Skye Gyngell: 'It was my greatest achievement – but ultimately one that caused me great pain'
It's a wonderful thing to create something to feel really proud about and I think the restaurant at Petersham Nurseries has been – aside from my two daughters – my greatest achievement to date.
The Michelin star the restaurant received in 2010 was a big honour but ultimately one that was often painful – I felt my integrity was strained many times last year.
That original, idiosyncratic idea of a restaurant had dulled and I no longer felt particularly true to myself. It was unfair to the people who I work with. I have been blessed to have had wonderful, passionate and committed cooks in my kitchen and I felt I owed them more than I was giving. My passion had gone and so I felt it was time to leave.
Petersham started in 2004, not from a thought or plan, but from a feeling. The first day I walked through the gates of the nursery before it had opened – three large bare greenhouses, one little lean-to shed and a floor that was only earth – I envisioned a restaurant and felt it was a place where I desperately wanted to cook.
I had been out of the restaurant industry for almost 10 years and had no desire to return. I'd had enough of long hours, basement kitchens, artificial lighting and stress. Life ran in a way that I was happy with – I did private work, spent time with my children and could take time off in the school holidays to be with them. I saw my friends and had a semblance of a family life that was good.
In my mind, Petersham was always going to be small and would last no longer than a few months. I imagined that I would be almost just cooking for myself and for Rachel, who started the restaurant with me. Why would anyone come or even know we were there – on the outskirts of London, down a dirt track that wasn't even on the A-Z? The first day we took £72 and we were thrilled.
Quickly, it grew into something that I had never foreseen – after some good reviews and a couple of awards it began to become what seemed at times to be a monster. That first year we struggled through without a proper kitchen and no full-time staff. During the second year we built a kitchen in a garage and employed a few people.
Over the years the restaurant has continued to grow, which has been amazing. Everyone was proud when we won the Michelin star, but we were never that sort of restaurant really. When I told Tito, who has worked with me for six years in the kitchen, he said he didn't know what a "star" was. When I explained it we both laughed. It just seemed strange.
Honestly, I sometimes wonder what all the fuss has been about. I doubt my cooking all the time – it is so simple, low on technique and so produce-driven.
There are so many beautiful, talented cooks everywhere – so many kids doing amazing things at the moment – and I think that they are more worthy of attention than me.
I love cooking with a team in a kitchen – people working together and creating something hopefully beautiful. I hope to do that again in the not too distant future.
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