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Skye high

Food24's Kerry Gibbs chats to Skye Gyngell, Britain’s most reluctant celebrity chef, at the 2009 Good Food & Wine Show.

by: Kerry Gibbs: Food24 | 04 Jun 2009

This year's Cape Town show was packed to the rafters, and in the hectic atmosphere of the show I was lucky enough to interview the softly spoken and unassuming Skye Gyngell.

Originally from Australia, Skye moved to France where she studied at the La Varenne cooking school under Anne Willan. She then moved to London to work at The French House and The Dorchester.

Moving on from the pacy life of Michelin starred restaurants; Skye accepted the job of head chef at a small café at Petersham Nurseries in Surrey. She very quickly grabbed the attention of everyone from acclaimed foodies to celebrities such as Madonna and Guy Ritchie.

I chatted to Skye about everything from her cooking to her food column for Vogue, where she was recently photographed in a gorgeous couture dress flambéing up a storm.

Q: What characteristics do you think make a great chef?
A: Passion; you really have to love what you do, and have to realise that very few people are going to be Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay. I think if you get into the profession to make money, you are going to be very disappointed. To be a chef you have to love the craft, feel a connection towards it and really love cooking. It’s really hard work, not well paid and you are cut off from your family and friends, so love for the craft is imperative.

Q: What is your approach when it comes to cooking food?
A: I am very high on flavour and low on technique, although I have had formal training my attitude towards food is that it is a craft and not an art form. I also believe that cooking a memorable meal is about a lot more than just the food it’s about the company, the day, what you laughed about, the whole experience.

Q: In an interview with Australia West Weekend magazine you said your cooking is similar to the Australian personality, what exactly is the similarity?
A: I think in a way there is a freedom, such as in SA, it’s a different personality; much less structured, less formal, more easy going. Australia and South Africa are also such multi-cultured societies that I think you become like magpies; taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there.

Q: You have been trained in the classical French methods at La Varenne – would you say you rely heavily on your training or have you found your own niche that you prefer?
A: I think that in everything, like in being an artist, if you have formal training you find it easier to understand the principles and from those principles comes freedom.

Q: What made you decide to make that brave step from working at Michelin starred restaurants to a humble nursery café?
A: When I went there (Petersham) I just fell in love with it. I’m not young anymore and it’s very hard to maintain 70 to 80 hour weeks. You don’t see the sunshine and I found it very difficult to have any sort of life. I felt that I would be happy at Petersham and cook what I wanted to cook.

Q: When you first got that phone-call that Madonna wanted you to cater for her what was your initial reaction/feeling?
A: At first it is really exciting because you want to know what they look like. But it’s funny cooking for people like that, as they have actually seen and tasted everything, so they aren’t going to be bowled over. They don’t even notice you are there. It might sound glamorous, but in the end, you are still the one cleaning the kitchen at midnight.

Q: If you could pick anybody to have a meal with (celebrity or not), who would they be and what would you cook for them?
A: Nelson Mandela would be the most amazing person to cook for. I think he is so amazing and unique; there are very few people in the world like that. If I never cooked for anyone well-known again I wouldn’t really mind. I would really love to meet him, so if cooking for him was a way of meeting him I would do it. I would probably cook something simple, whatever is good at the market and what is in season.

Q: Have you ever been to Cape Town before? And is there any local food that has stood out to you or a particular meal you would come back for?
A: This is the first time I have been here, and I am loving it! I haven’t tasted any of the chef’s food but I have tried water-lilies (water blommetjies) and I really loved them. I have never heard of people eating lilies and I’ve eaten prickly pears and milktart. I also tried bobotie, which someone told me in the beginning was baboon. I was shocked as I thought that they were an endangered species, but apparently that run around everywhere, and I really want to see them.

Q: What ingredient do you feel is the most underrated?
A: Lemon juice; it gives a vibrancy to food that almost nothing else does. I think certainly salt and the use of the correct seasoning is probably one of the most vital things in cooking and sometimes, I think, the most overlooked.

Q: What are you most excited about for the coming year?
A: To be honest I think that my life is pretty amazing and I don’t really want for anything. I don’t really want money, I’m certainly not rich, but I can put food on the table, and money certainly doesn’t make you happy. I don’t want fame and I don’t want to be on TV. I just moved into a new house and have done a lot of renovations. One of the things I am most excited about is just being in the house and doing the garden.

Q: The Vogue photo shoot, something really different, were you nervous about burning the dress?
A: I was very nervous doing it, I am used to being in a t-shirt and dirty trainers and don’t really have a chance to dress up. The scariest thing was to be all glamorous and to look at yourself. But when I got used to it I felt like a princess.

Q: Any plan in the works for another book?
A: I am starting a book in June, it is the third in the series. The first was about seasons (A Year in my Kitchen), the second, produce (My Favourite Ingredients), and this one will be about techniques.

I am finishing a book I started in Australia last year. It is a very different concept. I did a restaurant swap with a chef from Australia, Sean Moran, he took over mine in London and I took over his in Australia. We swapped everything, chefs; teams; it was very interesting. His half of the book will be about his experience at Petersham and mine will be about Sean's Panaroma. It was much more difficult and challenging than I thought it would be.

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