Among the coterie of top chefs in Gordon Ramsay’s empire, Angela Hartnett has always stood out. Most obviously, she’s a woman in a notoriously male-dominated profession. And her culinary style is sophisticated Italian rather than the modern French that Ramsay inculcates in his proteges.
While Hartnett’s TV appearances, from a supporting role on Hell’s Kitchen to joint top billing with John Burton Race on last year’s Kitchen Criminals, have helped make her the UK’s most famous female chef, the opening of two new restaurants in August and September will remind us why she’s there in the first place.
The York & Albany in Camden Town represents something of a departure for both Ramsay and Hartnett – there will be a deli and 10 hotel rooms, in addition to a bar and 45-seat restaurant offering British, French and Spanish dishes alongside Italian. There will also be an emphasis on the kitchen having as much involvement in the production of ingredients as possible.
‘Last week we went down to Dorset to River Cottage to do Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Pig in a Day course,’ she says with relish, ‘because we want to make our own bacon.’ While Hartnett will oversee York & Albany’s menus, day-to-day kitchen duties will fall to head chef Colin Buchan, leaving her free to concentrate on her other new project: Murano, an upmarket Italian opening on the old Zen site on Mayfair’s Queen Street.
When I query how hands-on she’s going to be in the kitchen at Murano, Hartnett laughs. ‘You’ll see me in a bloodstained apron,’ she says. ‘It’s going to be fine-dining Italian,’ she continues. ‘We want to push for Michelin stars, but not in the sense of having a restaurant that’s too stuffy.’
Murano marks her return to Mayfair after the closure of Angela Hartnett at the Connaught when the hotel shut for refurbishment in March 2007. There was speculation that the relationship with the hotel soured because Ramsay didn’t want Hartnett to be responsible for room service, and much sport made of the fact that the Connaught’s new executive chef, the two Michelin-starred Frenchwoman Helene Darroze, was happy to provide it.
Hartnett is keen to set the record straight. ‘It was absolute nonsense. I read that “Gordon refused to let Angela do room service”, but I’d been doing room service from day one.’ She does, however, admit to a ‘growing apart’ between the day-to-day demands of the hotel and the ambition of Gordon Ramsay Holdings to have its chefs develop restaurants globally (Hartnett is chef patron at Cielo, which opened last year in Boca Raton, Florida). But she insists there are no hard feelings. ‘I think it’s an amazing hotel and I wish it the best. I’m sure Helene Darroze will do it justice.’
Baptism by Fire
Hartnett’s brilliant career – she was awarded an MBE for services to catering last January – has been a remarkable journey. Marcus Wareing, chef patron of the Ramsay-owned Petrus, reckoned Hartnett wouldn’t last more than a fortnight at Aubergine when she first started working for Ramsay 14 years ago. In 1994, chefs at other London restaurants referred to Aubergine as ‘Vietnam’ on account of the high casualty rate: nine out of 10 employees walked out. What made her stick at it?
‘I was hooked really. Aubergine was the most vibrant restaurant in London, Gordon was in the kitchen. As a chef you either thought they were all mad and didn’t want to touch them with a bargepole or you sort of thought, “Yeah, I could do this”.’
Doing it meant working 17 hours a day six days a week, but Hartnett never doubted that she had made the right decision. ‘Gordon had just started to get a bit of publicity, and as a young chef, it’s great to attach yourself to someone who’s really pushing forward, instead of going to an established kitchen and doing a good two years to learn every section.’ But she doesn’t deny it was tough. ‘After my first week, I thought, “Dear god, if I can manage till Christmas, it will be a miracle”.’
But Hartnett was made of different stuff to most young chefs: in a profession where most trainees start fresh from school at 16, Hartnett was in her mid 20s and a history graduate from Cambridge Polytechnic, which she credits for giving her a different perspective to her younger peers. ‘I took my job seriously, but I’d done other things with my life and I knew that if it all went tits up, I had other things to fall back on.’
She tells a story of how a refurbishment at Aubergine ran behind schedule, meaning the restaurant was closed for an extra week. Ramsay asked his chefs if they were pleased about having more holiday. ‘And they said, “no chef, we want to come back to work,” and he came to me and I said, “bloody hell, I am happy, I can’t believe those guys are saying they’re not”. I think Gordon liked the fact that I would just be very honest. There’s only two years between us – he’s my brother’s age – and that made a difference to how I behaved with him.’
Family is hugely important to Hartnett. Her father died when she was eight and her mother moved her children from Kent to Essex to be close to both sets of grandparents. Her mother’s Italian mother, who lived down the road, taught Hartnett to cook. Hartnett lives with her sister Anne in a Georgian house in Spitalfields, that she owns with her brother Michael. He lives in New York but she goes on holiday with him, along with his wife and kids. Her book, Cucina: Three Generations of Italian Family Cooking, looks like a family photo album.
I suggest to Hartnett that one reason she has thrived in Gordon Ramsay Holdings is that, with its hierarchy of big personalities such as Ramsay, Wareing, Mark Sargeant and Jason Atherton, it shares the characteristics of a family. Hartnett, however, has no truck with my armchair psychology. ‘I don’t like my work to be my social life. You always have to remember that you are employed and there’s a transaction of money. I can say, “Gordon’s my best friend, he’s like my older brother”, but at the end of the day he could sack me tomorrow. That keeps you on the ball.’
That distance also means that Hartnett doesn’t take things too personally. I ask her whether it was hurtful when Clare Smyth, the head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, was recently quoted in the Evening Standard as rejecting comparisons with Hartnett because, ‘In all honesty, Angela is a one-star Michelin chef and I’m a three-star one.’ Hartnett chuckles, ‘I think she’s learnt to watch what she says in an interview.’
Smyth also expressed her frustration at being labelled as a great female chef but Hartnett’s take is less militant. ‘I said to Clare, “Don’t fight being a woman in a man’s world. Use it to your advantage”.’
But surely Hartnett must feel that, as a woman, she’s had to prove herself more? ‘No, I honestly think it’s been easier for me. I’m very good at what I know, but so are a lot of other people. Because I’m a woman, people think, “Oh my god, she must be brilliant”. I’m not brilliant, I’m a good chef.’
Still, it hasn’t all been plain sailing: when Hartnett took over at the Connaught, the hotel’s Grill Room had the feel – and clientele – of a gentleman’s club. Not only would regulars call her out to tell her she couldn’t cook, but her predecessor, Michel Bourdin, complained to Michelin that a woman had replaced him. ‘But for every person who was a total arsehole, there were 50 that were amazingly lovely,’ she says.
Hartnett has also had to put up with sexism from her closest colleagues: 10 years ago Ramsay said that ‘women can’t cook to save their lives’, while in The Observer last year, Wareing said that Hartnett’s PMT put her in a bad mood every month. Does it not bother her? ‘I just laugh it off.’
With the arrival of Darroze at the Connaught, female chefs are on the march in London’s top kitchens. Even Ramsay appears to have had a (publicity-friendly) Damascene conversion, recently declaring that he’d like his three-star Chelsea flagship to have an entirely female brigade – no doubt inspired by the success of Hartnett, Smyth and Gemma Tuley, head chef at the relaunched Foxtrot Oscar. (Hartnett reckons instead this would be ‘a total nightmare’.)
But Hartnett, who turns 40 this year and is single, still thinks there’s one major downside to being a woman. ‘You can’t have a baby and then work 18-hour days. My brother works and travels a lot, but his wife is with the children. As a female chef, you’ve got to have a guy at home willing to do that.’
Is she in the market for a house husband? ‘Yeah, that’d be great,’ she chortles. ‘As long as he paid my bills on time. I’m always getting red letters.’
This summer, at least, Hartnett’s red-letter days will only be of the positive kind.