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