The Ayala SquareMeal Best Female Chefs Series 2022: Chantelle Nicholson

We catch up with Apricity chef patron and cookbook author Chantelle Nicholson

Updated on • Written By Pete Dreyer

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We meet Chantelle at the tail-end of a busy lunch service in her brand new, and rather fetching restaurant. Apricity has only been open a matter of weeks; the paint is barely dry, one would say, if the walls had been painted. Instead they’re a patchwork of mottled plaster, clay and old pencil markings. You could be forgiven for thinking the restaurant was still waiting for a decorator to stop by, but the deconstructed look is deliberate. ‘It was important to us that we repurpose bits of the old building,’ Chantelle explains. ‘We want Apricity to be its own little circular economy.’

If you noticed the lack of skirting boards in the dining room, well done - Chantelle and team have nicked them and used them to build walls for a basement level private dining room. The lampshades are made of recycled coffee grounds, and much of the furniture is reclaimed. ‘The wine racks are from Tredwells (Nicholson’s old restaurant), and I bought the tables and chairs from Tramshed when it closed,’ says Chantelle. ‘All the bathrooms have different sinks and mirrors that I found at reclamation yards, or on eBay!’

Champagne Ayala: Celebrating over 160 years of history, Champagne Ayala was one of the original twenty-six Grandes Marques Champagne Houses. The House received a Royal Warrant in 1908 and became a part of the Bollinger family in 2005. With its longstanding commitment to the restaurant industry, Champagne Ayala is known for its chardonnay driven, low-dosage wines, crafted with precision and delicacy in a boutique scale. These wines are the ultimate epicurean pairing, it’s no wonder they have been served in the UK for over 100 years in many of London’s most prestigious establishments.

It’s not what you ordinarily expect in Mayfair, but in the context of Nicholson’s own journey it makes perfect sense. Chantelle was born and raised in New Zealand, and her culinary journey has taken her from cafe breakfast cook to The Savoy, to head of operations for Marcus Wareing. Now, at Apricity, she’s returning to her roots.

From breakfast cafe to The Savoy

By her own account, her New Zealand childhood was idyllic - Chantelle was surrounded by great food in a beautiful part of the world, and her summers were spent at a family orchard on the south island. ‘We just ate what was in season because that’s what there was,’ she says. ‘I always loved cooking, but we tended to do it as part of our chores as children! In New Zealand we don’t have school dinners, you take a packed lunch. My mum always bought healthy food for us, so anything that might be considered a treat, we had to make that ourselves.’

Chantelle’s love for food wouldn’t translate to serious career consideration until much later. She studied law at university, but turned to her baking skills whilst studying in order to curb her growing student loan bills. ‘We’d start at 6am on a Saturday - the opposite of what all my friends were doing! It was nothing fancy, we just baked a lot of pastries and cakes.’

Fancy or not, it was the start of something. When summer holidays came around, Chantelle got a full time job as a kitchen porter in a restaurant - she loved it so much that she kept her job whilst finishing her law degree. Chantelle graduated, got a job and passed her bar exams, but a week before her admission to the bar she spotted a competition in a magazine - Gordon Ramsay’s Chef Search. She submitted her three course menu with recipes and forgot about it, then received a phone call - she had made the semi-finals. ‘At which point I realised, I’ve not been in a kitchen for a very long time and this is a competition full of chefs who work in kitchens every day,’ she laughs.

‘I didn’t know what I was getting myself into…’

Rusty kitchen skills aside, Chantelle overcame a stressful mystery box test and cooked her way into the final. At a cocktail function the next evening, she got talking to Josh Emett - a fellow Kiwi who was judging the competition, and also happened to be Ramsay’s head chef at The Savoy. ‘This is such a New Zealand story,’ she says with an eye roll, ‘but bizarrely, his parents had bought their house from my parents! We got talking and he said there was a job for me in London whenever I wanted it.’ It wasn’t a difficult decision - Chantelle went to work the next day and handed in her notice.

In a matter of weeks Chantelle had moved her life to London - she shared a flat in London Bridge and was working at The Savoy. ‘Thankfully I didn’t realise what I was getting myself into at the time,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know the grandeur of The Savoy. I didn’t know what a Michelin star was. I didn’t know who half the chefs were. If I’d known all that I don’t think I would have done it - my naivete got me in the door.’

Since then Chantelle has done it all. She worked her way up through the ranks at The Savoy and then Petrus, where her adaptability was a cornerstone of Marcus Wareing’s set up when he took his operation solo. Chantelle stepped out of the kitchen at that point and would become Wareing’s head of operations, looking after everything from HR and payroll to day-to-day running of the restaurant, as well as cookbook and restaurant launches; Chantelle helped to launch The Gilbert Scott and Tredwells, the latter of which she would become chef patron of in 2016. She even worked as a special advisor alongside Wareing on the 2015 film Burnt, teaching Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller how to move and cook like real chefs.

Completing the circle

And so we arrive back at Apricity - itself a representation of Chantelle’s full circle journey, from breakfast chef to The Savoy, then back around to her Kiwi roots. ‘After I left New Zealand, everything was big and shiny,’ she explains. ‘There were all these amazing ingredients, produce I’d never seen before that we could get all year round. It was an eye-opener.’ When the bright lights started to fade, though, Chantelle was left questioning what her values really were. ‘I grew up surrounded by amazing food in a country that cares about produce and where food comes from. It just felt like common sense that going hyper-seasonal and supporting small-scale producers was the right way to do things.’

Apricity’s sustainability focus applies to the food and drink, and staff, as well as interiors. The restaurant works with a host of smaller independent growers and producers and acknowledges them on a flexible, seasonal menu. Chantelle has even managed to get milk delivered in a pail, rather than in bottles, to save on plastic. ‘It took me a year to make that happen!’ she laughs. ‘No-one understands why I’m so excited about it.’

On the staffing front, Apricity is a service included restaurant - all the menu prices include service charge, so staff at the restaurant know exactly how much they’re taking home every week. This is just one of many things that Chantelle thinks need to change in hospitality over the next few years. ‘COVID was a reset button that I think the industry needed,’ she muses. ‘Service charge was something that always sat uncomfortably with me, so we’ve eradicated it here. The concept of being valued in hospitality still has a way to go.’

She hopes that some of these early industry changes will continue to gather momentum but for the moment, Chantelle is focused on the first steps of this new journey - the next cycle, if you will. ‘It’s really important to me that we create something ongoing,’ she says in closing. ‘This is a journey, not something that we finish and then move onto the next project. There’s still so much we can achieve within these four walls.’

Chantelle’s perfect match for Ayala's Le Blanc de Blancs 2015

The dish: London red butterhead lettuce salad with miso aioli, cashews and crispy kale

The Champagne: Ayala Le Blanc de Blancs 2015

Nicholson explains: ‘This dish is our version of a salad, but it plays with expectations of what you expect from a salad. It’s crunchy, fresh, crispy, creamy, it has everything! There’s a miso aioli, crispy kale, some cashews, and dressing, so it provides all these explosions of flavour. The miso aioli and crispy kale give the dish a lot of nuttiness and umami, and the minerality of the Blanc de Blanc cuts through all that, so it’s almost effervescent on the plate as well as in the glass. The Blanc de Blanc has some richness to it as well - I wouldn’t go as far as saying briochy, but definitely a hint of yeast, which works really well with the lettuce.

Chantelle’s quick bites

Who or what have been your biggest influences?

Josh Emett, I would say. If I had started my career at Petrus and not The Savoy, I probably wouldn’t be in the industry right now. The way Josh ran the kitchen at The Savoy was firm but very fair, he was hands-on and supported everyone. Being female in that kitchen was never an issue, everyone helped each other, and there was a great camaraderie. If I hadn’t had that experience to begin with, I question whether I would have gone back to New Zealand to be a lawyer.

Which female chefs have inspired you in your career?

I think Alice Waters is someone that springs to mind for me immediately. Angela Hartnett too, though I’ve never had the chance to work with her. I really respect the way she’s got on with things and everything she has established.

I think there’s something interesting in those who are chef operators, because I think women handle that job quite differently to the way men do. Selin Kiazim at Oklava, Jane Alty from The Begging Bowl, Pip Lacey, Lisa Allen, to name a few. There’s lots of unspoken support between us I think.

Further afield there’s Amanda Cohen from Dirt Candy in New York, she’s a real front runner for vegetarian food. She’s someone that has a clear vision of how she thinks things should be done, and she has stuck to what she believes in.

If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?

Don’t overthink it.

Favourite cooking gadget?

Probably a blender! There’s so much you can do with them - mayonnaise, nut butters, all that stuff, they’re pretty priceless.

Describe your cooking style in three words?

Uncomplicated. Considered. Fresh.

What is your favourite thing to cook at home?

Biryani! It’s a labour of love but I like that you can prepare it, leave it to cook then sit down and enjoy, there’s no last minute cooking.

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

Pickled onion monster munch and a martini.

Where is your favourite foodie destination?

I haven’t been but the place I want to go to most is Vietnam! It’s my favourite food, I love the freshness and balance of all those Vietnamese flavours.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

I really wanted to be a pilot or a doctor!

Favourite restaurants in the UK?

For me great meals are about time and place - you can have a great meal based on who you’re with, or a season, or a celebration of something.

I had a great meal at Lyle’s last year - I love how fresh and clean all the flavours are! I have to mention Little Viet Kitchen in Islington as well. Before we came to this site, we were using their space for six weeks. One day Thuy (Pham, owner of Little Viet Kitchen) was doing a photoshoot and she made me the most amazing bowl of pho that was just perfection. Sometimes it’s the moments when food catches you by surprise that are really special.

Read more about our Ayala Female Chef of the Year awards, including interviews with the likes of Sally Abe and Ravinder Bhogal.

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With its longstanding commitment to the restaurant industry, Champagne AYALA is a natural sponsor to this award and to the series of interviews that accompanies it.

AYALA is one of the best kept secrets of Champagne. With a history dating back to 1860, AYALA were pioneers of dry, vibrant styles of Champagne, they were one of the original Grandes Marques Houses, and were awarded a Royal Warrant by Edward VII in 1908. Since 2005, the Bollinger family have helped restore this historic House to its former glory. Champagne AYALA is known for its fresh and elegant wines, made with precision and delicacy and crafted on a boutique scale. The wines have been served in the UK for over 100 years in many of London’s most prestigious establishments.

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