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‘After the year we’ve had, what matters is the small stuff’: Skye Gyngell on enjoying the simple things

For Michelin-starred chef and former Independent food writer Skye Gyngell, keeping it simple is key. She chats to Keely Doll about no-faff barbecues, her new organic shop and her biggest pet peeves in the kitchen

Thursday 15 July 2021 11:44 BST
Gyngell earned her first Michelin star at Petersham Nurseries in London
Gyngell earned her first Michelin star at Petersham Nurseries in London (David Charbitt)

When it comes to food, simplicity is key for Skye Gyngell.

The Australian chef is well known for her sophisticated, relaxed style, fuelled by fresh, uncomplicated ingredients, and now she’s bringing it to the BBQ.

After initially training in Syndey and then Paris, Gyngell moved to London to work at The French House and with a number of high profile private clients before taking on the role of head chef at Petersham Nurseries. It was at Petersham that Gyngell became renowned for her distinctively seasonal, elegant cooking, creating dishes inspired by what she saw growing and blossoming around her.

The Michelin-starred chef has now launched a summer barbecue campaign from her Spring restaurant in Notting Hill, collaborating with Australian wine maker Andrew Peace Wine.

We sit down with the former Independent on Sunday food writer to talk about “boujie barbecues” and how she achieves maximum impact, minimum effort when hosting al fresco.

How do you bring your signature elegance to the notoriously casual vibe of summer barbecuing?

After the year we’ve had, what matters is the small stuff and appreciating that the very best times are spent with friends and family so simplicity is key to which summer lends itself beautifully. I’ve always been a very simple cook but the more and more respectful we feel around the produce, the less and less we want to alter it. Beautiful, fresh food needs very little doing to it. Food cooked over an open fire has a different flavour altogether than food cooked on the stove or in the oven. All manner of things can be cooked – not just sausages and burgers but all the lovely robust summer vegetables such as aubergines and red peppers. Little birds such as pigeon or quail work beautifully, as does butterflied leg of lamb and oily fish such as sardines, mackerel and red mullet. Cook them all simply, then make lovely sauces such as salsa verde or aioli to spoon over the top.

How does your Australian upbringing change your approach to barbecue? 

Red peppers are perfect for the barbecue (David Charbitt)

One of the reasons I became a chef was because of how our senses of smell and taste capture memories. When I create dishes, I’m always thinking of that; perhaps that’s what happens when you grow up in Australia where the flora and fauna are in your DNA and an intrinsic part of your upbringing. Barbecue is synonymous with hot, family summers and my childhood. In many ways, I think that that’s why for me, cooking is an act of giving and showing love. They bring people together in a simply way. 

What’s your secret to summer cooking without being chained to the grill all night? 

Cooking, ideally, should be a pleasure rather than a chore. Try to approach it with a sense of enjoyment – the food will genuinely taste all the better for it. The key to a successful barbecue with friends or family is to do as much of the prep as you can in advance so you’re not dashing in and out of the kitchen, but free to sit back, relax and enjoy the food and drink. A thoughtfully set table is always appreciated – it sets the tone for the entire meal. It’s not about perfection, but about showing you care.

What’s a good wine pairing for traditional barbecue food? 

Pricey wines aren’t always the best; amazing wine makers stocked at high street retailers are often brilliant value and perfect for the garden. I’d always recommend looking for options that are contributing positively to the environment and landscape.

A wine maker I can get behind is Australian Andrew Peace Wines who have planted more than 15,000 trees in the last 25 years. One hundred per cent of wastewater on its family vineyard in Victoria is reused, and much of its energy comes from solar panels. It’s stocked in Co-op, and inexpensive when you consider its quality.  

For richer meats such as lamb cooked on charcoal choose something more textured and smoky or with a bit of spice The Unexpected Red 2020 (£6.75) is one for the adventurous. An offbeat blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranillo with Sagrantino, it’s smooth, full-bodied and rich, so stands up to big flavours. 

Cooking, ideally, should be a pleasure rather than a chore. Try to approach it with a sense of enjoyment – the food will genuinely taste all the better for it

For chicken, seafood or even barbecued cheeses such as halloumi go for something altogether more refreshing. The Andrew Peace Signature Chardonnay 2020 (£5.50) is rich and fresh, with flavours of tropical fruit and a splash of citrus. 

If there was one ingredient you had to include in every meal, what would it be? 

Salad. It’s a death row meal. I’m Australian – you have a salad with every meal. But, it’s more than a salad. It’s everything left over in the fridge either at work or a home – be it meat or veg from the barbecue – all bound together with really good extra virgin olive oil, a pinch of sea salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. It’s my go-to meal, always.

You’ve opened a Spring shop in Notting Hill, can you tell us more about your vision and goals for the shop?

Right now it is more important than ever to support the farmers and small producers who care about the land and the future of our food. With this in mind we are offering the freshest organic eggs, milk and cream, as well as beautiful boxes of biodynamic produce. We also offer a range of cooked, seasonal meals as well as naturally fermented breads, cakes, ice creams and preserved goods. There are also meals and baked goods from Spring – made with excess produce – and a coffee counter. Wherever you are in the world and whenever you have the opportunity, please choose to embrace the values of local, organic, regenerative or community supported agriculture. It is the best way to nourish and support both our families and our planet.  

What’s your favourite dish to cook at your restaurant Spring? 

Prawns cooked in butter, drenched in lemon, with sourdough bread (David Charbitt)

The menu changes weekly – I don’t have a favourite dish. I tend to just completely love whatever is right in front of me.

What’s one piece of advice you have for young chefs? 

Learn your craft so that you feel strong and knowledgeable. Work hard, find the restaurants that suit you, and don’t be in too much of a hurry to own something. There are many more things involved than just cooking when you own a restaurant and it’s lovely to just concentrate on cooking for as long as possible. You need enthusiasm, passion, generosity and a big heart. You’ve got to love to feed people.

Anything big in the works for you? 

I’ll continue to make Spring a better business (both the restaurant and our new shop in Notting Hill) through efforts to reduce waste and move towards more of a circular economy. As ever, I’ll be focusing on my team, and both in terms of their welfare and training. 

What’s your biggest pet peeve in the kitchen?

Single-use plastic – I went to a talk by Sian Sutherland at a Plastic Planet event and I was shocked and ashamed to learn of the issues surrounding plastic and the ocean. I made a commitment to remove all single-use plastic from the restaurant. The really exciting thing is that there are lots of really viable alternatives. At first, I was completely despairing, but I’m now feeling a lot more hopeful. It is actually possible to eliminate a lot of plastic from your life.

If you only had 10 minutes to whip up a meal, what would you make?

For summer, something super simple – prawns cooked in butter, drenched in lemon, and sourdough bread. If I’m really tired and in need of warmth, it’s eggs – if I’ve been tasting, talking and cooking food all day I don’t always feel like cooking when I get home. 

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