Australian chef Skye Gyngell made headlines when she won a Michelin Star in a London garden centre. Two years on from opening her latest restaurant Spring in Central London she’s doing her best work yet.
“When I did get the star I was amazed, and thrilled, and couldn’t believe it. I found out and rang my mum, my poor mum, in Australia at five in the morning! The problem was – and this is what I’ve been really honest about – is what people’s expectations can be around that. They have an expectation of fine dining, and Petersham was absolutely not that. It had dirt floors, we cooked
in a tiny shed, you know, it was a garden centre!”
Born in Australia, Skye grew up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Dropping out of university and developing an interest in food, she begged her parents to let her enrol in cooking school in Paris. They relented, and Gyngell learned her trade at the famed La Varenne, before working in a series of restaurants, including two-starred Dodin-Bouffant in Paris and The Dorchester in London under Anton Mosimann. She married, had a daughter, divorced, had a second daughter and battled drug addiction before getting clean after her father’s death in 2000.
Then in 2004, still in London, friends Gael and Francesco Boglione approached her to join them at Petersham Nurseries. “They’d bought this dilapidated garden centre at the back of their house,” explains Gyngell. “At that stage, I was doing bits and pieces of consultancy, I used to write for Vogue, and I had a mixed bag of cookery tricks, but I missed being in a restaurant. I thought I could cook for the summer and see how it went.”
When they won the star in 2011 it was acknowledgement of the work they’d done but signalled the end of the road for the chef, who packed up her knives in 2012. “I’d been at Petersham for nine years, it was a grind and I felt like there was nothing else I could do there, we couldn’t push the business any further.”
Skye left with nothing on the horizon except the idea that she’d like to open her own restaurant. Partly to give herself the freedom to do the things she wished she could have at Petersham – make her own bread, butter, cordials – and partly to challenge herself again. “I always thought about it like if I was a musician and I wrote an album that was well-received, it was like asking ‘is there a second album in me, or am I just that one thing?’”
After nearly two years searching for a site (interspersed with relentless recipe testing and work on her latest book, Spring: The Cookbook), Gyngell finally settled on a site at Somerset House in Central London. Spring, which celebrates two years this October, was the result. Gyngell counts it as a fitting follow up. “It looks like Versailles, it’s amazing. It doesn’t really look very English, it’s very beautiful,” she says. “Spring in many ways is like Petersham, but with a much fuller flower.”
Skye comes across as incredibly settled and switched on, with a desire to keep pushing herself. Her goals are largely outward-looking: supporting farmers, looking after her staff (some of her concerns in opening Spring were providing a beautiful locker room and great meals for employees), and above all, caring for guests. “I really believe that food is one part of a memorable meal. You want your spirit to be lifted and to feel good when you walk into a room. And we’re blessed in the service industry because we get to look after people and be generous.”
She is absolutely in her element, committed to her ideas and principles with a clear hunger for more. “There are still things I want to do,” she says. “I’m interested in delivering beautiful food at a lower price point. Doing a kind of not-for-profit, zero waste, very little choice communal table eating. There are still things to do!”