It's an hour before service starts at her restaurant in Petersham Nurseries and head chef Skye Gyngell has abandoned her kitchen. The sweetcorn and Dorset crab soup on the day's menu isn't quite right, "There aren't enough flavours at the bottom," she says and sets off at a sprint towards her vegetable garden to see what she can find to add to it. With her trousers trailing in the mud, she dashes past the borlotti beans, morello cherries and the quince tree and on towards the beds of rich green cavalo nero, purslane and wild fennel. She finds what she needs and then weaves her way past a couple of crates of pale Amalfi lemons, fresh in from Italy, back to the kitchen.
It's hard to believe such a pastoral scene can be found in south-west London, just a brisk walk from Richmond Tube station, but this is deepest Arcadia - a picturesque sweep of protected land which spans the banks of the Thames from Kew all the way to Teddington. The restaurant itself is a hotch-potch of tables set at one end of a large greenhouse. There are no sharp-suited waiters or polished wood floors here - just waitresses in wellies and a magical mish-mash of rambling jasmine, giant ferns and antique artefacts gathered from around the world.
But creating this unique venture hasn't been easy. Three years ago, when the restaurant first opened, Skye couldn't even get suppliers to deliver to her. "Why would they?" she says. "No one had ever heard of me, never mind know how to get here." So she would get up at the crack of dawn and buy the day's fish and meat herself. She would then pile it in her car and drive it to Petersham, along with any pots and pans she needed, as her kitchen - which was, in fact, just a garden shed - didn't have any. She had no washer-upper, there were no bookings, no table numbers and no licence, so everyone had to make do with her homemade lemonade cordial. It was an achievement, she says, when they managed to serve a dozen people a day.
"We had just three things on the menu," Skye recalls. "We didn't have the facilities to do anything else. I had a four-burner stove and a grill that was so slow it took two hours to do an aubergine." But impractical as it was, from the moment she laid eyes on the place, Skye could see its potential. "I completely fell in love," she says. "I saw the opportunity to do something that you couldn't do anywhere else. To have really good, simple ingredients, communal eating and run it in a really idealistic way, so when the food runs out, the food runs out."
But in the early days even these small-time ambitions seemed unachievable and Skye soon found herself doing 16-hour days trying to make it work. "We struggled and struggled. In our first year we lost an awful lot of money and in our second year we almost gave up." There was no heating in the greenhouse so people ate shivering in their coats, and only two outdoor toilets, so everyone had to queue in the rain. "None of us knew anything. We genuinely didn't have a clue what we were doing. We had a lot of advice. People came to us and said, 'You've got to cut down on your produce, you can't use Maldon sea salt and you can't use all these extra-virgin olive oils.' Well, this is a produce-led restaurant. I don't see the point in doing it if we can't do the food to the best of our ability."
Just as they were about to give up, Rose Gray from the River Café popped in for lunch. She loved what Skye was trying to do - the fresh, seasonal cooking resonated with her own - and invited her to the River Café for a crash course in the basics. Rose spent hours teaching Skye everything she knew - the importance of extending her menu, of opening for longer to maximise her produce and how to make the best out of the paltry kitchen facilities. Most importantly, she gave Skye a list of her own suppliers and instructed each one to deliver. "And they did," says Skye, "Albeit a bit begrudgingly at first. Rose is a very powerful woman."
Not long after that, Wendy Fogarty, who is responsible for starting the Slow Food movement in this country, joined as her official "forager", and now Skye has got all the ingredients she could ever dream of. "Wendy changed the way I think about (omega) food," Skye says. "She really tries to champion and bring small suppliers to me. As a result, that's made my cooking a lot more simple because it's all about putting produce on a plate and letting the flavours shine." Today, Skye is obsessing about a small box of Isabella or Fragolini grapes which Wendy has just got in from Italy. "They cost a small fortune," she says, "but will go well with our Wigmore cheese. Wendy's knowledge of food is astounding - she knows Italy and France like the back of her hand."
Much of Petersham's meat comes from the UK, though it can be hard to get the quality in the quantities they need. The beef comes from a small farm in north Wales or the acclaimed Ginger Pig butchers in London, and the lamb from Andrew Sharp in the Lake District. Today, Wendy only managed to get 2kg of the beef she wanted, which means there are only eight portions on the menu. "People do get annoyed when they've waited a month and a half for a table only to be told what they want is already off the menu," says Skye, "but it can't be helped."
Petersham now has a staff of more than 20, it can accommodate 80 in one sitting, and there's now a professional kitchen in what used to be a garage. At the tail end of last year, it picked up a Best Alfresco Dining award from Time Out, quickly followed by Most Original Restaurant from Tatler. It's good timing, then, that Skye's first book, A Year In My Kitchen, is to be published next week, because this year has been a turning point. In spring, the restaurant managed to break even for the very first time. "That was down to our maitre d', Rachel Lewis," says Skye. "Up until then we had no game plan. She sat down and for the first time really worked out what we needed and how we could shave things off here and there and learn to work with fewer staff."
It's been a good year for events as well. In January, Maggie Beer from the famed Australian restaurant the Pheasant Farm came over for a celebration of verjuice and a feast for 80 people; and in the summer, fellow Aussie Bill Granger dropped in to do one of his famous brunches. Skye was also invited to cater at the launch party for the re-hanging of the permanent collection at Tate Modern. "We did six tiny courses for 2,000 people," she says. "We got in a field of wild garlic, mountains of Dorset white crab, some amazing young pecorinos from Italy and somehow managed to pull it off. It was extraordinary."
For someone who feeds so directly off the land, it's not surprising that Skye's book is arranged according to the season. In it she takes you through her culinary year - how January means blood oranges, June means cherries and autumn means walnuts. "In every dish that I cook," she says in the book, "I am looking for the purest possible taste - an entirety. I think of it like the notes of the scale - beginning with the earthy base-note flavours and finishing with the top notes that add freshness and make the dish 'sing'. In the way that I cook I am constantly seeking harmony - a balance of sweet, sour and salty tastes. This isn't a new concept. It is the way the people have cooked in the East forever."
To do this she uses a "toolbox", which is essentially a group of ingredients which she has to hand and uses all the time. At the bottom end are bass-note herbs such as bay, thyme and sage, then moving up the scale it's roasted red onions, mayonnaise bases, basil oil and, finally, top-note herbs such as basil, parsley and mint. Skye shares her kitchen at Petersham with Steve Parle, a 21-year-old chef who already has four years at the River Café and a stint at Moro behind him (Petersham has probably got one of the youngest kitchens in London). All the dishes on the menu are a work in progress and the two of them spend the morning infusing, tasting and discussing.
Every day Skye arrives at Petersham at six in the morning and heads straight to the garden to see what's ripe and plans the menu accordingly. "Having the kitchen garden has definitely influenced my cooking," she says. "It places us right in the season. Once you have something like this, you'd never use, say, asparagus in September, it just seems so incredibly wrong."
The garden is the handiwork of Lucy Boyd, daughter of Rose Gray. "We used to run it in a really haphazard way," says Skye, "but since Lucy arrived we've learned to plant slowly and use it properly." They've worked out not to bother with raspberries and strawberries because the birds just eat them; that all the more unusual salad leaves - purslane, bull's blood and ponterels - are worth growing because they're hard to get hold of; as are edible flowers such as marigolds and malopies which are also great for keeping greenfly away; that tomatoes and artichokes aren't, because the kitchen gets through a box a day and that the morello cherry tree will produce enough to pickle and lay down for winter, but not enough to make ice-cream.
It seems then, that Petersham is finally turning into a "proper" restaurant. "I guess it is," agrees Skye. "And in some ways that is sad. I really want to keep the spirit of Petersham - which is all a bit haphazard. But I'm very content here. People keep asking me what I'm going to do next, but I want to stay at Petersham. I'd be very happy to retire somewhere as beautiful as this."
'A Year In My Kitchen' is published by Quadrille, £25. To order a copy at the special price of £22, plus free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897
If you have any culinary questions for Skye, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.orgReuse content