Celebrity and award-winning Australian chef Skye Gyngell first made her name as head chef at Petersham Nurseries, going on to win a Michelin Star. She is as passionate about planting seeds as picking produce for her inspired seasonal dishes and here she speaks to SN about her London restaurant Spring and becoming Culinary Director of Heckfield Place in Hampshire.
Where does your incredible work ethic come from?
That’s a flattering description, but I don’t see it that way. I love what I do, so 95 percent of the time my job feels like a pleasure. For me, life isn’t work till 7pm then switch off. Occasionally you really have your back against the wall and need to reenergise, but I feel really blessed.
You first became known in Britain as a Vogue columnist. Are you passionate about writing too?
I find writing difficult and frustrating because I don’t feel I articulate what I want to say. I’ve written books, and newspaper and magazine columns and really enjoyed it, but writing is a muscle that has to be flexed. There are beautiful food writers like the legendary Arabella Boxer, grandmother of brilliant chef Jackson Boxer. I love Nigel Slater, who writes so well about the sensory experience of food, and Simon Hopkins. Just because you can cook doesn’t mean you can write well and I find it easier to express myself through food than with a pen.
Celebrity culture plays a part in the restaurant industry – how comfortable are you with this?
Not at all. It’s silly. We are all equal and it’s ridiculous to believe in hype. I love working in a restaurant with wonderful and talented human beings because it’s so stimulating. What I do believe is that if you’ve been fortunate in your career and have a platform, you have a responsibility to use it carefully. Part of my job is being a good role model. I put my money where my mouth is and ask what is it that I can do for the environment?
What first excited you about Heckfield Place?
I was overwhelmed by the landscape, and the beauty of the trees in particular. I was then excited about what we could achieve from an environmental point of view. We farm the land and are currently converting to biodynamic status.
Do you have a Heckfield Place signature dish?
I have lots of lovely favourites that I return to year in year out. I still feel very curious as a cook and like to keep pushing myself to grow and learn.
Do you have a vision for Heckfield Place?
I like simple but perfect food. When it’s pared back you haven’t got lots of things to distract. We use what’s growing in the ocean and the landscape surrounding us. Seasonal is a popular catchphrase that’s been co-opted by businesses in the past few years, and if you say seasonal to any cook they’d talk about it but I don’t know how many cooks really understand the seasons. Animals are essential to farm life: they fertilise the soil, and the bigger picture blood and bones ashes to ashes. In terms of the world’s meat situation: no question, we eat far too much of it. We raise too many cattle using industrialised farming methods.
Are you achieving your aims to use produce from Heckfield’s estate and walled garden?
Yes – I am really happy with how productive the vegetable gardens have been this year. Beautiful little eggs from the chickens, wonderful quinces, apples, pears, plums from the orchard and we are in the process of establishing a dairy and planting interesting varieties of grain and vegetables.
What do you do to relax?
I love pilates, reading, seeing friends, spending time with my kids and travelling.
What’s your advice to get children to understand and appreciate food and cooking?
Plant a vegetable garden. The process of nurturing seeds and watching vegetables grow is the best way to respect the richness of the earth. Otherwise they’ll grow up wanting mac ‘n’ cheese from a packet. I remember watering carrots at kindergarten and really wanting to eat them. Give them a nibble!
Do you have an ‘Australian’ take on life, and how is living in Britain different to living in Australia?
I think I have a straight talking quality that is very Australian – I also don’t have time for anything pretentious; definitely a quality from back home.
And finally… what would you advise any chef who is setting out in the industry today?
Find a kitchen who is working a way that resonates with who you are. Stay curious and humble, and be passionate!
Make sure to keep an eye out this week for Skye’s delicious Butterflied Lamb with Roasted Beetroots and Carrots – perfect for Easter!
If you can’t wait, here are some other recipes to try in the meantime!