The best ideas don’t always come out of a trip to Ibiza, but Pip Lacey got lucky. It was on the return from a holiday, at a loss after the credit crunch ended her graphic design career, that a friend suggested she become a chef.
“I remember telling my partner at the time and she just pissed herself,” says Lacey. “I’d never seriously thought of it. I’d had a private education, everyone around me was very academic and I went in an art direction.”
Ten years later, the chef is days away from opening her first restaurant, Hicce (pronounced ee-che), in partnership with her long-time friend Gordy McIntyre. McIntyre, who hails from near Glasgow and is overseeing front of house, jokes that the role was a perfect fit for her. “The best place for you is in the back somewhere where you’re not arguing with people,” he laughs.
Anticipation has been building for Hicce since Lacey revealed she was stepping down as head chef at Angela Hartnett’s Murano in summer 2017 after six years at the Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant. The concept – cooking over an open wood fire, as well as curing and pickling ingredients – was revealed in December 2017, but it wasn’t until August this year that its opening in the new, and highly ambitious, King’s Cross development Coal Drops Yard was finally confirmed. “It was our excitement bubbling over,” explains McIntyre on the early announcement. “We wanted to share the whole journey."
Teamwork will work
Going into business with someone you know well might not always lead to success, but both say they work better as a team. Lacey admits she “can’t deal” with her own company, while McIntyre adds he “climbs the walls” if he’s left alone too long.
“We’re very strong personalities. We don’t see eye to eye on everything but we bring out the best in each other and push each other in the right way,” he says. "We’re not scared to have the hard conversations because we know each other. I’ve got quite a thick skin as a manager.”
The pair recently led their first team meeting on-site in the restaurant, where McIntyre admits to getting teary-eyed that the launch was finally about to happen. What will he be like when Hicce opens for real? “I’ll probably be crying in the toilet,” he laughs.
In fact, this a restaurant that’s been 17 years in the making. Rewind to 2001 in the French Alps. Lacey and McIntyre were both working a ski season for Crystal Holidays in Alpe d’Huez, and met when they ended up rooming next to each other in the resort. Lacey was maître d’ of the hotel restaurant, but had ambitions of being a pro snowboarder. McIntyre was working in the bar, and would challenge her to make them the best baguette sandwiches every day.
“Even then I was cooking and I wasn’t even meant to be in the kitchen,” remembers Lacey. “We’d eat half the baguette then go up the hills for the day, finish work at 10pm and get drunk, stay out until five in the morning then realise we had to be up at seven. On repeat, we did that for six months.”
It was during this time that the pair first dreamt up opening a restaurant. “It was all we spoke about in France, let’s open a restaurant in the Alps and smash it,” says Lacey. Though perhaps the timing wasn’t quite right. “Looking back if we’d done it then god help us,” laughs McIntyre. “We’d have been bankrupt.”
The pair returned to the UK, living above a chicken shop in London’s Queenstown Road with McIntyre working front of house at Sir Terence Conran’s Mezzo in Soho. Lacey briefly tried to give pro snowboarding another shot before two fractured vertebrae put paid to her dreams of the Winter Olympics. At a loose end, she decided to use her Art Foundation degree, and set up a business putting graphics on clothes and screen printing – McIntyre insists he bought a T-shirt – which ended when the credit crunch hit in 2008.
“I thought I was going to be a millionaire within three years, then the crunch hit and shops just stuck with the brands they knew,” says Lacey, who appeared to suffer a crisis of confidence. “I never sold myself, I’m not a very good marketing person. I found it really difficult to say, ‘mine’s great’.”
She ended up moving back in with her parents, at a loss at where to go next until then, on the way back from a trip to Ibiza, a friend suggested she become a chef.
The gamble pays off
With no serious kitchen experience and nothing to lose, Lacey applied for a commis role at Gordon Ramsay Group’s York & Albany. It was a pretty big gamble, but one that paid off. She accidentally ticked the wrong box in the right-to-work section, and convinced them to give her the job while ringing up to clarify the mistake. “I turned up on my first day with new kit, all the gear and no idea,” she jokes. “I had pristine whites and I cut my hand open. It was a weird day but I knew how to work hard.”
It was here where she first came under the wing of Angela Hartnett, who she returned to work for at Murano in 2011 after a brief stint at Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road. Lacey’s rise through the ranks was relatively rapid, and she was promoted to head chef at the Michelin-starred kitchen in 2014.
But working for such an established figure had its difficulties, and McIntyre and Lacey were still holding on to the dream of their own restaurant. In 2015, they began running a pop-up series, The London Gap with Adam Jay – now head chef at Café Murano St James – in a bid to find their own niche in the dining scene.
“As much as I loved working for Angela, I also wanted to develop my own thing,” says Lacey. “It’s difficult. When you’ve been working for very key people in the industry, what you’re doing is their style. So what was ours?”
The pop-ups were a precursor to Hicce, with the team using its specialities to match seven courses of food with different beers. McIntyre recalls loading up his Mini with glassware and plates before dragging it along to pubs that were closed on Sundays so they could borrow their cutlery. Despite the creative freedom, organising the events around their day jobs proved difficult, and Lacey concedes it eventually became too much. “At one pop-up I was working 18 hours a day, five days a week. I worked through the night one time then, in service, I was just a zombie.”
Getting Hicce finally open has been not just an issue of experience, but also self-belief. While her rise to the top of Murano was rapid, Lacey admits her late entry into the chef profession has left her feeling under greater pressure to prove herself. “I’ve always been a bit dodgy with confidence in the kitchen because I’ve progressed so fast. Sometimes I’ve had members of staff who’ve been chefs for a lot longer look at me like, ‘what do you know?’”
It was the ultimate test then, when she entered the BBC’s Great British Menu in 2015 and again in 2017. The series, which pits professional chefs against each other for the chance to cook a course at a final banquet, has become one of food TV’s biggest franchises. Lacey admits the show was “difficult mentally” because she was unsure where she would place among her peers. “I kept wondering if it was such a clever idea. What if I was really shit?” But her fears were unfounded when she was chosen to serve the winning starter in 2017, a Wimbledon-themed take on minestrone soup with ravioli, deep-fried tomatoes in honey marinade, and summer vegetables. Served in a tennis ball-shaped bowl, it was topped with a watering can of tomato rain that impressed the judges. “To win Great British Menu has given me a bit more reassurance that I know what I’m doing,” she says.
Search for a suitable site
Lacey realised that for her own restaurant to finally open, she needed to take a “leap of faith” and leave Murano, with Hartnett’s blessing. “Angela said she would support me. All I could think about menu-wise was Murano and rabbit tortellini and I just needed to make a divide.”
And so, in 2017, McIntyre left his role as openings and operations manager at Greene King pub group, and the pair began their long search for a home for Hicce. They started with two backers, who later dropped out. They seriously considered a site in Bermondsey, and put an offer on a location in London’s Old Street before losing out to another bidder earlier this year. The pair were becoming resigned to the fact that the restaurant might never happen, before getting a call about a possible partnership with trendy British clothing brand Wolf & Badger. The retailer stocks independent clothing brands, and wanted a restaurant concept to take its upstairs space.
Lacey was initially resistant to working with a retail brand, assuming it would be like “doing egg and cress sandwiches at the top of John Lewis”, but was won over by the site in Coal Drops Yard.
The building was a familiar one to both her and McIntyre, who used to go clubbing there when it was Bagley’s nightclub from the ’90s and
early noughties. Understandably, the pair are somewhat hazy on any further details.
The duo say they would be unable to afford the site without linking up with Wolf & Badger, which covers most of the building’s costs and acts as Hicce’s landlords. The 80-cover restaurant sits above the shop with its own separate entrance and a planned 35-cover outdoor seating area. There are also talks of using the store’s wide entrance space as a private dining area, while Hicce will cater to the store’s fashion events.
Hartnett is now the sole financial backer of the project, and her team has assisted with menu tastings and general advice. “We couldn’t ask for better people to help and guide us,” says McIntyre. “They’re really honest and open and we have a really good working relationship.”
Hicce’s menu will focus on dishes cooked using a wood-fired fuel source, that will be used to smoke, grill and steam ingredients. While there’s been a rise in a certain type of tattooed, masculine chef majoring in this style of cooking the past few years, Lacey insists she is not following any trend. “It was just where my journey had gone cooking wise,” she says. “I’d met a lot of different chefs from TV doing a lot of barbecuing and I got to know the guys supplying the wood. As a chef, it’s good to develop yourself in other areas. There’s something nice about building a fire, the flavour from the charcoal and wood.”
There’s no tasting menu as such, just three options each for meat, veg, fish, hot sticks, sides and a special, though Lacey is planning to do a ‘chef’s choice’ menu for £35-£40, where she will select dishes for diners.
The restaurant’s signatures are the Hicce hot sticks, which can be ordered per skewer, ranging from £2-£6 with options including salmon, sesame and fennel; quail eggs, cabbage and chilli; and chicken thigh, shiso leaves and crispy chicken skin (with a kimchi-based marinade).
The team hopes these will be popular for a quick lunch, with diners popping in and sitting at the pass, around the bar and at a high tabled area for sticks with a glass of wine.
Broader menu options include charred hispi cabbage, lardons, Reblochon, shimeji mushrooms and toasted flakes almonds; and muscovado creme caramel.
“The menu’s not huge but it will change, if you come Monday it won’t be the same on Friday,” says Lacey. “We want to keep it fresh for staff.”
McIntyre is overseeing front of house, and has sourced a lean drinks menu with two beers from Hackney Brewery, including a specially created Hicce IPA. There’s also a short wine list available by the glass and carafe (£4.75-£6.75), eight cocktails and four non-alcoholic options (£10-£14).
Despite Lacey’s Michelin background, there won’t be a white tablecloth in sight. “Pip’s food is top notch but we want hustle and bustle at the tables, not people pouring wine with their arm behind their backs,” says McIntyre. “I’m not chasing anything,” adds Lacey. “I respect and appreciate Michelin, but a lot of younger chefs now don’t understand why certain places get a star and others don’t. I think Hicce will be too relaxed for them.”
Hicce employs around 40 staff, with a roughly 50:50 gender split, though the team say this is not intentional – they just employed the best people for the job. McIntyre explains they’ve hired people based more on personality than background (“you can’t teach someone to be a nice person”) and are aiming to cross-train the team as much as possible. While the bar backs won’t be on the pass, there’s an effort to encourage them into the kitchen to help with prep and learn what goes in to all the dishes.
“We don’t want runners getting asked a question in the restaurant and freaking out and having to find a waiter,” says McIntyre. “The staff are all going to be dressed the same so the guests won’t know. We want people to be confident.”
They’re also planning to send staff on courses so they’ll come back to the restaurant with more qualifications. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re just a number,” he adds. “Pip and I know what that’s like. When people invest in you, it’s a much nicer feeling.”
Hitting the curve and staying there
Hicce’s unusual moniker means ‘current, of the moment’ in Latin and sums up the aims of the business. Not everything will be cooked on the grill, and the pair want the menu to be flexible enough to continually change. It’s a bid to keep things interesting for both staff and customers, as well as allowing the restaurant to adapt in a tough industry climate.
“We want to be on the curve and stay there,” explains McIntyre. “We’re not trying to be ground-breaking, just to be honest and listen to people and the concept can move with that. I’m not saying that’s why other restaurants are getting into trouble, but we’re going to have a bit more of an ear to the ground.”
“We’ve got no arrogance about this,” adds Lacey. “Learn fast and change it if it’s not right.”
The pair hopes this flexible approach could allow the Hicce concept to expand to a second location if the first is successful. What form this might take is up for debate; Lacey jokes it might be an ice cream bar, while McIntyre replies that they could branch in to bubble tea. In fact, could they end up coming full circle?
“The dream would be the French Alps,” laughs Lacey. “We’d like to do something abroad, to give our staff places to progress. That’s the dream we’re selling them.”
“We said we were going to open a restaurant together in 2001,” smiles McIntyre. “It’s taken a while, but we got there.”
Hicce officially opens on 12 November.
This feature first appeared in the November issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.