Take-home lasagne. T-shirts. Hand soap. Toilet paper.
To survive pandemic-trading restrictions, restaurants have been selling things that aren't your typical menu items.
Could takeaway books be a lifeline as lockdowns limit how many diners they can serve?
The team behind Somekind Press hopes so. Launched in late March as COVID-19 rules forced venues to shut down and operate in takeaway-mode only, co-founder Vaughan Mossop started the independent publisher to support local Geelong businesses: Aaron Turner's Tacos Y Liquor, which was due to open as lockdown restrictions hit, and Geelong West Social Club, a bagel joint co-owned by Mia McDonald, Mossop's friend of 16 years.
To help eateries that couldn't trade as per usual, Somekind Press offered a simple solution: pre-order a $20 book by Tacos Y Liquor or Geelong West Social Club and if the title sold 100 copies within 10 days, the project was financially viable and the book would go to print. If the preorder quota wasn't met, all funds would be donated to the venue. Since starting its Take away book series, Somekind Press has launched 17 books: each one has been successfully funded and the publisher has raised more than $100,000 for participating establishments.
What started in Geelong has since expanded around the country, with books by Hobart's Tom McHugo's, Melbourne's Lee Ho Fook, Sydney's Lankan Filling Station and more. Co-founder Simon Davis (who worked on Josh Niland's award-winning The Whole Fish Cookbook) is helping oversee the series.
For Yen Trinh and Ben Devlin, who run Pipit in northern NSW, their book is helping pay for equipment loans. Trinh, a self-confessed bar-chart nerd, crunched the numbers: 83 sold books will fund a week of loans and #savethegrill (the hashtag inspired by Pipit's central wood-fire grill). Demand for their publication has been strong enough to take care of three weeks' worth of loan repayments – and counting.
"Every dollar helps at the moment," says Victor Liong, who runs Lee Ho Fook. The extra money from his Take away book will be especially handy with Melbourne under a more restrictive lockdown until 20 August, which means reverting to takeaway mode as a dine-in ban resumes.
His Lee Ho Fook book covers kitchen cupboard ingredients and dishes he's interested in. Like the wide-ranging complexity of soy sauce, which he talks about in the manner people talk about wine.
"It's like when you see all the white wines: sauvignon blanc is on the lighter spectrum, chardonnay's on the heavier spectrum, these are all the wines in between," he says. "Instead of wines, swap out soy sauce." Think Thailand's Healthy Boy light soy sauce on one end, right through to the sticky darkness of Indonesia's kecap manis on the other.
If you don't have black vinegar in your pantry, Liong's book will give you permission to use balsamic vinegar in an Asian dish instead. It's a versatile kitchen companion, designed to help with the ingredients you have – even if they're not in an ideal state.
"Everyone has that piece of ginger that goes so hard, it’s like a piece of wood, right?" he says. His book offers tips on how to make that plank-hard ingredient edible again – by transforming it into a ginger oil that the chef preps at the restaurant.
Liong thinks this "takeaway book" model could be the future for restaurants. "It's absolutely going to be," he says. "It's not going to be your main source of income, but it will supplement [it]." He's already bought five such titles during the pandemic, from restaurants he likes – such as Melbourne's Ides.
O Tama Carey's Lankan Filling Station book for the 'Take away' series is seasoned with chilli, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, curry leaves and other fragrant ingredients. It tells the story of the 10 spices that make up the roasted curry powder that's key to the Sri Lankan food she serves at her Sydney restaurant.
Before opening the restaurant, the chef hadn't cooked Sri Lankan food professionally. Her prior experience was essentially being her mother’s papadum-making assistant on special occasions. "My mum only cooked Sri Lankan food for parties, so I didn't grow up eating it on a daily basis," says Carey.
Her knowledge of the cuisine felt patchy – pieced together from research missions and cooking with her grandmother in Sri Lanka. When the chef made curry powder from scratch for her restaurant – that's when she finally understood the cuisine. "That was when I first felt really comfortable with it, with the spices," she says.
At Lankan Filling Station, she has specific curry powders for different dishes, but the recipe in her book is an "an easy, all-purpose one" that readers can take on.
Her recipes also appear in the Cartilage series – another publishing project designed to help restaurants during the pandemic. Launched by former Gourmet Traveller staffers (David Matthews and Anna Vu) and waiter-turned-animator James Lark, Cartilage features recipe journals from your favourite venues. $10 from each sale supports the featured bar, cafe or restaurant. Carey contributes recipes for a Sri Lankan breakfast, with illustrations by her chef Clare Roberts.
"The best part has been seeing all these chefs and owners jump on board and say yes during a time when they have so many other things to worry about," says Matthews about Cartilage. They've generously shared recipes for much-loved Sydney dishes – like burgers from Mary's, the Scotch egg from The Old Fitz or the rendang pies from Jilat Jilat.
Despite everyone's dexterity with Zoom calls, producing Cartilage was still challenging with Vu based in Berlin. But her connections with Sydney are still strong. Seeing the Mongolian lamb and the salt and pepper squid in Golden Century's recipe journal inspired flashbacks. "It brings back memories for me of growing up in the suburbs in Sydney and getting to eat those dishes as a treat on the rare occasion when my mum wasn't cooking," she says. "Cantonese food is the cuisine I miss the most here in Berlin."
For the Cartilage team, shortlisting which four recipes to feature in each booklet has been tricky, considering how many good menu options there are to draw from.
"We're working on Melbourne and a couple of other cities right now, so we're just starting to run into that challenge all over again," says Matthews. "But it's a good challenge."