The first interview in this year's Best Female Chefs Series, in partnership with Champagne Ayala, is with Anna Haugh. The Dublin-born chef has worked at some of the most famous names in London dining but has been trying to open her own restaurant for eight years. Now, with Myrtle, she has managed it. Here she tells us about her sense of achievement, improving the working environment for chefs and why Gordon Ramsay is a great boss.
It is the dream of every chef to open their own restaurant. But few chefs express the satisfaction of finally achieving their ambition quite as poetically as Anna Haugh, who recently opened Myrtle on Langton Street in Chelsea. “I breathe the air differently now that I have this restaurant. It was a missing part of me – it’s like my heartbeat.”
That sounds even more poetic expressed in Haugh’s sing-song Irish accent – and Myrtle is a very Irish restaurant. Its name is inspired by Myrtle Allen, the founder of the legendary Ballymalloe House hotel and restaurant in County Cork and a heroine for Haugh. “I believe that Myrtle Allen is the best chef ever to come out of Ireland. She was a trailblazer who made people eat Irish food instead of French cuisine.”
Then there's the look of the place. The bar and butter dishes are crafted from green marble while a vintage TWA poster advertising the charms of the Emerald Isle hangs at the top of the stairs of the two-floor dining room. The Champagne glasses are made from Galway crystal while water is served in pewter goblets. “Those are just so Irish to me and I love the idea that they keep your water cold,” Haugh explains, even though she's touchingly worried that they might be seen as a bit naff. “I’ve tried to source things from home that are genuinely beautiful.”
The most beautiful thing of all, of course, is the cooking, which Haugh describes as “modern European but with an Irish influence”. So while there’s potato and black pudding, for instance, it’s an elegant cylinder of Clonakilty black pudding tied up in a thin twine of fried potato strings. There’s soda bread made with a spoonful of treacle for sweetness, and smoked salmon from the Burren Smokehouse in County Clare paired with an elegant pickled cucumber salad.
“I was on Saturday Kitchen recently and made oat-crusted hake with a smoked mackerel and mussel chowder, which is on the menu at Myrtle. The presenters asked me if the dish was Irish, and I said, this is absolutely Irish! I was raised my entire life with my father saying the word ‘chowder’,” Haugh laughs (she laughs a lot). “This is a fancier chowder. There’s no flour in it, it’s just mussel stock with a little bit of fish stock and the mackerel blitzed through it. But it’s still chowder and it represents what I love.”
Potato-wrapped Clonakilty black pudding with Cox apple purée
The road from South Dublin to Langton Street has been a long one. She first tried to open her own restaurant eight years ago, when she was head chef of London House, but the site on Davies Street in Mayfair fell through. “And the result was shame for years afterwards, when I felt like a failure.”
The bug to own her own place hit again in 2017 when Haugh was working as executive chef of Bob Bob Ricard. Like a first-time buyer looking for somewhere – anywhere – within her budget, Haugh found herself viewing restaurant sites in Streatham Hill and Brixton (“but not the good side!”), with rents often doubling during the negotiating process. She came close to signing on a site at the other end of Chelsea, opposite Bibendum, until Adam Byatt, the chef-patron of Trinity, told her that she’d be handing over any money she made to the landlord.
And Haugh is determined to waste as little money as possible. She has funded Myrtle from her savings and a bank loan. Her electrician brother-in-law has helped with fitting out the restaurant. Haugh wrote the press release for Myrtle herself instead of employing a PR company and sent out the invitations to the launch party – “I missed out lots of people,” she laughs. She is paying her staff by the hour rather than a salary, “which is financially very, very painful,” she groans, “but I believe is the right thing to do.”
“I didn’t open this restaurant to make a lot of money,” Haugh continues. “I wanted it to be a reflection of me. So fair pay and human rights is all part of that.” Myrtle is closed from Sunday evening until Tuesday dinner and will be closed for five days over Christmas and a week in August and at Easter. “I want to be here every minute that Myrtle is open,” Haugh says, “but if you don’t close, you don’t have any time off. I want the food to be consistent and the staff to be happy. If I’m here, I can see that they’re happy.”
Haugh’s love of cooking was instilled by her mother when she was growing up in Tallaght, just south of Dublin. Her first professional kitchen job after leaving school was at L’Ecrivain in Dublin, before moving to Gualtiero Marchesi at the Hotel Lotti in Paris, and then to London to work for Shane Osborne at Pied à Terre and Phil Howard at The Square.
But the most famous chef who Haugh has worked for is Gordon Ramsay, when she launched London House in Battersea. For all of his abrasive machismo, Ramsay has nevertheless supported the careers of some of Britain’s most famous female chefs: Core’s Clare Smyth, Murano’s Angela Hartnett and now Haugh all rose to fame in Ramsay’s kitchens.
“Gordon doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman,” Haugh says. “If you say you’re going to do something and you do it, Gordon’s happy. If you don’t do it, you’re dead to him. That’s what a good businessperson does. I have the utmost respect for Gordon.”
Then again, Ramsay has always stood out from the crowd. “I hear some chefs say, I like to have women in the kitchen to balance things out, and I just think: get lost! What do you mean ‘balance things out’? Oh yes,” Haugh says sarcastically, “women calm the kitchen down. I’ve worked with some women that you could take a fire extinguisher to! In general, women and men in the kitchen are all the same. It’s who's leading them that affects them. If a man has the mindset that allows him to work for a woman, then I believe he already has a different character.”
Haugh thinks that that the problems in restaurant kitchens run deeper than sexism, however. “Being a woman in a kitchen is hard, being gay is hard, being foreign is hard, and being a chef is hard. The only person things aren’t hard for is the straight white dude. Except it is hard for him, because the environment is unhealthy and he’s struggling too. So nobody is winning and everyone is in this whirlwind of torture.”
Roasted beef fillet with Burren-stuffed boxty, tarragon and confit shallot jus
But Haugh is determined to make kitchens healthier environments to work in than some of the war zones she experienced during her own training, when she says that the key management skills for a chef were being a manipulator or a bully.
“Bob Bob Ricard was a huge kitchen to manage so when a new person came in, I would try to pair them up with somebody from a similar background so they felt like they had a friend. You join a kitchen to feel part of a team and one of the most crippling things that can happen in a kitchen is feeling like an outsider. If you’re rejected by the team, it’s worse than anything – the loneliness of having to take breaks on your own. Then there’s the drinking and the drugs and before you know it you see a 22-year-old kid slipping into a place where they shouldn’t be.”
Haugh’s new kitchen is small enough for her to keep an eye on all of her team. And she’s also been able to put a trusted brigade of chefs and front-of-house staff around her. "People have been so good at supporting me."
Besides opening their own restaurant, the other dream of every chef, of course, is to win a Michelin star. Given the calibre of restaurants that she trained in, does Haugh hope to have one shining above Myrtle when the new stars are announced in the autumn?
“I don’t think winning a Michelin star would be terrible” – another peal of laughter – “but my main focus is the customers. I’m super-proud of what I do. If you do something right for a long time then people notice. I know that every plate leaving my kitchen is the food that I want to create. And that’s the best feeling in the world.”
Thanks to Myrtle, Haugh can now breathe easy in the knowledge that she’s doing the right thing on all fronts.
Anna’s perfect match
The dish: Heritage carrot salad with Cáis na Tíre cheese
The Champagne: Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2012
Crab and Champagne is a classic food and wine match because of the sweetness of the shellfish and this is no different – the sweetness of the carrot really comes through. There’s also a tarragon dressing and a star anise purée in the dish. The creaminess of the purée goes really well with the Ayala, but the Champagne also picks up the notes of the star anise and the tarragon.
Anna’s quick bites
Favourite cooking gadget?
I love a wooden spoon. A risotto made with a wooden spoon tastes different, as does a crème anglaise.
Favourite thing to cook at home?
I like a really good lasagne. I make everything from scratch, except the pasta sheets, which I’ll splash out on.
Favourite London restaurants?
I’ve eaten in The Dairy more times than I can count. It’s seasonal and interesting and a fun environment to dine in. I also eat at Trinity and Chez Bruce a lot.
Favourite foodie destination?
My dream is to go to Mexico. The fine-dining scene sounds like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Guilty food pleasure?
Anything with MSG if I’m feeling tired. I have three-minute Koka noodles when I come home at night, and a glass of sparkling water with Robinson’s cordial.
Describe your cooking style in three words?
Traditional. Fresh. Balanced.
How do you relax?
I’m a crafter, but I’m not particularly good. If you get a gift from me you can see the love that went into it. I knit booties when my friends have babies, but none of them ever match.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
A history teacher. But I think as a chef you’re a teacher anyway. I love getting a young buck in and see them develop into a good chef and a good leader.
Click here to read why Angela Hartnett won our 2018 Female Chef of the Year Award and find out which other chefs made the shortlist
Portrait images by Laurie Fletcher