NO RESER­VA­TIONS

SHE’S THE TOAST OF LON­DON, BUT FOR AUS­TRALIAN-BORN MICHELIN-STARRED CHEF SKYE GYN­GELL, SUC­CESS DID NOT COME WITH­OUT ITS STRUG­GLES

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy DAVID DYSON Words LEXIE CARTWRIGHT

Michelin-starred chef Skye Gyn­gell re­veals the recipe for her suc­cess.

Right in the cul­tural heart of Lon­don stands a dreamy restau­rant called Spring. Its owner, Skye Gyn­gell, is one of Bri­tain’s most cel­e­brated chefs. In fact, she is Aus­tralian born and pos­sessed of a sur­name that is fa­mil­iar to mil­lions who have turned on a TV in the past half decade. She is one of Aus­tralian TV icon and Nine Net­work founder Bruce Gyn­gell’s five chil­dren, who has gone on to make an equally formidable name for her­self, be­com­ing – in 2011 – the first Aus­tralian woman ever to earn a Michelin star. She’s a fas­tid­i­ous and ex­act­ing chef, over­see­ing ev­ery plate that leaves the Spring kitchen.

The truth is that she prob­a­bly doesn’t need to. With three best­selling books un­der her belt and a swish restau­rant in one of the world’s great cap­i­tals, you could for­give the 53-year-old if she wanted to fo­cus on be­ing a so­cialite, or per­haps turn to­ward a lu­cra­tive sec­ond ca­reer as a celebrity chef, all cook­ing com­pe­ti­tions and brand en­dorse­ments.

“I can see how my life must look amaz­ing and glam­orous,” Gyn­gell says, sip­ping a long black from a tea cup as she sits at a ta­ble in­side Spring, lo­cated within Som­er­set House. “And peo­ple would walk in and say, ‘She must make a for­tune.’” She is self-aware, ad­mit­ting that even to­day, “I was driv­ing along to this in­ter­view and thought, ‘I won­der how other peo­ple see me…’

“I live the least glam­orous life you could ever imag­ine,” she in­sists. “My hair nor­mally needs a wash, I take maybe four days off in nine months and I’m here six days a week. Text­book-wise, my life is not pretty. But it’s the life I love. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

GYN­GELL WAS BORN in Syd­ney, but has lived in Lon­don for the past 30 years. She be­gan her ca­reer when she

was in high school, wash­ing dishes in a Dou­ble Bay restau­rant but ab­sorb­ing what was hap­pen­ing around her. It helped her learn the ba­sics of cook­ing.

She also grew up in a mac­ro­bi­otic house­hold – this was the ’70s, af­ter all. Gyn­gell says it in­ad­ver­tently helped her hone her craft, reck­on­ing that, “I had to make the food taste good some­how!”

She left Aus­tralia when she was 18, a wide-eyed new­comer to Paris who learnt the ropes at culi­nary school La Varenne and restau­rant Dodin-bouf­fant. Af­ter four years there, she moved to Lon­don. In her twen­ties, she was in the kitchen at Lon­don restau­rant The French House, work­ing at The Dorch­ester and cook­ing at high-so­ci­ety din­ner par­ties for the likes of Nigella Law­son.

Then, at the age of 40, she was brought in as head chef for new restau­rant Peter­sham Nurs­eries Café in Rich­mond, 40 min­utes south­west from cen­tral Lon­don, where she be­came renowned for her sea­sonal and el­e­gant cook­ing. Gyn­gell opened her own restau­rant, Spring, three years ago.

The re­stored 19th-cen­tury draw­ing room is fit­ted with gauzy drapes, vel­vet so­fas, quirky chan­de­liers, mar­ble bench­tops and floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows. It’s beau­ti­ful, and so is the food that comes from the kitchen, cour­tesy of a menu that changes daily. Celebri­ties who have popped in for a meal in­clude Stephen Fry, Jamie Oliver, Kristin Scott Thomas and Alexan­dra Shul­man, the le­gendary for­mer ed­i­tor of British Vogue. “I have to pinch my­self when it dawns on me that I have this beau­ti­ful restau­rant in Lon­don. It’s sur­real,’’ Gyn­gell says.

Her adopted city has been in the grips of a seem­ingly end­less se­ries of crises over the past sev­eral months, which Gyn­gell ad­mits has taken an emo­tional toll. She says she looks back on her idyl­lic child­hood in Aus­tralia “all the time”. The sin­gle mother – daugh­ter Holly is 27; Evie is 20 – may have been raised in Syd­ney’s af­flu­ent east­ern sub­urbs, but her mem­o­ries sound much like most who grew up near the wa­ter in Aus­tralia at the time. She talks about run­ning around Bondi Beach, bare­foot, lap­ping up the laid-back life­style that be­came our most fa­mous ex­port. “We would catch the bus ev­ery­where as kids, get drunk on the beach. It was safe and easy – the best time to be alive.”

Gyn­gell says that she is cer­tain her suc­cess has re­sulted from the strin­gent work ethic her father in­stilled in her and sib­lings David and Bri­ony, Bruce’s chil­dren from his first mar­riage to in­te­rior de­signer Ann Barr. She says they were never pur­posely ex­posed to the fringe ben­e­fits of wealth, de­spite the fact her fam­ily had plenty of it.

“We were com­pletely buffered from any sense of money,” she says. “We were not in any way spoilt. At Christ­mas we had to save up if we wanted one jumper. We didn’t travel abroad, and if we did, Mum and Dad would go in first class and we’d be in econ­omy. They’d say, ‘When you earn your own money, you can come in first class!’ So from the get-go, we all had a huge work ethic. My father, es­pe­cially, had worked so hard to get to where he got. It def­i­nitely mo­ti­vated us three and in­spired us. The mes­sage in our house was: you can do any­thing you want to do, you just have to be will­ing to work for it.’’

Bruce Gyn­gell died aged 71 in 2000 af­ter a bat­tle with can­cer; her mother, Ann, is now 81 and still lives in Syd­ney. Gyn­gell says she tries to in­stil the same val­ues her par­ents passed along in her two daugh­ters, who she raised, for the most part, on her own. Speak­ing of her own re­la­tion­ship with Ann, Gyn­gell says they are more like best friends than mother and daugh­ter. But it has not al­ways been that way.

“I dis­tinctly re­call telling my mum that I wanted to quit Syd­ney Univer­sity af­ter one year of study­ing law to be­come a chef,” she says. “She was wa­ter­ing the gar­dens and she just said, ‘You will pay back ev­ery sin­gle cent from the text­books we bought.’ I think that was the only time in my life I’ve ever dis­ap­pointed my mother and father. She got over it quickly – and luck­ily I did OK in this field.”

Gyn­gell has spo­ken openly about the de­mons that plagued her dur­ing her for­ma­tive years. Once dubbed “the Court­ney Love of cook­ing” by a UK jour­nal­ist, Gyn­gell bat­tled an ad­dic­tion to heroin and abused al­co­hol for years. She does not care to re­live that time, but in the past has cited self-es­teem is­sues as a key rea­son for her trou­bles. “Maybe,” she has said, “I’m tougher than I ap­pear.”

A year af­ter re­ceiv­ing her Michelin star for Peter­sham Nurs­eries Café, Gyn­gell spoke openly about the pres­sure she felt to live up to what it in­di­cated about her abil­ity. In one in­ter­view, she de­scribed it as a “curse”. To­day she is more cir­cum­spect when the sub­ject comes up, say­ing only that she re­mains grate­ful to have re­ceived the hon­our, de­spite the im­plicit de­mands it car­ries.

i think quit­ting univer­sity was the only time i´ve dis­ap­pointed my par­ents

“Ob­vi­ously it’s a mas­sive priv­i­lege,” Gyn­gell says. “It’s a huge achieve­ment as a chef and I’m very proud of it. A lot of pres­sure comes with it, a lot more in­ter­est in what you do. Peo­ple have higher ex­pec­ta­tions.

“At the end of the day, I just want to pro­duce fresh, amaz­ing food with love for the in­gre­di­ents – that al­ways re­mains my fo­cus. I try not to think about the pres­sure. We just con­tinue to do what we do.”

NOT LONG AGO, Gyn­gell says, “I was ap­proached about do­ing some­thing in Aus­tralia. And in the­ory, I would love to.” But sim­ply slap­ping her name on a restau­rant on the other side of the world, while continuing to pour her pas­sion into Spring, is not some­thing that Gyn­gell feels com­fort­able with. “I don’t un­der­stand the mul­ti­ple restau­rant thing. I’m here ev­ery day. I watch the plates of food go out. I’m very con­trol­ling. I just couldn’t do some­thing that only had my name on it.

“My in­tegrity is ev­ery­thing to me, and I would want to be there to over­see ev­ery­thing.” With re­fresh­ing hon­esty, she sur­mises, “I’m just des­tined not to make a great deal of money in that case.”

And yet re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia is some­thing Gyn­gell still thinks about from time to time. She never moved back home af­ter re­lo­cat­ing to the UK, pri­mar­ily be­cause her ca­reer blos­somed so quickly. But given the re­cent ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Lon­don, and the sense of un­ease that seems to have gripped the city over the past year, she ad­mits to a change in sen­ti­ment.

“Lon­don is a very spe­cial city, but I will ad­mit for the first time I feel vul­ner­a­ble and scared,” Gyn­gell says. “I’m scared my daugh­ters are grow­ing up in this cli­mate.” She men­tions the early June in­ci­dents on Lon­don Bridge and Bor­ough Mar­ket, when eight peo­ple were killed in a com­bined ve­hi­cle and knife at­tack. “It was weird for us,” Gyn­gell says, “be­cause it was right in the mid­dle of cen­tral Lon­don and ev­ery­one who worked here was scared. And I knew peo­ple work­ing at Bor­ough that night. My gen­er­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly in Aus­tralia, grew up with­out any sort of war. There was a sense of peace and pros­per­ity.”

Chefs are not nec­es­sar­ily ex­pected to be politi­cians, but Gyn­gell can­not help but wist­fully con­sider the state of the world out­side of Spring’s gilded walls. “I don’t know what the so­lu­tion is,” she says thought­fully. “But I do look at my time in Aus­tralia and re­alise how lucky I was to have that place to call home.”

i do look at my time in aus­tralia and re­alise how lucky i was´

TOP OF HER GAME Skye Gyn­gell in her ac­claimed Lon­don restau­rant.

QUAL­ITY CON­TROL Gyn­gell over­sees ev­ery plate that leaves her kitchen.

RECIPE FOR SUC­CESS (clock­wise from left) Gyn­gell at an All-star Chef Clas­sic in 2015; with daugh­ters Holly (left) and Evie as young chil­dren; as pho­tographed for Stel­lar in Lon­don; pre­par­ing a dish at LA LIVE; sib­lings (from left) Bri­ony, Skye and David vis­it­ing dad Bruce in hos­pi­tal in 1970.

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