Chapters In My Life: Skye Gyngell

Chapters In My Life: Skye Gyngell

Originally from Australia, Skye has been in food and restaurants for 38 years and is one of Britain’s most respected and acclaimed chefs. She rose to fame as head chef at Petersham Nurseries before opening her own restaurant, Spring, in Somerset House in 2014. She is culinary director of Heckfield Place in Hampshire and has written for Vogue and the Independent, as well as being the author of three cookery books. Here Skye shares the key chapters in her life from growing up in Sydney, training in Paris, to life as a working mother in London…

Chapter One: My Early Childhood Years 

“I grew up in Sydney in the late 60s/early 70s, the middle child of three. Looking back now and having brought up two children in England, I feel so grateful for the incredibly happy childhood we had. Sydney was a safe city to roam around and discover, and it was a time when children were given a lot of freedom – I caught two busses to school on my own when I was seven and that was standard in those days.”

“We lived in an area called Vaucluse with a beautiful harbourside beach called Nielson Park at the end of our road. As soon as school broke up, we were shooed out of the front door by our mother: we spent the holidays at the beach body surfing the waves, climbing over rocks and running around barefoot with our friends. 

“My father Bruce was a television maverick, his was the first face to appear on TV screens in Australia. It’s a small pond there and he was this larger-than-life figure and I was overwhelmed that everyone knew who he was. I remember feeling so embarrassed by his flash Savile Row suits…I mean who knew where that was!

“For a short period, when I was about nine, we came to England because of my father’s job – he was running ITV with Lord Grade. We went to boarding school in Gloucestershire and I missed Australia; I couldn’t cope with the weather and wearing hats and gloves. Before long we went back to Sydney without my father who stayed in London to finish his contract.

Chapter Two: My Teens

“Everything changed when I became a teenager, as things got more complicated. It was all about how you looked. Everyone was in a bikini and it was a constant tanning competition – I didn’t particularly enjoy that and felt stifled. I loved reading and when I was 13 or 14 I’d read practically every European classic and was completely obsessed with Thomas Hardy. I went into a strange phase and felt I’d been born in the wrong country – everything was quite brash and I hated all the things I’d loved when I was little.

“Matters weren’t helped by my father who had a bit of a 40-something crisis and became macrobiotic – this was hugely challenging with three grumpy teenagers at home. He’d been to a seminar with Michio Kushi, who is the founder of the macrobiotic movement, and became a complete convert. We had always had a healthy diet eating fish and salads but suddenly it became all about umeboshi plums, agar agar and 60% grain intake, and olive oil was completely banned. We spent a lot of time secretly eating away from home and saving our pocket money to buy sweets. 

“Our household was turned upside down and this really was the beginning of the end of my parents’ marriage. My father remained macrobiotic right to the end of his life.

“My siblings and I got out of the house as soon as we could!”

Chapter Three: Falling In Love With Cooking

“When I left school, I got a place at Sydney University to read law. Neither my brother David or sister Bryony had gone to university and I felt pressure to take one for the team, especially as my father had been there. How do you ever know what you want to do at 17?  I look back and the idea of a career in law has nothing to do with who I am today.

“I moved out of home and became involved with food completely by accident. To help pay my rent, I got a job washing up at a restaurant/deli called The Store Charcuterie. It was run by a wonderful Lebanese woman called Layla Sorfie who changed the course of my life. She had returned from training at cookery school La Varenne in Paris and here she was boning ducks, making puff pastry from scratch, creating wonderful stocks. She was very sweet to me and would say, ‘When you finish washing up, come and watch me make the mayonnaise’ and eventually she’d let me make it. She was so nurturing and an amazing mentor and I fell in love with it all. I wanted to do everything she had done, I idolised her.”

Chapter Four: The Paris Years

“Inspired by Layla, I applied to La Varenne, gave up my degree and boarded a plane to Paris. I was 19. I was a fairly unsophisticated Australian girl and loved the anonymity of Paris compared to Sydney. Here nobody knew who I was and I could be who I wanted. I lived with five students in a tiny three-room apartment in Rue Michelet in the 6th arrondissement, above an Agnès B shop. We drank and ate too much and stayed up all night. After I finished my year’s course I got a job at a two-Michelin-star neighbourhood restaurant in the 5th, called Dodin-Bouffant – I was the only woman in the kitchen and I worked there for about two years.”

Chapter Five: Early Days Working In London

“My father was back in London, where he launched TV-am, and I used to come over from Paris quite a bit to see him and other friends who were living here. After three years in Paris, I felt I’d done my time; I’d grown out of sharing one bathroom with so many people. But I wasn’t ready to go back to Australia and thought I’d come to London for a couple of years...I never went back to live there.

“My first job in London was at the Dorchester Hotel under the celebrated chef Anton Mosimann. It was the biggest kitchen I’d ever seen with 130 of us working there. The kitchens were in the basement, in the bowels of the earth and we never saw daylight. I remember feeling quite terrified – the structure, the brigade, the long nights were so hard. I was a cog in a wheel and all I did was peel vegetables but that was the way kitchens were run in those days. Kids came in at 14 and eight years on you might be allowed to move on to sauces. My world had come crashing down and it felt like the dream was over and I left.

“Soon after, I got married and had my first child, Holly, but my marriage ended and I spent the next five years or so as a single mother. It was very challenging, but I worked with some wonderful people at The French House Dining Rooms in Soho and with Peter Gordon at private members club Greens in Mayfair. There were little pockets of antipodeans who were starting to do things in the food scene which were much more like home. 

“I used to pick Holly up from the childminder at about midnight, drive her home in my little Mini and pop her in my bed. I shared a nanny with Lucy Boyd [Rose Gray of the River Café's daughter], and her daughter Daisy and Holly would often go to the River Café at 6pm for spaghetti and tomato sauce, or Holly would come to Greens where she’d hang around the kitchen or get looked after by Peter’s boyfriend.

“I then fell in love, had another child, Evie, and realised I couldn’t carry on.”

Chapter Six: Life At Home With The Girls

“Over the next ten years, while looking after my daughters, I did a lot of private dinner parties for amazing people – Mario Testino, Charles Saatchi, Madonna, Trinny Woodall were all of my clients. I also did a bit of teaching and writing for Vogue and the Independent on Sunday. Then the publisher Quadrille offered me a book deal – I remember being absolutely terrified and telling Nigel Slater how nervous I was. He was so helpful and kind, and said: ‘Just start writing and you’ll find your voice…’. 

“It was such a lovely time in my life and I adored being with the children. Then by chance things changed…”

Chapter Seven: My Michelin Star

“It was late spring of 2004 when my great friends Francesco and Gael Boglione, who owned Petersham House just outside Richmond on the edge of the Thames, asked me to come and have a look at the garden centre they’d just bought at the end of their property. Francesco was thinking of opening a little tearoom and needed some advice. On sight, I loved it and said I’d come and cook there. It was the summer and most of my private clients were away, so I thought I’d do this for a few months and then get back to my work in September. By then my private work was very successful and I was earning good money. Little did I know that I’d end up there for eight years!

“What we did was so simple – we painted the glasshouses a green-black and Francesco laid hoggin [a mix of gravel, sand and clay that binds when compacted] on the floors, and I started cooking in a garden shed that had a stove. We only had a table for 12, the three-dish menu was written on a blackboard and when things ran out that was it. Sometimes we baked a cake in the afternoon if we could get it together. 

“We didn’t ever spend much money – we’d get in the car on a Friday evening and go to Ikea to buy some more glasses because we’d broken them. And we cooked from all my own pots and pans that I’d brought in with me. My friend Lucy Boyd was the head gardener at the house and we planned a lovely vegetable garden with lots of salad, cabbages, cavolo, rocket; we also planted quince and apple trees. It was tiny but it was such an inspiration to cook from our own garden.

“At the start, we never imagined anyone would come and eat there. I mean, the road that leads to it – Church Road – wasn’t even on the A-Z! But things turned after the food critic from the Independent, Terry Durrack, came and wrote an amazing review; we often did 140 covers for Sunday lunch from our tiny kitchen with just six of us. We got a couple of awards, like ‘best restaurant’, and – the ultimate accolade – a Michelin star. All crazy as were weren’t really a restaurant at all!

“Petersham felt like mine; I had formed it, moulded it and for a long time I was incredibly possessive over it and thought I’d have to blow it up if I ever left. But I realised – after eight years – that my work was done. The Bogliones wanted to make it into a family business and I wanted something that was truly my own.”

Chapter Eight: The Launch of Spring

“I left Petersham at the beginning of 2012 and looked for a site for two years – I wanted a really small, neighbourhood restaurant in west London where I lived. Somerset House invited me to come and look at an area they wanted to develop into a restaurant – it was still an Inland Revenue office, dark with swirly carpets, but there was something about the space and proportions that both my investor and I loved and we decided to go for it. I didn’t know that part of the West End – I felt like a country girl coming into the city to play with the big boys.

“I met with loads of architects and designers but eventually persuaded my sister Bryony, who is an interior designer in Australia, to come over and work with me. It could have been very male and clubby but I knew I wanted a space that was fresh and feminine without being too girlie. Spring opened in October 2014.

“During this time, with the same investor, I also got involved with Heckfield Place in Hampshire, which opened in 2018, and the very exciting news is that, just before Christmas, the farm there received full biodynamic certification which is a step on from being organic.”

“It’s been an interesting year – it’s taught me to be agile and think of things in a different way. I was very set in stone before coronavirus forced us to close and it has been challenging. I felt very ill-equipped to deal with the burden of looking after the 59 people who worked for me. We are a small business, however fancy pants it looks, and I had to decide whether to sink or swim. I was deeply worried about the produce coming from my suppliers and the farm where I source everything for the restaurant, so we started an online shop and home delivery box scheme. We’ve tried out loads of things, too, and some worked, like an ice cream van; others didn’t but that’s been very good for me.”

The Next Chapter

“When life returns to normal, the plan is to open a shop in Notting Hill. I’ll also have to resurrect a business that has been asleep for year; it will be like opening a new restaurant. The plan, which is not permanent, is to re-open with Spring Tavola, a menu we created when we came out of the last lockdown – it’s inspired by the Italian working men’s clubs of my childhood in Sydney, like Bill & Toni’s, where my friends and I used to eat plates of pasta and drink jugs of cordial.

“In the long term, who knows how things will turn out…”


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