Anna Haugh is recalling her time in some of London’s most notoriously tough kitchens. The details are enough to make you wince, but the native Dubliner is clearly no pushover.
“At Pied à Terre chefs would say things to try to wind me up like, ‘you’re a bit like a man, your weakness is that your mind is a bit fragile’,” says Haugh. “I’d laugh and tell them, get the fuck away from my fridge.”
With an impressive CV that includes time with Gordon Ramsay, Shane Osborn and Philip Howard, Haugh is on the cusp of opening her debut restaurant, Myrtle, just off the King’s Road in London’s Chelsea on 9 May. This is her first independent project, and one that’s requiring her to wear multiple hats. When we meet at the Myrtle site the builders are in, the signage isn’t up yet, and the building is a skeleton, but Haugh is fizzing with energy. She’s currently writing a press release, hiring staff and juggling budgets to see if she can afford to put linen on the tables. “I love the sense of occasion it gives, even though it went out of fashion.”
It’s a bright sunny day in this well-heeled neighbourhood, and the sun is flooding through the skylight windows upstairs at Myrtle, which is named in part for iconic Irish chef Myrtle Allen. Haugh is adamant she doesn’t want to be seen as riding Allen’s coattails, but wanted to give a nod to the woman she credits as one of the most inspiring chefs of her generation. Allen died aged 94 last year, and an obituary in The Irish Times described her as a ‘matriarch’ of the country’s cuisine. She became the first Irish woman to win a Michelin star in 1975, and her philosophy of championing local ingredients and seasonal menus at her restaurant The Yeats Room at Ballymaloe House, County Cork, was seen as revolutionary for its time. Haugh never met Allen but did eat at Ballymaloe. “It’s amazing, she’s an absolute legend.”
A female influence
Born in Tallaght, South Dublin, Haugh credits another female influence – her mother – for first steering her towards a kitchen. Despite being able to cook a full roast from scratch by the age of 12, she was not immediately drawn towards a career as a professional chef. “My friend’s mother turned around one day and said ‘if you love cooking so much, why don’t you become a chef?’ It was the equivalent of someone saying, Anna you love the night sky, why don’t you become an astronaut? It just sounded mental. I went to the career guidance teacher and she laughed, like slapping her thigh, and said ‘when you get married you’ll be sick of cooking, so you should be a teacher instead’”.
It wasn’t until Haugh first walked into a professional kitchen during a summer job that something clicked. She started out as a junior chef at L’Ecrivain in Dublin, before heading to Michelin-starred Gualtiero Marchesi in Paris’ Hotel Lotti, then to London to work at Pied à Terre under Shane Osborn, and later The Square – both two-star restaurants at the time.
Haugh says there was a marked difference between her experience of kitchens in Ireland and London. At L’Ecrivain the team had a 50:50 gender balance, with a female chef second in command and another heading up the pastry section. “They were my example, I decided that when I grew up I wanted to be like them. Then I came to London and didn’t see a female for about two years, it was unbelievable. I was so confused as I came from a kitchen full of talented women who were really good at their job, then in London people were like ‘women can’t cook’.
“There were fewer obvious examples over here because they were invisible. I didn’t even know about Clare Smyth, if I had I would have worked for her. I knew Gordon Ramsay had a three-star restaurant but I didn’t know a woman was running the kitchen. That was a sign of the times; they never promoted the head chef, the owner was the only name you saw.”
Learning the hard way
Haugh has spoken openly about the intensity of her early days in London kitchens. In a 2017 talk at Food On The Edge, a yearly symposium in Ireland organised by chef JP McMahon, she described being ‘burned, shoved, plates thrown at my head and called names’, or as she called it, ‘the usual stuff’. Despite witnessing chefs walking out on their break and never returning, Haugh stuck it out. She worked in the kitchen of Pied a Terre for three years and, looking back insists such behaviour didn’t phase her.
“Time dulls your memory of things, and I’m not going to say it was easy. There were a lot of private tears and weird mind games that would go on, but in general I was fine. I would actually skip in to a 16-hour day excited, and they’d all be a bit like, ‘fuck off’, but I felt privileged to work there. A lot of time is given to people who say our job is hard. But work is hard, getting up in the morning and having a personal life is hard.”
These experiences shaped Haugh’s management style when she began leading her own kitchens. It is far easier to rule with an iron fist, she says, than getting chefs to like and respect you. “That’s Jedi shit,” she adds. “It’s hard but it means you can sleep at night. There’s a reason I believe kitchen porters and chefs are loyal to me, because they feel listened to and respected. I still lose my temper, there’s people out there who might say I’m the biggest bitch in the universe because I didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. I am firm, but I apologise when I’m wrong.”
Haugh took a four-year break from Michelin-starred kitchens in the late 2000s, working as a chef for events company Rocket Food, before she was approached to open Gordon Ramsay’s London House restaurant in Battersea in 2013. Was it a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire? Haugh insists the experience was no kitchen nightmare, and describes Ramsay as clever and encouraging. She says he gave her the freedom to cook the food she wanted at London House, which saw her win three AA rosettes within 12 months for her modern European menu. Ramsay even flew her to Los Angeles to appear as a judge on a US Hell’s Kitchen episode.
“He is a good boss,” she says. “If you ever have a half hour conversation with him it’s a roller coaster ride. The mistake some people make when they work for Gordon is that they want to be his friend, so they say yes to everything he asks. They say they can do something and then can’t, and he goes mental. If I was unsure about anything I’d ask questions and we’d talk about it, so we didn’t have any run-ins. On TV he gets angry at people who claim they’re making the best food but it’s a pile of shit.”
Fulfilling a dream
Myrtle’s launch has been a long time coming for Haugh, who initially tried to open a London restaurant prior to working for Ramsay. She admits the memory of her first attempt is painful and describes the experience as personally devastating.
“I got so close, but then the landlord kept the site and it really broke me. I passionately wanted to do my own restaurant, but I was failing because it’s really fucking hard when you don’t have a million pounds behind you and an investor who can vouch for you. It was a really hard time and it took me years to gain back the strength to do it again.”
This came in late 2017, when she left her role as executive chef at Soho’s Russian-inspired restaurant Bob Bob Ricard to pursue her dream. “I just said fuck it, I’m going to do it. I don’t care if I’m 50, I’m never stopping until this restaurant opens. I shouldn’t have stopped before, but that’s life, you live and learn and move on.”
Haugh found Myrtle’s site, just off the King’s Road in London’s Chelsea, last summer and signed quickly. She was keen to open in a residential area, rather than the capital’s more touristy boroughs, in the hope of creating a neighbourhood restaurant where local residents feel welcome enough to become regulars.
The 40-cover site is split across two floors, with a downstairs bar area and upstairs mezzanine, where natural light spills in from several skylight windows and is Haugh’s favourite spot in the restaurant.
Myrtle’s menu is described as casual fine dining, with dishes that are unintimidating but technically on point. The food will see her draw on her Irish roots as well as her training in modern European cooking, with a sample menu that includes Clonakilty black pudding rolls with Wendy’s apple chutney; slow confit Goatsbridge trout with cauliflower and capers; and beef with boxty cake (an Irish potato pancake) with hispi cabbage and parsnip purée. Prices are still being finalised but will likely range from £8-£16 for starters and £18-£39 for mains.
There are also touches of Ireland on the drinks menu, which will feature Irish whiskeys, gins and poitín. The water goblets are made with Irish pewter and engraved with scenes from the country’s history and folklore, with one depicting Queen Maeve, the warrior Queen of Connacht.
“As narcissistic as it sounds, I want the restaurant to reflect me. I’m incredibly proud of being Irish, but I think the produce we have in Ireland is still a bit of a secret and I want to bring that over. Richard Corrigan is amazing, and Robin and Sarah Gill [of Clapham’s The Dairy] have flashes of Irish in their restaurants, but there’s still room for me to introduce some other things to London.”
Haugh’s kitchen team will be small, initially only four chefs, but she says this will make it easier to remain consistent. The restaurant will be closed on Sunday night, all day Monday and for Tuesday lunch, and the team will have one other day off in the week. “I want them to be able to make plans. I’ve worked in places open seven days and someone walks out and that’s goodbye to your day off.”
So, given her background, is Haugh hoping for a Michelin star for her efforts? She has a typically pragmatic response. “I just want to make money, stay open and be a good business. To get a star would obviously be incredible, but if I don’t I’m never going to be disappointed. It breaks chefs, this idea that you want someone else to tell you you’re good.
“I might have had moments of self-doubt, but I’m driving forward because in my heart I’m never doing something that I think I can’t. You’ve got to be able to look at yourself and go, ‘I know I’m good’. If you need someone else to tell you that, you’ll never be satisfied.”
Myrtle opens on 9 May and is now taking bookings: www.myrtlerestaurant.com
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the May 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.