This interview in our Best Female Chefs Series, in partnership with Champagne Ayala, is with Angela Hartnett. She tells us about equal pay, future plans for growing her empire of five restaurants – and who does the cooking at home.
Ten years ago, if you’d asked most people to name a female British chef, chances are they’d have said Angela Hartnett. In the noughties, she was famous as Ramsay’s voice of reason on Hell’s Kitchen, had ruffled feathers by being appointed the first female chef of the ultra-traditional Connaught hotel, and had just launched her first solo restaurant, Murano (pictured below), with Ramsay’s backing.
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.
Angela’s quick bites
Favourite cooking gadget?
The old Thermomix. The new ones have too many gadgets attached.
Favourite thing to cook at home?
A great big puttanesca.
Favourite London restaurant?
Noble Rot. They understand seasonal ingredients and don’t over complicate anything.
Favourite food destination?
Apart from Italy, Japan. The approach to food is absolutely rigorous.
Guilty food pleasure?
I love ready-salted crisps. Kettle Chips are the best.
Describe your cooking style in three words
Seasonal, uncomplicated and tasty.
People who don't look up from their phones when they are crossing the road.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I would love to have been smart enough to have been a police pathologist. I don't think I’d have the stomach for the crime scene though.
Fast forward 10 years and few people are likely to mention Ramsay any more – Hartnett has been her own woman for some time. She bought Ramsay out of Murano in 2010, launched two Café Muranos, in St James’s and Covent Garden, as well as Hartnett, Holder & Co at the Lime Wood hotel in Hampshire.
Along the way she’s found time to get married to fellow chef Neil Borthwick, who heads up the kitchens at Hartnett’s Shoreditch restaurant, Merchants Tavern.
It’s fair to say that if you ask most people to name a female British chef in 2018, many will still say Angela Hartnett. Has it been hard being a trailblazer for female chefs? “I always felt it was an advantage there weren’t 500 other women to compete with,” Hartnett chuckles. “It was bad enough there were 500 blokes. Because I was one of the few women in the restaurant industry, people wanted to write an article about me. It always worked to my advantage.”
In turn, Hartnett’s own kitchens have produced some of the next generation’s best female chefs. Former Murano head chef Pip Lacey is about to launch her first solo restaurant, Hicce, in King’s Cross, while Sam Williams is head chef of Café Murano in St James’s. Hartnett’s former head chef at the Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room, Emma Duggan, launched Walnut in Finsbury Park in 2017.
But Hartnett is just as keen to point out that crowdfunding star Gary Usher, of Sticky Walnut fame, was sous chef when Hartnett ran Ramsay's York & Albany. “For me, it’s always been more about nurturing talent than exercising some sort of female prerogative. It’s good to have a mix of men and women in the kitchen.”
It’s a long way from when Hartnett started her chef career in 1994 as the only woman at Ramsay’s Aubergine. The kitchen was known as ‘Vietnam’ because of its high casualty rate: nine out of 10 employees walked out. Hartnett stuck at it because she enjoyed the camaraderie with fellow chefs such as Marcus Wareing and Mark Askew, now The Ivy Collection’s chef director. “And I enjoyed working for Gordon. He wasn’t the kind of chef who walked in at midday then left at three. He did all the work with us and taught us everything.”
Still, Hartnett admits that working “hideous hours” – 17 hours a day, six days a week – was punishing. It’s a very different story to how Hartnett runs her own kitchens. “I give my staff three days off a week and they work nice hours. I don’t pay a woman less than a man – if they can do the job, I pay them equally. I think kitchens are generally less aggressive than they used to be and as an industry we are much fairer when it comes to pay. There’s no point being horrible to people or they won’t stick around.”
Hartnett jokes that having two professional chefs in her kitchen at home, though, is more stressful. “We tend to argue a bit if we’re both in there. Neil will ask, ‘Do you want a hand?’ and I’ll say, ‘No, I’m fine.’ Then he’ll do it anyway and make a mess. So now I tend to say, ‘No, I’m doing it all, shut up and get out.’” But she does admit that her husband recently made her two “absolutely spectacular” vanilla tarts for her 50th birthday.
With five restaurants to her name ticking over nicely and appearances on the festival circuit (she is a regular at Wilderness), Hartnett could be forgiven for easing up a bit as she enters her fifties. But while she admits that life is less stressful than the six days a week she worked when she launched Murano, Hartnett has no plans to relax her focus.
Angela’s perfect match
The dish: Cep tagliatelle with roasted Scottish girolles (pictured)
The Champagne: Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2010
“I was at a Champagne tasting in France a couple of years ago and the final course we had was Parmesan matched to Champagne, which worked really well. We finish the sauce in this dish with a little bit of Parmesan and butter. Overall, it’s flavoursome and hearty and a great Champagne will stand up to the ceps and girolles.”
“I have a head chef now and a secure management team, and as you expand as a business you have to let the people underneath you grow professionally. But I think the moment you step back and think, ‘yeah, it’s all fine,’ is the moment you take your eye off the ball and go wrong.”
And while Hartnett admits that she is looking at sites in London for further Café Muranos, she doesn’t have any plans for rampant expansion. “You can’t just stick your name anywhere. And I don’t like the idea of walking into one of my restaurants and not knowing what’s on the menu.”
She might be the most famous female chef in the country, but for Hartnett, the food has always been the thing. “Years ago, the American chef Gabrielle Hamilton said to me, ‘just do your cooking and don’t even think about anything else. And I think she was probably right.”