The Ayala SquareMeal Best Female Chefs Series 2019: Skye Gyngell

SquareMeal meets up with Skye Gyngell, the chef-patron of Spring at Somerset House and culinary director of Heckfield Place in Hampshire.

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Skye Gyngell used to be famous as the chef who walked away from a Michelin star. These days, however, the chef-patron of Spring and culinary director of Heckfield Place is renowned for being one of the most forward-looking chefs in the country. Spring’s early-evening Scratch menu serves up three courses of food that would otherwise go to waste for £20. Last year, Gyngell eliminated single-use plastics at the restaurant. And Heckfield Place, the luxury Hampshire hotel that opened in 2018, will soon have the largest biodynamic farm in England.

“This is the last third of my working life,” Gyngell says. “I’m no longer at the point where I’m chasing after awards. What is important to me now is this restaurant. It’s beautiful that Spring is still standing and that it’s doing ok. Now I just want to do stuff that interests me. The environment is really important to me.”

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 by winemaker Caroline Latrive, who was one of the first female Cellar Masters in the region. 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.

Gyngell credits her time at Petersham Nurseries Cafe, the restaurant where she won a Michelin star as head chef in 2011, as marking a decisive shift in her outlook as a chef. Championing local and seasonal ingredients, Gyngell was a lone voice for sustainability when the restaurant opened in 2004.

When Gyngell launched Spring in 2014, two years after she’d left Petersham, she no longer had the luxury of on-site gardens to supply her kitchen. Instead, she began using produce from Fern Verrow, Jane Scotter’s biodynamic farm in Herefordshire. “I think our food has really responded to Jane’s produce,” Gyngell says – so much so that when Gerald Chan, Spring’s billionaire backer, was planning to open Heckfield Place as a hotel, Gyngell was determined that it, too, should be biodynamic.

The gardens at Heckfield Place

The herb garden at Heckfield Place

But isn’t biodynamic something cranky that involves picking grapes by moonlight? “I would describe it as organics with voodoo,” Gyngell explains. “It’s organic farming, but more so. Our whole lives are governed by the sun and the moon. We get up when it’s light, we go to bed when it’s dark. Biodynamics is about just going with that, as opposed to fighting nature, which is what industrialised farming does.”

Gyngell believes that the proof that biodynamics work is very much in the pudding. “The evidence is in the produce that Jane delivers to us. Her soil is full of energy – it’s dark, it’s aerated, and everything grows in a joyful, technicolor kind of way. Heckfield will achieve full biodynamic status in 2021. It was not a biodynamic or organic farm before and, as Jane says, it will take 10 years to heal itself.”

As well as the vegetable farm, a biodynamic woodland has been planted, as have orchards of apples and pears, plums and quinces, while there will be a dairy for raw milk. What’s more, Gyngell is keen to begin an educational programme. “We would love to set up a school at Heckfield where you could come for a year and work on the farm or in the dairy, make the connection between cooking and the earth and learn forgotten skills like butter making and cheese making. Nobody wants to be in the farming industry anymore but it can be a beautiful and good life.”

Hearth restaurant at Heckfield Place

Hearth restaurant at Heckfield Place

Back at Spring, meanwhile, Gyngell describes the Scratch menu, launched in 2016, as one of the most successful things she has ever done. “I started looking at food waste and I also thought it would be really nice to deliver a menu to people who don’t have £80 per head to spend on dinner but do have £20. It fills the room early in the evening with lots of young people, which is lovely.”

Gyngell hands over cooking duties for the menu to the young chefs in her team to test their creativity. “We’ve got a Scratch shelf in the kitchen. We don’t really decide what we’re doing until four in the afternoon – it’s a bit like Ready, Steady, Cook. We might make a little salad with carrot and asparagus peelings and a buttermilk dressing. Or if we break down lamb legs for the grill, we’ll have the shank left over, so we might make a ragu and serve it with the misshapes left over from rolling pasta. It’s how people would have cooked in the 1940s or 50s. We only waste 4% of our food at Spring now.”

Gyngell also takes ingredients from Fern Verrow that might otherwise end up in the bin – “we’ll make a soup from spinach with holes in it” – pointing out that a third of all food grown never makes it onto the shop shelf and every week a third of the food in our fridges is thrown out.

Beef carpaccio with peas, raw asparagus, pecorino and horseradish cream at Spring

Beef carpaccio with peas, raw asparagus, pecorino and horseradish cream at Spring

The menu does not, however, accommodate dietary requirements. “I find dietaries incredibly selfish,” Gyngell says. “When someone says, ‘I need chia seeds, I need almond milk’, that’s all about me, me, me. But we will not be healthy if we don’t look after the health of the planet. We’re part of nature. We come from the earth and we’ll return to the earth.”

One thing that Gyngell doesn’t want to see putting in the earth is any more plastic. Spring stopped using plastic straws in September 2017 and six months later eliminated single-use plastics. Gyngell spent £1,300 buying lids for all of the storage pots in the restaurant's kitchen so the chefs no longer needed to use clingfilm. She changed Spring’s handsoap when the well-known brand that was in the loos wouldn’t supply the soap in re-useable bottles. The kitchen won’t accept any meat or fish that comes wrapped in plastic. And although Fern Verrow sends its vegetables to Spring in plastic sheeting, Gyngell washes it and hangs it up to dry on a line in the restaurant’s kitchen before returning it to the farm to be re-used.

“If you do have plastic,” Gyngell says, “keep it in the system, because only 7% is recycled – the rest goes into landfill. And when anything goes into landfill, it won’t break down anymore. So if someone puts a nappy in there, in 500 years, it will still look like a nappy.”

Skye Gyngell at Spring

Skye Gyngell photographed at Spring

When Gyngell came to attention at Petersham, she was one of the few female head chefs in London. Does she think that restaurant kitchens have become less male-dominated in the intervening 15 years?

“There’s machismo in a different way now,” she says. “There used to be an attitude that was kind of, let’s abuse everyone in the chef brigade. Gordon Ramsay brought that to the public and everybody loved the torture of what a restaurant kitchen looked like. And then that became old fashioned and a different machismo came in, which is very tribal and not very welcoming to women or different age groups. I’m not interested in that kind of kitchen or hierarchy. I like being a woman and I like running things in a female way. I want the kitchen to feel comfortable and nurturing. I want people to flourish here.”

Gyngell gives her team the space to flourish. Spring is closed on Sundays so that staff with kids can spend time with their families. No one works more than six shifts in a 44-hour working week while staff get two weekends off a month.

Gyngell admits that she finds it harder to take time off herself, especially as she now oversees not only Spring but also the three restaurants at Heckfield Place. “I don’t have a work-life balance, but I don’t really want one. I'm 55 and my kids are grown up now. I’ve got lots of work to do and I have limited time to do this. I don’t switch off.”

Whole native lobster with white beans, Pernod creme fraiche and tarragon at Spring

Whole native lobster with white beans, Pernod crème fraiche and tarragon at Spring

With so much to be proud of, does anyone mention the curse of Michelin anymore? “I said a throwaway line to a journalist – ‘it’s so amazing but sometimes it feels like a curse’ is how I said it. I felt like I had to explain myself for a really long time after that. Make no mistake, I was thrilled to receive a Michelin star. But a young chef came to see me recently and he said ‘Skye, you’ve got something I want – you’ve had a Michelin star.’ And I said, oh, forget about it. Just enjoy your journey.”

Young chefs aren’t the only people visiting Gyngell – everyone from The Clove Club team to members of the yachting industry have paid Spring a visit to see how they too can eliminate single-use plastics. Would she ever consider doing a TV series to spread the revolution? “I have no entertainment value. I'm too serious.”

And in any case, the food on the plate is what matters the most. “Alice Waters, from Chez Panisse in California, always talks about having a revolution – but she talks about having a delicious revolution. Our job is to make our food and showcase the beautiful produce. We do a restaurant on our terms.”  

On Gyngell’s terms it may be, but it’s hard not to anticipate Spring’s ethos taking root throughout the restaurant trade. 

Ayala Blanc de Blancs with lemon tart

Skye’s perfect match

The dish: Lemon tart with Fern Verrow strawberries and raspberries and crème fraiche

The Champagne: Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2012

I love serving Champagne with dessert. This dry, light and elegant Champagne works perfectly here with the crisp pastry and the gently sweet summer berries.

Skye’s quick bites

Describe your cooking style in three words?

Respectful. Simple. Nutritious.

Favourite cooking gadget?

A pestle and mortar. It's the one thing I use both at the restaurant and at home. I prefer the rough granite ones to the marble ones.

Favourite thing to cook at home?

I tend to cook one-pot dishes that get better over a couple of days, like slow-cooked grains and vegetables or soups. 

Favourite London restaurant?

I think James Lowe is very thoughtful and intelligent. So I love Lyle’s and I’m really looking forward to going to Flor.

Favourite foodie destination?

Sicily. It has some of the best seafood in the world. They eat a lot of raw fish, almost like the Japanese, because it’s super-fresh.

Guilty food pleasure?

I’m not the chef who goes home and buys McDonald’s. If I were to let myself go, I would eat some sourdough with a big slab of cheese.

How do you relax?

I read, I do pilates and I zone out on a Netflix series. That’s my guilty pleasure. 

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

A gardener.

Click here to read the first of our 2019 Female Chef Series interviews, with Anna Haugh of Myrtle, and our second interview, with Nieves Barragán Mohacho of Sabor

Portrait photos: Laurie Fletcher

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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, not least because its chef du cave Caroline Latrive is a lady who has broken the glass ceiling in a world where Champagne makers are still almost exclusively men.

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.

For more information click here.

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