The Big Cheese

Life in the time of COVID-19 with Aiden Darling Harbour’s Nicolas Chen

This week, we caught up with Nicolas Chen, owner of the new Aiden Darling Harbour, to find out how he’s been faring since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

What are you reading?

A book of short stories by Anton Chekhov. It really packs a punch of characters, landscape, human folly and humour into a few short pages (brevity is essential, as opening a hotel saps much of my spare time for reading).

I’m also reading Wabi Sabi: The Wisdom in Imperfection by Nobuo Suzuki, a short book about how to find beauty and meaning in differences, and to appreciate things for what they are rather than what they’re not. In a sense, there are some quirky aspects of our hotel that are a bit like that – all rooms are different, each piece of artwork is unique, the music may not be mainstream, but that’s exactly the way it should be, and it’s what makes us uniquely who we are.

What are you watching?

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, which haven’t helped repress the wanderlust!

What are you listening to?

I’m currently enjoying a curated selection of music to test for the hotel, with a mix of new and old soul that’s easy to listen to while working. Music selection is critical, as it will accompany guests through the entire day, from breakfast, co-working in the lobby during the day, to their pre-dinner drinks and through the night. Guests will also be able to scan a QR code and add the hotel’s playlists to their personal Spotify accounts.

What are you cooking?

I’m a huge fan of fresh seafood (easy with the Sydney Fish Market so close). A quick and easy dinner consists of pan-frying fish (with crispy skin) and an accompaniment of veggies, or I’ll often have fish or prawn tacos.

As the weather gets cooler, I’ll do a seafood pie topped with pureed potatoes, or different varieties of seafood stews. There are a few recipes from the Sydney Seafood School that I still have to try.

How are you staying fit both physically and mentally?

It’s critically important to proactively take care of yourself physically and mentally during COVID and to be aware of the strain isolation can take. It’s far too easy to ignore one’s health during isolation and let health slide.

Our situation in Australia has been extremely fortunate. It’s been easy to go for a run around the harbour, to catch up with friends and family in restaurants as next to normal, and to keep mentally active with work and projects. Of course, preparing for the hotel opening has occupied much of my focus and energy!

What’s the one thing keeping you sane?

That there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s important to recognise that society is, on the whole, performing pretty well in such circumstances, and certainly much better than it would have a few decades ago.

What’s something positive you’ve witnessed or experienced since the coronavirus hit?

People wanting to holiday closer to home and taking the opportunity to appreciate what they have locally. Aussies have always loved supporting local businesses and this has become even more evident recently.

What have you learned about yourself amid the crisis?

I thought I would be quite happy to be stuck at home, but after a very short while, I found myself bored and craved going back to the local café who knew my coffee order, to restaurants and shows, and on staycations around Sydney and NSW. We are very lucky we are able to do that, just by following a few precautions.

What’s your advice for others in the MICE industry on coping with the crisis?

Keep your good relationships active, even though there may not be any prospects at this time.  Look after them during this period and reconnect if you haven’t spoken recently. You want people to remember that you are ready and raring to go.

There is undoubtedly a pent-up demand for travel and events – once things come back, they will come back with a vengeance. Yes, expos and conferences may have been postponed, but people are so keen now to restart and meet in person. If anything, I would pre-emptively prepare for the inevitable staffing and skills shortage that will come once things are jumpstarted.