She has fed Madonna, swapped recipes with Nigella, worked alongside some of the best chefs in town; and was recently seen in the glossy pages of Vogue elegantly draped in a £4,500, full-length, shimmering red Neil Cunningham zibeline dress, whipping up a little flambé number in her kitchen. Yet Skye Gyngell, 41, is still wondering what all the fuss is about.
"I'm not that special," she says. "I'm not a ground-breaking genius. I'm not Alain Ducasse or Heston Blumenthal. I'm just someone who likes to cook."
Raised in Sydney by a powerful media-pioneer father (Bruce Gyngell was the first face to appear on Australian television) and a mother who fed the household on a macrobiotic diet of grains and fresh fruits, Skye decided to study law at Sydney University. She hated it instantly, and took a part-time job in a store-cum-deli in Sydney's Double Bay. It was there that she fell in love with the idea of feeding people.
At 17, her father brought her to Europe, which must have been like landing in the middle of a giant food larder. The trip inspired her to enrol in the La Varenne cooking school in Paris, following up with a stint in the all-male kitchen of the two-Michelin-starred Dodin-Bouffant restaurant: "I literally peeled vegetables for two years," she says. Later, she cooked at London's The French House with the newly emerging Fergus Henderson; at Green Street with fusion meister, Peter Gordon; and at The Dorchester under the legendary Anton Mosimann, as one of his 122-strong team, where she toiled away in the basement kitchens: "I couldn't do that now. I couldn't live that subterranean life," she says.
Coming up for air, she began giving cooking lessons from home. Then somebody asked her to (omega) cook a private dinner party at their home. Suddenly, her name was being scribbled into the little black books of some of London's highest-flying home entertainers, including Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi, and Madonna and Guy Ritchie.
She is keen to dispel any sense of hers being a glamorous job, however. "You're slogging away at 1.30 in the morning, cleaning the kitchen floor, knowing you'll be up again at 6.30 doing it all over again."
Despite making a pledge never to go back into restaurants, in 2004 Skye was persuaded by her friends Gael and Francesco Boglione to set up a little café in the garden nursery they had just bought next to their home at Petersham House.
There was nothing fancy about the Petersham Nurseries café. The kitchen was just a four-burner stove and single sink in a garden shed, while the "café" was a few tables scattered among the aloe vera and anemones. There was no alcohol - just jugs of homemade lemon cordial, and two or three dishes of the day. A humble operation, it was open only at weekends and served just 15 people at a time.
And so it might have stayed, if Skye hadn't been such a natural and talented cook. It was only a matter of time before the rave reviews came: the Guardian called the food "unfussy and utterly captivating", while Tatler restaurant editor Jeremy Wayne described the place as "the River Café and an English garden rolled into one".
I also fell under the Petersham spell, for the charm of the gardens, for Skye's uncompromising commitment to flavour and freshness, and for dishes such as a tomatoey chowder of clams and monkfish and a summer-in-a-bowl dessert of poached vanilla apricots and plums with yoghurt and honey. It was food you didn't want to stop eating.
These days, the café is licensed, turns over 120 in a sitting, has a staff of more than 20 and a professional kitchen in what used to be a garage. In 2005, it picked up the Time Out award for Best Al Fresco Dining, and followed it up this year with the Tatler award for Most Original Restaurant.
In terms of influences, she claims to worship at the feet of all female chefs, especially California's Alice Waters and Judy Rogers of Zuni Café. Like them, she is seasonally driven and produce-led. Top-quality ingredients are sourced daily from all around Britain, from Paris' Rungis market, direct from Italian producers, and from the Nursery's own herb and vegetable gardens, which are overseen by Lucy Gray, daughter of the River Café's Rose Gray.
"The secret," she says, "is not to mess with a great ingredient. All you have to do is turn the volume up."
Despite her silver-spoon upbringing - or perhaps because of it - Skye Gyngell's life has not been a cushy ride, and she has had more than her share of personal demons. But she now considers herself the luckiest person in the world. She lives in West London with James Henderson, her partner for the last 10 years, and daughters Holly, 16 and Evie, 8. Now, with a regular food column, right, and her first book, A Year in My Kitchen, published later this year by Quadrille, just watch Skye Gyngell blossom.
Petersham Café, Petersham Nurseries, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627
Rabbit with mustard and verjuice
1.5kg/3lb farmed rabbit (or 4 rabbit legs)
2 tbsp duck fat (or olive oil if you prefer)
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
120ml/4fl oz verjuice
200ml/7fl oz chicken stock
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Trim the rabbit, reserving the boney end of the saddle for a future stock. Place a casserole dish large enough to hold all the rabbit over a medium heat and add the duck fat or oil. When the fat is hot, add the rabbit pieces and brown really well all over. Pour off the excess fat and add the mustard and the garlic, then stir well. The garlic will release the most beautiful smell, but be careful not to let it burn. Pour in the verjuice and let it bubble and reduce a little, then stir in the stock and lower the heat. Simmer for 25-30 minutes until the rabbit is tender.
Finish by removing the rabbit to a warm dish and turning up the heat to reduce the sauce by a third. Taste for seasoning and add salt if you think it needs it. Stir in the parsley and pour the sauce over the rabbit. Serve with a simple green salad.
Winter rhubarb with verjuice
1kg/2lb rhubarb, cut into 4in/10cm shards
1 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup verjuice
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise
2 fresh bay leaves
Place the sugar, water, vanilla pod and bay leaves into a saucepan large enough to hold all of your ingredients. Place over a gentle heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved and it is gently simmering. Add the rhubarb and poach for 10 minutes. Serve at room temperature.
Braised artichokes with potatoes and verjuice
This makes a beautiful light lunch or supper dish served with bread and a mâche salad dressed with walnut oil. Alternatively, it is the perfect accompaniment to roast lamb or roast chicken.
4 large artichokes or 8 small ones
175ml/6fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
10 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
12 small onions or shallots
12 small waxy potatoes (Roseval perhaps)
3 bay leaves
1 small bunch of thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
3tbsp curly parsley, finely chopped
Tear off the outside leaves of the artichokes until you reach the heart. Cut off the top three-quarters of the artichoke leaves and then, using a teaspoon, scrape out all the spiky, hairy choke. Cut the stem close to the heart. If the artichokes are small, cut them in half; if they are larger, quarter them and quickly drop them into a bowl of acidulated water (cold water with a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice added).
Heat a third of the oil in a pan large enough to hold all the ingredients. Add the artichokes, a good pinch of salt and pepper and allow the artichokes to brown slightly.
Meanwhile peel the little onions or shallots, removing the outside layer, then slice the potatoes in half and lengthwise. Add the potatoes, onions and garlic to the artichokes. Toss quickly and add the bay leaf, thyme and verjuice, then the rest of the olive oil.
Place a lid on the pan, lower the heat and braise gently on the top of the stove for an hour, or until the vegetables are tender and the sauce rich and emulsified.
Check for seasoning, sprinkle over the parsley and serve. In the autumn l often add some wild mushrooms that l have sweated separately in a pan with a good knob of butter and toss through just before serving.
Makes enough vinaigrette for about 4 salads
1/2 tbsp Dijon mustard
Small pinch of sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
21/2tbsp tbsp walnut oil
Place the Dijon, salt and pepper in a bowl. Whisk in the verjuice followed by the walnut oil until you have an emulsified sauce, thick and pale. This is perfect to spoon over winter leaves and anything else you might fancy.
Importers and distributors of Verjuice in the UK
Carr Taylor Wines Ltd, tel: 01424 752 501
MD Wine - fine South African wines, contact: Dorothee Kirchner, tel: 020 8546 2066, or email email@example.com
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