Woman's touch: Skye Gyngell meets Angela Hartnett

The Independent on Sunday's cookery writer swaps tales with Britain's best-known female chef about mixing it in the macho world of haute cuisine
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Angela Hartnett became the most prominent female chef in the UK when she opened her restaurant at The Connaught Hotel for Gordon Ramsay in 2002. She has since earned a Michelin star. After The Connaught closed for refurbishment in April this year, it was confirmed that she would not be reopening her restaurant there. Instead, she will open a new restaurant in Mayfair next year for Ramsay at a yet-to-be-confirmed location.

Skye Gyngell is The Independent on Sunday's cookery writer who also happens to run the café and teahouse at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, Surrey, which has won widespread critical praise for its simple, seasonal, fastidiously sourced menu served in a unique garden-nursery-shed setting.

AH: I'm definitely bringing my mum down here, she's a gardening freak – she's very good at it but I'm a crap gardener. I have a garden and all I do is bribe my family to come and help, because I live in the East End of London and only have a little courtyard. I say "I'll cook, I'll do a barbecue, I'll cook breakfast but you have to come and sort the garden out." So about three times a year we do that and they come and do the gardening for me – and it looks good for the rest of the year.

SG: My mum's a great gardener too, but one of the nicest things that has happened to me here is that I've learnt a lot about plants. If you have a vegetable garden it's amazing how you're drawn to it...

AH: So you must pick off the land almost every day and cook from there, perfect...

SG: We don't have enough produce to do all the 100 covers we do each day – you'd need a farm like Daylesford to provide that much.

AH: So are you going to get a farm?

SG: We've currently got an acre of vegetable garden, we've got chickens and we've got quince trees, we've always got something on the menu that we take from the garden.

AH: Do you go and wring the chickens' necks?

SG: No.

AH: I au paired in Italy when I was about 19 and in the summer we had to go to the country, the family had a house there right next to a farm. So the women said to me, "Make sure that you've got a chicken for supper," and in my naivety I went to the farm to pick up this chicken and the signora said, "Which one do you want?" They were running around and eventually I said, "That one." She literally reached out and broke its neck and handed it to me and told me to pluck it. That was quite a shocking thing. I remember it feeling warm afterwards when I gutted it out. I'd cooked all my life but the food was always there and I cooked it, I'd never been in that farm environment before.

If I had a place like this – and don't take this the wrong way – but if I ever had a place like this it would be a case of wanting to retire and moving out of London. I'd definitely love to do something like this in Italy, somewhere like this with a few rooms. But at the moment I think I'm too conditioned into the sort of restaurants I've always worked in.

SG: I'm at a different phase in my life from you and I've got kids, but I still want to cook and this to me is the perfect thing. I do six lunches a week and I can go home and be with my kids – I can have some sort of normal life and do what I love. I can take my daughter to school on the way out here. For the first four years I was here at five in the morning, but it's making money now and I don't need to do that anymore. I really love to cook and I really want to be in a restaurant kitchen. This place to me is the biggest gift. I love that I get to see the sun every day through the kitchen window.

AH: That I'm extremely jealous of. I've only worked twice in environments where you saw the sky: once in Dubai and once when I was doing a gig in Melbourne. But I also know myself that I'd probably just end up looking out the window all day. Most professional kitchens are subterranean dungeons.

SG: I couldn't do that anymore. I was out of restaurants for eight years before we started here, doing private work, because otherwise I couldn't have had a life with the kids.I really wanted a place where you could bring your dogs, where you could bring your kids. I wanted the antithesis of the West End restaurant, not because I don't think they are amazing, but because I like very simple cooking and I thought this was a nice, easy way to do it. Luckily, I had a business partner who indulged me because we lost money for the first four years. But we established something that was about produce and then that brought people in, and then the money came...

AH: But I think that happens in a lot of restaurants. I don't think any restaurant opens and makes money in the first month – most take at least six months to a year to hit any sort of profit and then it's about how much you've spent setting it up. You're not the first restaurateur I've met who's said that. I know some now who, years into what they are doing, still just break even. Restaurants aren't the easiest way to make money.

SG: How was it as a woman to lead a big brigade of chefs?

AH: I don't think it's as hard as people imagine – people look at kitchens now having been influenced by what they've seen on television, and they probably think that I stand there with an iron rod screaming and swearing and all the rest of it. It is macho without a doubt and sometimes you have to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the things you hear. You just get used to it, unfortunately, which is the worst thing about it. You get used to the fact that there's a certain amount of crudeness in male-dominated environments, which I can't believe is just kitchens. I'm sure that anywhere you have a lot of blokes together it's like that. What does really annoy me is when people say you can't have kids in your industry, because I think you should be able to have kids whatever industry you're working in. But I am determined to prove everyone wrong, so if there's a bloke out there who wants to help me disprove that particular theory, I'm happy to procreate.

From my point of view, the positive thing is that because there are so few women who cook in restaurants – regardless of what sort of restaurant you're talking about – you actually stand out so much more. I know that PR-wise, compared to the other guys in the group, mine's phenomenal and it's always a case that if Gordon won't do something, people want me to do it. Purely because I'm a woman.

Independent on Sunday Does it not annoy you to be wheeled out in that way as the token woman?

AH: Sometimes it does, when you see certain articles – they do these spreads with 20 chefs and I'm there and I think, "What the hell am I doing there?" Then I realise it's just because I'm a woman, but most of the time that's not a bad thing.

SG: If I were to put you in a category – which I know is a weird thing to say – I'd put you very much with the male West End chefs, not with Rose and Ruth at the River Café and that different-school cooking. It's hard to put your finger exactly on what the difference is.

AH: One camp is more about Michelin-driven restaurants – fine-dining restaurants, for want of a better word – and ' the other is about great restaurants with a more simplistic approach. That's not to say that the food is not as good. Technically, there's no difference in terms of cooking – a pot roast is a pot roast in both sorts of restaurant, it's just that one is more formal than the other.

SG: Are you driven by Michelin stars?

AH: If I'm honest, I think I am, although five years ago I wouldn't have said that. But I can take it or leave it in the sense that I go to certain restaurants and think, "How the hell is this a Michelin star?" But without a doubt I'd love to be the first female chef in this country to get two and to be part of that group that's done it. I remember years ago, when we were all working together at Aubergine and we'd all do these little chats before service, Gordon would go around the kitchen and say, "Who do you think is going to get a Michelin star?" And not one of the chefs would ever say me. I suppose my ideal would be to have a Michelin-starred restaurant but for it to have the relaxed feel of somewhere like this.

SG: People say to me, "Do you want a Michelin star?" And I say no, because I really don't care about them. But then I think that if they offered one, would I turn it down? And I think I wouldn't, so all of a sudden I have to admit that maybe I do care about it. But it's so far out of the remit of what we're trying to do here that I can't ever see that happening.

AH: But there's no reason why you shouldn't. I was talking to one of the inspectors and they always say it's about what's on the plate and essentially it's about whether or not you can cook. I specifically remember him saying, "You could be in a garage with a plastic roof and I'd give a star because it's not about the surroundings."

IOS: Do you like being part of a big company?

AH: I always get people coming up to me and saying, "Don't you ever want to go out on your own?" Obviously, I'm in partnership with Gordon but I do think that I stand out on my own and I am left to run my part of the business by myself. It's not like when I write a menu I then have to fax it off to five different people for approval, or someone tells me what crockery to use. Gordon lets me just get on with it – the only time he'd jump in would be if the business started nose-diving, I suddenly got lots of crap reviews or there were hideous complaint letters. I think I like the security that if the economy were suddenly to drop tomorrow and I were to lose 20 covers a service, my staff would still get paid. It's probably also that – not that I'm lazy – but I can procrastinate and so I need someone that's going to put a foot up my arse and say, "This is what we need to do."

SG: What you have is very appealing to me in that I'd love to be part of a group of individual restaurants that was nurtured like a family. But for me it's this or nothing else. Sometimes I also think, "OK, I've done this one restaurant, but am I just a one-trick pony?" It's a beautiful restaurant in a unique environment and a couple of years ago I would have said I want to keep doing this until I die. But I sometimes think, What else can I do, because I've still got all this energy?

AH: There are always other things you can do, whether that means finding a farm to get all your produce from and building the business like that... This place we're going to open next year in Mayfair, that to me would be home, but from there I could expand, providing I could keep everything the way I wanted it. Things grow as much or as little as you want them to. Much as I like doing a bit of TV and all the rest of it, I do love being in the kitchen. That's where I want to be.

SG: I find that I cook much better in a restaurant than I do in my house – what's that about?

AH: I'm exactly the same. I was cooking for a friend once and she got there early and called and asked, "Where are you?" and I said, "I'm in Waitrose buying a pre-cooked chicken." Then I burnt the quiche.

SG: I think it's because we depend on so many people... It's almost embarrassing at home, it's like the magic spell is gone and I think to myself, "Don't you run a restaurant?"

Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

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