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June 19, 2015updated 29 Jan 2016 1:52pm

Somerset House’s new restaurateur has rightly got a spring in her step

By William Sitwell

Above Skye Gyngell, (credit Amber Rowlands)

Skye Gyngell’s Spring restaurant sprung in October 2014. It had been two and a half years since she had cooked her last dish at Petersham Nurseries, the restaurant in Richmond where she finally made her name for turning out seasonal food with extraordinary elegance.

After she’d quit, there was much muttering in the food world about where she would next fetch up. Would the Australian-born cook, known for her sensibilities and delicate volatility, ever re-emerge? Or might she, having established her reputation with a column here and there and a few books along the way, return to private cheffing? In fact she had found backers, investors who were prepared to organise a salary for her. And together they scoured London looking for an establishment she could call her own.

Finally it came after a visit to Somerset House. She was shown the offices of HMRC, all thick orange carpets, partitions and false walls, vinyl desks and the lingering smell and stain of tobacco. It was not love at first sight. Office workers were still there when she poked about and visitors could barely see daylight through the fly screens that seemed to cover every window. But after sitting down with designers, architects and planners, she realised that she could turn the place into a light and airy restaurant, with its high ceilings and neo-classical grandeur. And if she could get her ideas past English Heritage and Westminster Council, she might have quite an establishment on her hands.

Some eight months on, reviews in the bag (mostly good), customers filling the place and a team of waiting and cooking staff on song, she looks surprisingly restful. We meet as she dashes between cooking a pop-up for Dom Pérignon and keeping an eye on Spring. She reclines on a banquette in the salon area of the restaurant, the walls covered in a Corian frieze of large gunnera leaves by gardener designer Jinny Blom. In shimmering dark green skirt and black top, she strikes me as distinctly settled.

‘This place is a like a new home,’ she says. ‘It feels like it has bedded in and we’re now ready. We looked and looked for a place. It was so hard to find; there must be so many more restaurateurs and chefs in London than there are locations. And when I finally found it, it was very challenging.’ Gyngell looks wistfully up to the skylight, where the rain is today pounding down. ‘And looking back I can’t believe I was even brave enough to do it. I must have put blinkers on!’

Gyngell left Australia — quitting a law degree after just a year to enrol on a cooking course at the La Varenne school in Paris — at the age of eighteen. She had found the place too parochial and had spent her life looking to Europe (‘I felt I was born in the wrong country’). She then sought work in London, but success did not come overnight. She was a jobbing chef for twenty years, and so today she has more than earned her stripes and secured her position in the kitchen. She is self-assured when it comes to how she wants her plates of food to turn out.


Above: inside Spring

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As we chat, Puccini plays in the background, the opera heightening Gyngell’s confident serenity. ‘I don’t think you’ll find a restaurant in London with such beautiful ingredients,’ she says boldly. ‘My cooking is definitely a reflection of my personality. It’s very, very simple, it’s stripped back and I don’t agonise about combinations. All I do is put together seasonal ingredients. I’m just showcasing them. So you’ll see sea kale, wild garlic and morels on a plate because they all happen to be in season at the same time. I add seasoning or extra virgin olive to make an ingredient more like itself. I just turn the volume up loud enough so that you can hear it.’

The day we meet, her menu sings with that simple philosophy. There’s a salad of raw asparagus with broad beans and buffalo ricotta, grilled lamb with wild garlic, and a rhubarb and rye tart. Delicate, seasonal food where the chef coaxes and buffs the ingredients on their journey to the plate, rather than mugging them and insisting they continue their travels with the in-crowd. So, for Gyngell, there are ‘no roaring flavours, it’s not clever cooking, it’s feminine and it has a very light touch’.

Indeed, this type of food may rather go against the zeitgeist. Gyngell turns away from technologically advanced cheffy machinery, she won’t make bone broths and froths, she prefers to eliminate extra ingredients. ‘I look at a plate and I think what can I take away. My mantra is less, less, less.’

It means that chefs who want to make a splash in her kitchen with molecular gastronomy, meat curing, fermenting or making foams out of apricot stones soon find they are in the wrong place. Gyngell will hover over such a chef and say: ‘Fabulous idea. That’s great. And when you have a restaurant you can do whatever you like. But you’re not doing that in my place.’

‘They might find it frustrating,’ she says, smiling, ‘but there’s no point being jack-of-all-trades and master of none. What is at the heart of everything is simplicity, and I know that I can never do anything better than nature.’ The chefs who do work at Spring will find it quite challenging enough. They make their own tonics, butter, ricotta, yoghurt, bread and more besides. ‘If you want to be educated, there’s a lot you can learn here,’ she says.

Gyngell’s own early inspirations were the likes of Australia’s Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beard, or US legend Alice Waters. And now she is reaching a period in her life when she is as influential and inspiring as the people who first awoke her own culinary senses. If to some her food is too ‘nice’, too fragrant, too simple, not brassy or clever enough, then that’s just fine. For Skye Gyngell at Spring has happily and confidently blossomed.


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