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The London Shell Co’s Harry Lobek: ‘Losing my sense of taste and smell to Covid was absolutely terrifying’

<p>Happier times: Harry Lobek, right, on board the Grand Duchess</p>

Happier times: Harry Lobek, right, on board the Grand Duchess

/ The Grand Duchess
By
19 February 2021
A

loss or change to your sense of smell or taste. One of the three main symptoms now synonymous with coronavirus.

It is often found at the bottom of the list but it is, by far, the most unique indicator of this illness. Combined with a mild fever, it’s what prompted me to get tested in mid-December. Whereas the common cold causes coughs and sneezes, Covid-19 might find you up in the dark of night, alone, squirting aftershave in front of your face in the hope of getting a familiar whiff of the life you once used to know.

After a positive test result was returned, I was confined to the flat. My symptoms were mild and could treated at home – but my nose started to tingle and it felt as desolate as the lonely beaches of Dungeness.

I am a restaurateur, co-owner of London Shell Co and The Grand Duchess, two seafood restaurants on boats moored on the Grand Union Canal in Paddington. Before this, I was employed as a sommelier at Pollen Street Social and have worked in hospitality for more than 15 years. Smelling and tasting things are fundamental components of my working day and my instinctive reactions when assessing the quality of anything. Like a dog, when I find something, I give it a sniff. If I find it agreeable, it usually ends up in my mouth. Smelling and tasting things, really, is what my life is built around.

Sight and sound might be our body’s more important senses, but smell and taste colour everything in. They add a magnificent depth to life

Still, I had not really appreciated how seriously losing these senses would affect me and my day-to-day life. I suffered a total loss of smell and taste. Five squirts of Old Spice into the palms of my hands and held to my nose and mouth? Nothing. Opening the oven door to sniff twelve roasted chicken wings drenched in a tangy vinegar-laced marinade? Nothing but a very hot face! Kissing my four week-old baby on the head and breathing in? Nothing. My world was suddenly one dimensional.

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Maybe I sound fine about it, but in truth losing my sense of smell and taste was absolutely terrifying and sent me into blind panic. I had absolutely no capacity to smell for over three weeks and it took much longer to return to normal. I must have been a nightmare to live with: each day began the same way, with sad little smell experiments. I’d start by smelling my hands, then holding a towel over my face in the bathroom, before sticking my nose into a jar of Marmite. I bothered my wife with my lack of progress every hour and briefed her every evening on possible career changes. I feared for my job satisfaction and being trapped indoors meant that I could never get away from it.

The Grand Duchess

I became very aware of what certain things did to my mouth and more aware of the texture of things. A dried apricot became the most disgusting thing to pass my lips: no flavour, just surface, all chewy and wrinkly. Citric acid still made my mouth water a little, but didn’t taste tart. I could tell if things were sweet or savoury, but only because I could feel the sugar on my tongue. The panic really took grip when I realised that spicy food had no affect on me at all.

I spend a lot of money on wine, for the restaurants and for myself. The idea that I might struggle to identify faults was very scary. That coupled with the fear that I might not be able to identify subtle nuances that separate fine wines from run of the mill bottles was devastating. The only positive I could find was that it would save me a lot of money.

My appetite decreased as quickly as my mood. Sight and sound might be our body’s more important senses, but smell and taste colour everything in. They add a magnificent depth to life without charging a fortune. Just slice a fresh cantaloupe melon in half or get someone to make you a bacon sandwich and see what happens.

My sense of smell and taste returned very slowly, and I spent a lot of time eating and drinking with my eyes closed. Ingredients had to relearned and rediscovered. It felt like learning to walk again. I decided to eat very plain food as I was worried overdoing it on the spice might change my palate completely. I found I had an increased sensitivity to acidic things, which meant my favourite white wines from the Loire Valley became more challenging.

Everyday I tried to focus on the little victories. The last things to come back with subtle umami flavours like mushrooms and truffle. Disastrous for those with expensive taste! I think that my senses have returned to normal, but I am not 100 per cent confident. There are flavours and smells that I still struggle to identify: nutmeg is one.

The professionals in our industry that have been willing to talk to me about this have been few and far between. Losing your palate is a lonely experience. One chef confided in me that he can taste citrus, but still fails to identify the difference between them. Limes, lemons, grapefruits… they’re all the same. Details like this mark the difference between enjoying your work or dialling it in. If you are struggling with it or need some help, I would recommend visiting abscent.org: the forums are heart-breaking, but helpful.