Sydney chef Stefano Manfredi, one of Australia’s leading authorities on Italian food, travelled back to the land of his birth in February for research for the regular culinary tours he runs.
At the time, the threat of coronavirus “didn’t look all that bad”, but five days after he arrived the country went into lockdown and became one of the earliest countries hit hard by the outbreak.
He returned to Sydney early last week, feeling that it was finally safe enough to travel.
He’s now nearing the end of his 14-day hotel quarantine at Sydney’s Hilton and admits it’s been tough going.
While he was stuck in his homeland, ensconced at a friend’s place for six months in Rezzato in Brescia, northern Italy, the nation’s nightmare unfolded.
“You didn’t know what was going on and how people were catching it. You just saw the news and the numbers each day, and the increases in infections and the death rates going up,” he says.
“It was pretty scary and surreal.”
Italy has had more than 35,500 deaths from COVID-19 since late February.
It entered strict lockdown in March, leaving haunting scenes.
“There were the local police who were going around with loudspeakers saying, ‘Stay off the streets’.
“You could only go out if you really needed to get food or medicine.
“It was pretty spooky. There were no other cars on the street.”
But despite seeing firsthand the devastation in Italy, he questions whether the hotel quarantine program in NSW is too harsh.
“I think it could be done with home quarantine,” he says.
He says there’s a sense in Australia that people can’t be “trusted”, whereas in other countries people can stay at home for 14 days, and wear masks and keep a distance if they live with people.
Compared with Italy, where people were “really scared”, the situation here has been less severe.
“There’s a disconnect between the response here and the number of cases and the response in Italy and the number of cases,” he says.
Complaints over food standards and cleanliness have been rife among returned travellers forced into mandatory hotel quarantine since the end of March.
More than 50,000 people have been through the process, which to date has picked up nearly 350 positive COVID-19 tests — nearly 10 per cent of the state’s cases.
As with all quarantine hotels, the food comes from outsourced catering organised by the NSW Government.
Manfredi knows good food and says what’s on offer in quarantine is tasteless and “insipid” — too much is processed and over-packaged.
He avoided the $3000 fee that was introduced in July because he’d booked the flights before the cut-off point.
Even so, he says it’s hard not to take a critical approach to the government program.
“If you just step back and have a look at the whole thing, I don’t think we should cut them slack on this actual process of hotel quarantine.
“Like most people, when I heard that some people had escaped, I thought, ‘Oh, idiots’, you know?
“But then when you get in here, it’s actually like sensory deprivation. You’re in these four walls in that small, confined space.”
Manfredi says he would occasionally open the door and look up the hallway “just to get some sort of sense of depth [but] there’s different air out there as well”.
“So if you’re talking about that, it’s almost a mild form of torture.”
Nurses daily check-in
Manfredi says guests receive daily calls from a psychiatric nurse to check on their mental wellbeing, and there’s a phone button that connects directly to a hotline in case of an emergency.
“The nurses who ring here understand that it’s really tough.
“It’d be interesting to see if they’ve had to evacuate anybody,” he says.
“I’m sure they have because I feel the anxiety in the voices of the nurses.”
In the meantime, he’s marking down the days on a wall calendar.
He says normal things that usually help alleviate anxiety, like going for a walk or visiting a friend, aren’t possible.
“You can kind of feel yourself bouncing off the walls.”
Manfredi’s quarantine food notes
Food is delivered three times a day. Mr Manfredi says he gets a knock on the door, has to wait 15 to 20 seconds for the delivery person to walk away and then he picks up the box from outside his room.
A breakfast dish:
“Today’s scrambled eggs continued the theme of tasteless food. The chicken sausages seemed to me that someone spilt the canister of dried herbs into the mix. It had an unpleasant bitterness. I had one mouthful and had to spit it out.”
“Yesterday’s’ ‘chicken parmigiana with penne’ was an impossibly dry chicken breast. I doubt it had any actual Parmigiano in it. It was sitting on cold, sticky, undressed penne pasta. The pretzel thing is best left alone.”
Manfredi says it’s clear many people are ordering food in, with a big number of paper bags from food delivery outlets left outside hotel rooms.
He has been relying on friends and family to deliver fruit, bread, pastries, cheeses and salad — plus other essentials, including his own brand coffee.
“Of great importance to me is a French press and a good cup and saucer sent by my daughter, so that I can have decent coffee each day instead of the sachets of instant that are provided.”