Call it the effect of sensationalist reality television if you will, but there’s always a sense of slight trepidation when meeting a chef for the first time. Particularly when that chef is Skye Gyngell, the Michelin-starred auteur with a whole flurry of quotes attributed to her about the ‘complex’ relationship that can exist between chef and star. Taking a sharp left past the grandiose gateway to Somerset House and into the wing that houses Spring, Skye’s latest vision for dining, one can’t help but wonder what curt or diva-ish responses await…
Of course, the reality couldn’t be more different. Immediately beyond the front desk of the restaurant, I find myself in a light-filled atrium. It is instantly disarming, replete with beautiful, towering olive trees that provide a comforting canopy over the unassuming tables, chairs and subtly intricate patterning on the walls. ‘Float’ is probably the most fitting way to describe the way in which Skye enters the room, and it’s a word that also suits the way her warm, gentle annunciations invite you into her world.
If you listen closely, you can just about pick up hints of Skye’s native Australia in her accent - it is a place she left behind at a tender age, when she realised that her true calling was for the kitchen. She traded a law degree for a Parisian cooking school, before settling in London soon after. As Skye puts it, she was a “jobbing chef for a really long time,” culminating in a role with Fergus Henderson and his wife at the French House Dining Rooms. This was about a year before Fergus opened St. John (he was in fact still working as an architect) but you can hear the seedlings of magic that sprung from that time in the way Skye reminisces: “They had the same logo they used today and it was all very similar to what he cooks today [taking that real head-to-toe approach]… I’ve still got recipes, menus from way back then.”
It was at this point that Skye took another left turn in her career. Rather than riding the ascendancy of Fergus and St. John, she left the restaurant world altogether for ten years, to raise her two children. In this period she taught and wrote for publications such as Vogue, whilst also catering for private events…
“…but I really missed restaurant kitchens,” she says, glancing over at the exposed window to the kitchens at Spring, which gives diners in the atrium a genuine behind-the-scenes glimpse. It’s about half an hour before lunchtime service begins, and Skye’s staff are preparing in relaxed manner amidst the rows of stainless steel appliances.
Before really delving into this world that Skye has created here at Spring, its first important to continue where we left off. After her decade long sort-of-hiatus came perhaps the most pivotal moment in her career: taking charge of the dining experience at Petersham Nurseries. “It came about almost by accident. I had these friends who had this beautiful big house down in Richmond and their garden backed onto an old garden nursery that came up for sale. My friend Francesca said to me, ‘I’m going to keep running it as a nursery, how would you feel about having a little tea house there?’”
Situated in the culinary no man’s land of zone 3 - this was way back in 2004, before diners became accustomed to the more adventurous eating options we now take for granted - Petersham Nurseries became an eight year labour of love for Skye that brought no end of acclaim. That acclaim culminated in the awarding of a Michelin star in 2011 - suddenly her ‘little tea house,’ and the garage from which she prepared the dishes (“we started off in a literal garden shed but upgraded to a garage after four years”) were inundated with a new clientele. “All of a sudden, people would come in high heels for their Sunday lunch. We had a dirt floor and wobbly tables and the two loos were outside… People would come and complain and their favourite thing to say was, ‘you dare to call yourself a Michelin restaurant?’ We were thinking, ‘no, I didn’t call myself a Michelin Star restaurant - they just gave us a star!’”
As soon as Skye begins to paint a picture of the challenges they suddenly faced at Petersham, it becomes clear how heavily the star may have weighed. Skye is at pains though to set the record straight about what this most prestigious of rewards really meant to her: ‘the thing is, I trained in France and so for me Michelin stars were the thing. When I was a young chef if someone had said to me, one day you’ll have a Michelin star… It seemed like a dream! Some things were written about how I gave back the star in some strange chivalrous act but it wasn’t like that at all. I was thrilled to get a Michelin star and, you know, I worked really hard all my life and to get that recognition was lovely.’
It wasn’t the so-called ‘curse’ of the Michelin star that led to Skye walking away from Petersham nursery, more so a hankering ambition to prove herself (to herself) on a new stage. ‘I’d been there for ten years and in a way I felt like there was nothing else for me to do here.’ She pauses, searching for an analogy. ‘It’s like, if you’d written one book or one album, you want to see if there’s another album in you. Is there another book in you?’
And so then to Spring, which opened its doors towards the tail end of 2014: not the next chapter, but a whole new book. It is a striking venture both in an immediate sense and also as you begin to unravel the ethos and work that goes into creating such a place. It’s almost impossible to believe that this grandiose space was previously a fusty, dilapidated old tax office and Skye remembers vividly her trepidation upon first viewing: “it had swirly orange carpet everywhere, pillars were painted chocolate brown… all of the windows were covered with these funny old blinds so you could see no sunlight. It was dark and dank and the walls were the darkest beige you could ever imagine.” Today though, it is a place transformed. This is no small part due to Skye’s sister, the Australia-based interior designer Bryony Fitzgerald, being able to realise the chef’s vision so perfectly. “I would be trying to express what I wanted on the phone to her, like I wanted it to be feminine but I really want it to be strong, very modern but also very soft… She said, ‘yeah, yeah, you want these wooden floors and these sofas.’ In the end I just said, do you know what, can you just come over to London and do it?” The resulting interiors capture the spirit of the down-to-earth luxury that Skye has perfected in her cooking, whilst also elevating it within a setting that feels like ‘fine dining.’
As Skye waxes lyrical about her sister’s work, and that of the designers who created her distinctive staff uniforms (Kim Trager and Lowell Delaney of Trager Delaney and Maureen Doherty of Egg) it becomes apparent that women played a key role in every aspect of the restaurant’s creation. This is almost unheard of in the male-dominated restaurant industry, and extends to the kitchen - 11 of the 20 chefs are women. “I think there are women out there who are so capable of doing amazing things and I was naturally drawn to this, the generosity of spirit in everyone who came together to make this happen. In terms of the kitchen, it’s a very hard industry to be in, especially for women who want to maybe get married and have kids. We have a manager, Grace, who was saying ‘oh, well I’m 26 now and all my friends are getting out of the industry.’ It just made me think: okay, how can we make it an industry where women want to and can stay.” It’s a touching statement with particular resonance given that you, dear Semaine readers, will be reading this in the week that much of the world are celebrating Mother’s Day. It is also a statement that is heartfelt and easy to understand, much like the qualities that go into Skye’s cooking.
“You won’t see foams here, or strange dehydrated things… I mean, I wouldn’t even know how to do a foam!” What you do see and taste are dishes crafted from the absolute finest produce. Almost everything is either made on site - from the butter and the cheeses to the liqueurs and the tonic water - or on Fern Varrow, a biodynamic farm in the black hills of Herefordshire that produces exclusively for Spring. It’s a remarkable, perhaps unique relationship for a restaurant to share with a farm, but Skye sees it as an essential part of the project: part of a serious commitment to sustainability. She mentions hesitantly throughout our talk how she doesn’t feel completely comfortable with the idea of having created a ‘fine dining’ experience - yet when she talks about the tough, rewarding work she does with her suppliers, there is absolute conviction. “I think especially as you get older, you have to look up from the stove and see the issues. Not just what’s in front of you, but how food actually matters you know? It is really important and the health of our soil, our eco-systems, our farming communities - our planet - depends on it.” Knowing that this ethos is what translates into the incredible food that Skye and her team prepare, what could be a finer dining experience than that?
By James Darton for Semaine