Skye Gyngell: Pearls of Wisdom

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Chef

Skye Gyngell, now culinary director at Heckfield Place, which is due to open next March
Skye Gyngell, now culinary director at Heckfield Place, which is due to open next March
The Australian-born former head chef of Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, London, is now culinary director of Heckfield Place, a country-house hotel, which opens in Hampshire in March 2013. She is also set to open a new London restaurant next year.

I started as a chef by mistake really​. I went to university and got a job in a restaurant kitchen washing up. I hated university, but really enjoyed the buzz and the teamwork of the kitchen.

I trained in Paris at the time when cooking was all about French food.​ Chefs such as Roger Vergé, the Troisgros brothers and Paul Bocuse were at the top of their game. I liked the precision and classicism of the cooking, it was an amazing grounding. I learnt the techniques and from there you have the freedom to do anything you want.

Any success I had didn’t come until I was in my 40s.​ Before then I was just a jobbing chef. When I got the recognition at Petersham Nurseries I felt that I’d walked a long road to get there.

I don’t do fine dining,​ I don’t know how to do it.

Over the past five years there’s been an explosion of different, exciting young chefs​ doing some great things, such as 10 Greek Street and Duck Soup. In Australia we didn’t have a classic cuisine, so this was happening in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1980s. Australia was ahead of here for a long time. 

Petersham was really a garden shed. ​The kitchen cost £28,000 and was all second hand. The work surfaces were uneven and there were no plate-warming facilities. We never had mains gas the whole time I was there – Calor gas was delivered weekly.

The glamour of a restaurant is often not down to decor.​ It comes from the service and the food, and the attitude of the servers.

I love the way young chefs are doing what they want to do.​ I love their cowboy attitude – and I don’t mean that in a negative way. But for me, I don’t regret learning my craft over a long period of time.

What would have been amazing [at Petersham]​ would have been to have a blast chiller, and a walk-in fridge. It would have changed my life.

I was never ungrateful to get a Michelin star.​ Petersham didn’t have the infrastructure in place, we couldn’t grow to what people wanted. The expectations that come with the label of having a star were too high.

When I became a cook my parents said, “Oh no!”​ It was not a fashionable thing to do. I didn’t earn £300 a week until I was in my 30s. It’s become very fashionable to be a chef now.

I didn’t leave Petersham because it got its star​, despite what people have written. I had been there nearly nine years and I felt I was coming to the end of my time. It was like being a musician and making a good album. I thought: “Do I have another one in me?”

I never went into cooking for recognition.​ It’s not enough being well known, you are always comparing yourself to somebody else, no matter what.

I’m now in a two-storey kitchen and I’m terrified of it.​ With all these amazing machines it’s like you don’t have to cook anymore. At Petersham you couldn’t hide behind a fancy cooking system. When you’ve got very little kit you’ve got to know how to cook. It was scary, but incredibly connecting.

There’s one kitchen at Heckfield Place,​ but three different restaurants. I want each to be different, but it has to feel natural walking from one room to the next.

I’m looking for a London site.​ I want it to be as beautiful as Petersham, but it’s not as easy as I thought. I love Soho, but I’ve learnt that my tick list is very hard to achieve in the West End. I like the East End, but I don’t think it’s right – it’s good to know your areas.

Heckfield will have a 400-acre farm, including five acres of vegetable gardens and a micro dairy​. I dream of unpasteurised milk and making raw butter.

Australia is a great country,​ but I’ve lived away from there for so long that I see England as my home now.

I’m nervous [about opening my own restaurant again]​. But I’ve never not felt scared before a service in my life. All you can ever do is your best. After that, whatever happens, happens.

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