Sally Abé doesn’t appear to be someone who rests on her laurels. As I arrive to interview her at the swish Conrad London St James (where she now acts as consultant chef), she is darting in and out of the kitchen in between test shots with our photographer, as well as fielding questions from builders and being briefed by her PR representative. She is a ball of productivity, but beneath this professional veneer is a charming, chatty and down-to-earth chef, clearly passionate about her job but also relaxed enough to make jokes throughout our time together.
Although Abé has long been on the radar of in-the-know restaurant lovers, first cutting her teeth at The Ledbury and Phil Howard’s Elystan Street, before going on to be head chef at the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms, her new role at Conrad London St James looks set to blast her into chef superstardom. The Mansfield native already operates a pub at the hotel, The Blue Boar, while a cocktail bar, afternoon tea lounge and flagship restaurant titled The Pem are soon to follow.
Champagne Ayala: Celebrating over 160 years of history, Champagne Ayala was one of the original twenty-six Grandes Marques Champagne Houses, 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 fresh and elegant wines, made with precision and delicacy, and crafted in a boutique scale by winemaker Caroline Latrive, who was one of the first female Cellar Masters in the region. Ayala’s well-balanced Chardonnay-focused blends and low dosage make it a terrific epicurean pairing. No wonder the wines have been served in the UK for over 100 years in many of London’s most prestigious establishments.
Sitting in The Pem’s dining room, you get a sense that this will be a near flawless restaurant - it’s not completely finished on our visit, but everything from the colour of the chairs to the artwork hanging from the walls appears to be carefully curated. It’s something of a wonder then that Abé didn’t grow up dreaming about becoming a chef. In fact, she never even considered cooking as a career path until she moved away from home aged 18 and began making her own meals.
Abé is clear that she wants The Pem to first and foremost be a fun restaurant, but she also wants it to be a celebration of women (men, of course, are allowed too). The dining room’s subtle, yet striking femininity, plus Abé’s female-first team (both The Pem’s general manager and head chef are women) suggests she is staying true to her word.
Below, we chat to her about what diners can expect from The Pem, as well as toxic work environments, the importance of sustainable produce and why she can’t resist a Skips sandwich.
When did you first realise that you wanted to pursue a career as a chef?
I suppose I fell in love with cooking after I moved out of home when I was 18. I was working in an office job at the time and was quite skint, so I started cooking at home because I couldn’t afford to eat out. I had left school, finished my A Levels and I was sort of drifting because I had not found anything that had stuck with me. Once I started cooking at home, I loved it so much - my first cookbook was a Delia Smith one and I just worked my way through it. I think that love of classic cooking has stayed with me ever since.
Now that you’re an accomplished chef, what do you think the key to good cookery is?
For me, it’s about emotion. Food is very emotional - you can take one bite out of something and it can take you right back to Whitby beach or being on holiday in Spain or just being at your kitchen table as a kid eating jelly. I think that kind of nostalgia is something only food and music can create. For me, I cook food that I want to eat and enjoy and I hope that other people feel the same. My view on cooking is that it’s not about challenging people or making them unsure about whether or not they should like a certain dish. I want them to like it all the time basically.
So, are you not a fan of molecular gastronomy and more gimmicky cooking techniques then?
I think the molecular gastronomy movement has brought food on by leaps and bounds and I think various principles used in it can be transferred to classic cooking. I think it was really new and fun in the 90s but I think food has moved on a little bit since then. It’s definitely been a force for good in the industry though - without it, we’d probably still be cooking the likes of Dover sole covered in cream!
What are the biggest lessons you have learned from working in a Michelin star kitchen?
The two biggest lessons are consistency and discipline. To work at that level, you need to make sure that every dish is exactly the same every single time. Consistency is a measure of a great restaurant, because you can have the nicest steak in the world once, but if you come back two or three more times and it’s overcooked or undercooked, that’s very disappointing. You want people to return and have the same experience every time, if not better.
Discipline is important too, though. Kitchens can be quite regimented and I think that’s a good thing, but only to a certain extent. I’m not into shouting and screaming in the kitchen, but discipline is important because that’s how you create consistency.
Have you experienced toxic kitchen environments and how do you ensure those behaviours don’t seep into the kitchens you run?
I’ve definitely worked in really toxic environments and I think having worked in those environments is what has spurred me on to change my own kitchens and make them an approachable place to work. I think it’s no coincidence that I happen to have lots of women working for me as a result of that.
Restaurant kitchens are always going to be high-pressured environments because the nature of kitchens is that you have to get the food out quickly. However, I think the way you speak to people and respond to situations is very important. For me, there’s no point in flying off the handle and going crazy at someone, when you can actually just fix the problem and deal with it later. It makes much more sense and people feel much more at ease if they don’t feel like they’re going to get screamed at all day.
Which female chefs have inspired you in your career?
Clare Smyth has been part of my life for quite a long time now [Abé’s husband is chef patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Smyth’s old stomping ground] and I think what she has achieved with Core and her career in general has been incredible - everything she does is so considered and I really admire that. I really love Angela Hartnett as well, I think she’s just a fantastic woman and she’s also done very well for herself and has lots of restaurants. She’s come up through the ranks of the Gordon Ramsay Group and become a megastar. They’re probably two of my biggest inspirations.
You’re planning to open a new restaurant called The Pem on 20 July. How would you describe it?
I think The Pem is going to be an elegant, fun, exciting place to dine, drink lovely wine and Champagne and have a couple of Espresso Martinis afterwards. I just want it to be fun and I don’t want it to feel too serious. We’ve put a lot of effort and work into the first menu and I love every dish on there and I hope people want to try everything.
Why is it called The Pem?
The restaurant itself is a dedication to strong women, so we’ve named it after Emily Wilding Davidson, who was a prominent suffragette. Her family name was Pem and we have even based the logo on her sign-off which she’d write on letters to her family. We’re not trying to say that we hate men and we don’t want any men here, we’re just trying to celebrate women in leadership.
Although your kitchen and front of house teams aren’t exclusively made up of women, why was it important to you to hire a female first team?
I didn’t necessarily go out to hire women, but my general manager and head chef are two exceptional women that I’ve worked with and known throughout my career and they were the right people for the job. The fact that they’re women is a great thing, because obviously there’s a massive split between men and women in this industry and I think it’s really important we show other women that it can be done and hopefully attract more of them into the industry.
What music will be playing at The Pem?
I want this restaurant to be fun. I don’t want it to be somewhere stuffy where you’re not sure what knife you’re supposed to use. So I think the music is going to be quite upbeat, a bit disco-y, just something you can tap your feet to. Not something that’s invasive on the meal, so you can’t hear each other talk, but just something a little bit uptempo so you can do a little foot tapping at your seat.
What’s your favourite dish on The Pem’s first menu?
Ooh that’s very difficult. I love my puddings, so probably the Black Forest gateau. I think my desserts tend to be quite retro, going back to the nostalgia thing. For me, I want desserts to have recognisable flavours and obviously Black Forest gateau is about as retro as it gets!
You prioritise sustainability and using trusted suppliers. Why is this important to you?
To be honest, it’s so ingrained in me that it’s just second nature to me. First and foremost, the produce is the best produce, so if nothing else that’s the main reason to use them. Also, to know that it’s regenerative and that these farmers are looking after the land and giving back, rather than just intensively rearing and farming. It’s about making sure that there’s a thought process behind it and that it’s considered and not just getting a chicken from a battery house. It’s a win-win situation because it’s better for the planet, but it also tastes better too.
What drinks will you serve at The Pem?
We have a wine list of around 150 bins that has been curated for us and that’s really nice as it’s got lots of lesser known producers on there. It’s an opportunity for the front of house to offer something that guests wouldn’t normally go for. The whole ethos of The Pem’s food is about sustainability and being able to trace where the food comes from and that’s exactly what we’ve done with the wines as well. It’s not just off the shelf stuff, it’s really carefully considered and curated.
What lessons have you learned from the pandemic?
The pandemic has definitely made everybody reconsider their life to a certain extent. I find it easier to switch off now than I did before. Having that period of forced nothingness and then realising how important it is to relax and to switch off, that is something that I really want to hang on to. I’ve been on the go for so many years, that when the pandemic hit and I was actually getting sleep, my vocabulary started to extend and I was starting to use words that I hadn’t used in years, which was really interesting and I just don’t want to lose that. It’s obviously a part of my brain that’s been asleep for a long time and it’s nice that it has woken up!
Sally’s perfect match for Ayala's Le Blanc de Blancs 2014
The signature cuvée of Ayala’s chef de cave - Caroline Latrive - Le Blanc de Blancs is instantly recognisable for it’s pure and creamy style. An ode to Chardonnay, a silky texture and a light freshness blend beautifully with the chalky minerality of Cramant, making this signature offering something extra special and an excellent pairing for seafood and citrus dishes.
The dish: Poached native lobster with lobster cream, heritage tomatoes and basil
The Champagne: Ayala Le Blanc de Blancs 2014
Abé explains "This dish is lovely because you’ve got the richness of the lobster cream in the bottom, then you’ve got the acidity of the tomatoes and the meatiness of the lobster and it’s all finished off with a tomato consomme that’s split with shellfish oil, so it’s quite light and delicate. I think shellfish and Champagne is a fantastic pairing, it rounds each other off very nicely."
Sally’s quick bites
If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?
Write everything down in a notebook and if you’re not sure about something, just ask. I’d much rather show someone something twice than have them do it wrong.
What is your favourite ingredient to use in cooking?
I love mustard, I seem to put mustard in everything - English mustard, Dijon mustard, all of it. That’s one of my go-to flavours and it makes an appearance on The Pem’s first menu!
Describe your cooking style in three words?
That’s a tough one - I would say elegant, comforting and memorable. I hope so anyway!
What is your favourite thing to cook at home?
I love to cook Thai food at home. My favourite dish is probably Khao Soi, it’s a red curry noodle soup from Chiang Mai with fried noodles on top which is delicious.
What is your favourite London or UK restaurant?
I think my favourite restaurant in the UK is Trinity [in London’s Clapham]. I go back there time and time again and it just keeps getting better.
Where is your favourite foodie destination?
I think the best food I’ve ever had has been in Bangkok, in Thailand. Just all of the street food there - I love it.
Do you have a guilty food pleasure?
I’ve probably got quite a lot - I grew up in the Midlands! I love really crap crisps, like Skips and Quavers and Wotsits and that kind of stuff. We used to eat Skip sandwiches as kids.
How do you relax?
I do quite a lot of yoga and gym in general, things like HIIT classes. I really didn’t start exercising until I was about 30, but as I get older that’s becoming more important to me. Plus I like drinking wine, so those two balance eachother out.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I kind of like the idea of being a hairdresser, because you get to chit chat all day and there’s still that creative element to it.