SKYE GYNGELL - CHEF AND FOOD WRITER
"I want the food to be nutritious and delicious but I don't want it to overshadow the intimacy of people eating together; sharing a meal with family and friends and taking the time to enjoy each other is the most important thing."
Originally from Australia, Skye Gyngell is an acclaimed chef and food writer, famous for her commitment to using only the finest seasonal produce. After completing her training in Paris, Skye moved to London to work at The French House as well as for a number of high profile private clients before taking on the role of head chef at Petersham Nurseries where she was awarded a coveted Michelin star for her delicious recipes that were simple yet full of flavour and inspired by what she saw growing around her in the Petersham nursery. Skye left Petersham the year after winning the Michelin star and has recently opened her first solo venture called Spring, which is located in the New Wing of Somerset House. Skye is a talented writer as well as one of Britain's most respected chefs and has written three cookbooks, including the award winning A Year In My Kitchen. She is also a former food editor of British Vogue and The Independent on Sunday. I spoke to Skye about where her passion for food stems from, the story behind Spring, her partnership with Fern Verrow, the beauty of food, her passion for preserving, and the perfect autumn recipe for a dinner party with family and friends.
Does your passion for food stem from your childhood?
For as long as I can remember the importance of good food has played a role in my life. I grew up in a family that was macrobiotic in 1970s Australia. We were always taught that "you are what you eat" and, although I haven't taken the practice of a macrobiotic diet forward into my adult life, I have always believed in the importance of nurturing yourself through good food. A macrobiotic tenant also states that food should be eaten within a 500 square mile radius of where it is grown, which makes sense to me.
What inspired you to open Spring?
When I left Petersham in 2012 I always had the intention of finding a site and opening another restaurant. I loved my time at Petersham but I also felt that I had gone as far as I could go there. I still felt full of energy and ideas and wanted to move onto another chapter in my life. One that would be very different although still doing what I loved which is of course cooking!
Why did you choose Somerset House for Spring’s home?
It took a really long time to find a site that I could fall in love with and feel like it stood for something. Somerset House is architecturally a beautiful building and I love the fact that it has a vibrant and busy cultural programme; there is so much going on here, it is really exciting to feel that we are amongst it all. The other really important thing for me was that I could find a site where we could create a lovely kitchen space that we could all work in. It is very depressing working in lots of restaurant kitchens that tend to be located underground with no natural light. At Spring we are so lucky because we have two beautiful kitchens that both have large windows so there is lots of fresh air and natural light! It makes a huge difference to the quality of our work life.
What was the thinking behind the design of Spring?
When we designed Spring we always had in our minds that it should be a really beautiful space that felt uplifting to enter. I think food is only one aspect of a memorable meal; everything must be considered and service is also extremely important! Guests should feel welcome, we talk about inclusive not exclusive service at Spring all the time. I want the food to be nutritious and delicious but I don't want it to overshadow the intimacy of people eating together; sharing a meal with family and friends and taking the time to enjoy each other is the most important thing. I never want the food or the service to intrude on that!
What is the story behind your relationship with Fern Verrow?
The produce at Petersham was lovely and very inspiring but extremely limited in terms of what we could grow; it was only ever really just a token that we got from the garden there. In 2013 I went to California and visited several restaurants that have a unique relationship with single farms. I was totally inspired by my visit and came back to London with a determination to find a farm and create a relationship of our own. I knew Jane and Harry's work from Borough Market years ago and more lately Maltby Street and Spa Terminus. I wrote to Jane and put my idea to her thinking that she would probably say no. I think it was probably a very serendipitous time for both of us when we were both looking for a new way to work. They were excited by the prospect and so we began to discuss a way of moving forward where they would grow for us and we would make a commitment to sustain them financially.
How important is the presentation of food?
Food should look beautiful as well as taste delicious. Beautiful produce is a pleasure to behold. I always say to all the chefs in the kitchen that you eat with your eyes first!
What is it about preserving that you find so enjoyable?
When you preserve something it feels like a treasure. I like how time changes things but at the same time preserved food can bring you right back to a time when the ingredient was in season and in its prime. I feel very nostalgic about food and eating it will always remind me of someone or something that happened in my past.
How has your approach to cooking changed over the years?
I think my cooking has become simpler and my appreciation for beautiful produce has grown over the years rather than diminished, there are so many truly beautiful ingredients available to us now. I see my role in some way as a custodian; I want to showcase beautiful produce with as little interference as possible.
How do you like to unwind in your spare time?
To me work and life is the same thing in many ways, I don't separate them and don't feel the need for a lot of downtime! It feels like there is always so much more to do and so little time to do it in. I do love spending time with the children and my friends are very important to me. I love fresh air, long walks and reading too.
Please can you recommend a delicious, simple autumn recipe, that I can cook for my family and friends this weekend?
Pappardelle with oxtail ragu would be perfect.
1 quantity freshly made pappardelle
For the ragu
1 oxtail, jointed into 6 (ask your butcher to do this)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 dried red chillies
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 bay leaves
3 thyme sprigs
3 rosemary sprigs
400ml full-bodied red wine
700g good quality jarred (or tinned) tomatoes, drained
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the ragu, place the pieces of oxtail in a large cooking pot, cover with cold water and bring to the boil over a high heat (this will help to remove any impurities). Immediately take off the heat, drain the oxtail and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan (large enough to hold the oxtail) over a medium heat. Add the chopped vegetables and sweat for 5 minutes. Crumble in the chillies and add the garlic and herbs. Sweat over a gentle heat for a further 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables are softened, sweet and translucent.
Turn up the heat to high, pour in the wine and add the tomatoes. Bring to the boil and add the blanched oxtail pieces, then immediately turn the heat down to low. Cover and cook, stirring from time to time, for 2 ½ - 3 hours until the meat is meltingly tender and falling from the bone. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
Once cool enough to handle, pick off any meat that is still attached to the bone and place in another pan; discard the bones. Pass the sauce and vegetables through a sieve onto the meat, pressing down with the back of a ladle to extract as much juice as possible; discard the residue in the sieve. Warm the meat and sauce over a low heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning, it will need a good pinch of salt.
To cook the pasta, bring a large pan of water to the boil, add salt, then the pasta and cook for 3½ - 4 minutes until al dente. Drain and serve with the ragu.