Talking to Skye Gyngell

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A chat with chef, food writer and restaurateur Skye Gyngell

Skye Gyngell has become one of the most respected chefs in Britain over the course of this century. Born in Australia, she studied her craft in Sydney and Paris before arriving at The Dorchester in London, working under Anton Mosimann. From there she moved to The French House in Soho.

Taking time out to teach, bring up her children and take a job as food editor at Vogue, she came back into the industry after five years. And it was with her arrival as head chef at the newly-opened Petersham Nurseries Café in 2004 that she really began to attract attention. Essentially working from a shed in the grounds of Petersham House in Richmond, Skye and her team created simple plates including seasonal ingredients from the nurseries’ vegetable gardens. The restaurant won a Michelin star in 2011, though this increased both its popularity and pressure on the team. Skye left in 2012 to become Culinary Director for the three restaurants, Marle, Hearth and Glass House, at Heckfield Place in Hampshire. And in 2014, she opened Spring, a beautiful restaurant in the former inland revenue offices at Somerset House. At all of her restaurants, there’s a focus on using fresh, seasonal produce, with the simplest of preparation and zero waste. Indeed, the ingredients are key, which is why Skye collaborates with the 16-acre biodynamic farm Fern Verrow in Herefordshire, which supplies most of the fruit, vegetables and flowers to her restaurants. At Heckfield Place, they take Fern Verrow as the inspiration for growing their own produce, aiming to be self-sufficient in the future.

Even during lockdown, you can still enjoy Skye’s recipes and the ingredients she uses. Spring To Go offers a curated menu of baked goods and meals all cooked at Spring, plus a range of biodynamic produce from Fern Verrow, and fresh eggs, organic milk and cream from Heckfield Place Home Farm. The meals are available as takeaway from Spring, while produce boxes and flowers can be delivered twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays within a 12-kilometre radius of Spring.

Finally, before we get down to talking with Skye, you may wonder what all this has to do with art and illustration. The answer lies in The Assembly at Heckfield Place, a space which hosts art events, which have included Breed artists, and screenings as well as meditation and watercolour classes and talks and workshops on biodynamics.

Which leaves us ready to hand over to Skye Gyngell:

Where did your interest in food come from?

I fell into food almost accidentally through my first job after school. I was fortunate enough to get work washing pots and pans for a wonderful lady called Layla Sorfie who took me under her wing and taught me all the basics from stocks to pastry. I was hooked from the very first day and have never looked back.

Had chef always been top of your list of career options?

I was actually planning on being a lawyer when I fell into cooking.

Was there someone you always wanted to work with or a chef who particularly inspired you?

So many chefs have inspired me – I would still love the opportunity to work with so many people working today. That’s one of the most wonderful things about the pop-ups and collaborations that have emerged in the last decade or so – it means you sometimes get the chance to work with many of your heroes.

Was there a point you consider to be your big break into your career?

Definitely Petersham Nurseries.

Did becoming head chef at Petersham Nurseries completely change your perspective on cooking?

I don’t think it completely changed it – rather it solidified it.

How did you get into writing about food?

I’d always enjoyed writing and have been an avid reader my whole life. I was offered a book deal in 2004 – I’d written occasionally for Vogue before then, but it was the first time I had a chance to begin to write. In a way it was easy because I only ever write about food, which is an area I feel confident in.

What have been your highlights since being at Heckfield?

I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of trying to make our ethos and style of food work in the hotel – people have different needs and expectations when staying somewhere for an extended period of time – so it has required a lot of thought and navigation. The goal has always been to create simple, beautiful honest food from a  sustainable source while giving people enough choice. I’ve also really loved being involved closely with the farm and its conversion to biodynamic farming. I love Hearth too – where everything is cooked over an open fire – it’s a different style of cooking, a very soulful, connected way of cooking.

How important is the use of fresh, seasonal produce to your restaurants? Do you feel this is more generally practised at restaurants now, as the norm?

For us, it is everything – what is grown on the farm completely defines what and how we cook. I always say that the work is 80 percent done by the time it gets to us in the kitchen.

I think people are definitely more interested in eating seasonally and more sustainably now and restaurants have reacted to that.

Could you explain the concept of biodynamic farming, as used by Fern Verrow? And how you and Jane met initially.

Jane and I met because I had long loved what she did and admired her tremendously as a grower. I wrote to her to ask whether she would be interested in growing for Spring – luckily she said she was!

Biodynamic farming comes from a series of lectures given by Rudolph Steiner almost a hundred years ago. It was the first organic agricultural movement and essentially it’s about generating fertility through crop rotation, composting and integrating animals. It uses the lunar calendar to enhance vitality in the soil and crops.

Are you still a hands-on chef at any of your restaurants?

I still go into the kitchen every day depending where I am. I can’t imagine ever not doing service or being involved on a day-to-day basis, but because my job is so busy and there are different strands to what I do I don’t have the chance to cook in the way I used to.

How big a challenge has Covid-19 been, and how have you dealt with it?

I think it goes without saying that we have never had to face anything like this in our industry. Our world stopped last March and has only really opened up again intermittently. It’s immensely challenging especially as we have no idea when things may return to how they were. We have remained busy and engaged with an online shop and produce sales at the farm, which has been our silver lining.

In times like this, when we’re in need of comfort from the kitchen, is there a dish that you always go back to, as a personal favourite?

Anything slow cooked – that tastes better the next day.

How would you describe yourself and what you do at this point in your life?

I’d describe myself as a cook with a huge interest in the environment.

I know it’s very hard to plan ahead at the moment, but what are your plans for the future?

Our plan for the immediate future is really just to survive – look after the people who work with us as best we can and hope that we will be able to continue to do what we love when all of this is over. I think they are the only plans we can have right now.

What have been the most popular items ordered on Spring to Go?

It’s changed through the 11 months and seems to depend on how people are feeling. The breads are really popular as are the ice creams and now during the really cold months anything slow-cooked and nurturing in feel.

Could you recommend some of your favourite restaurants and spots in London (and further afield), ready for when we emerge into a more normal reality?

In London I love Lyles, the River Cafe, Clipstone. I can’t wait to travel again – I always love eating in Sydney when I’m home. Some of my favourites are Fred’s, Ester and Saint Peter. I’m also just really looking forward to travelling again and discovering delicious food wherever I go.

And finally, are we allowed your recipe for the blood orange and rosemary sorbet?

Yes of course.

3 x unwaxed lemon

1 x  litre of freshly squeezed blood orange juice

300g caster sugar

A small pinch of salt

2 x sprigs of rosemary

Place the blood orange juice in a non reactive pan.  Gently pound the rosemary with the back of a knife or a wooden rolling pin to slightly bruise it. Place in the pan with the juice and heat to blood temperature. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Quarter the lemons and remove the pips then place in a food processor with the sugar. Pulse until you have a course textured mixture. This will give the final sorbet a lovely chewy texture. Remove to a bowl and strain the infused blood orange juice over the puree. Stir well to combine.  Churn the mixture in an ice cream maker until frozen. Then transfer to a suitable container and place in the freezer until ready to use.

Illustration created by Phillippa Mills.