and adapt to their 'new normal'. 

They are used to challenges. When the power cut one night in his Penrose location, staff turned the packed out restaurant into an evening of 'sushi by candlelight'. 

They've served a full house when the restaurant once flooded and staff and patrons were ankle-deep in water. 

"So we've had a lot of challenges through the time that we've been together and this is another one of them.

"I hope that everything we've done in the last few years still means something and it's just not all done for nothing."