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Pip Lacey: the t-shirt designer turned head chef of Murano

Ones to watch: Pip Lacey

by Hugh Thomas 09 June 2017

Hugh Thomas sits down with chef Pip Lacey to uncover her surprising career path and look at how her own cooking style has developed.

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It was through a degree of desperation that landed Pip Lacey under the wing of Angela Hartnett. Desperation, that is, from both sides – in 2008, Pip was running a business in graphic design when her love for food became too much to ignore, and only a career in the industry would do. At the same time, the York and Albany – where Angela was head chef – had a commis vacancy to fill, and few options with which to do it.

Perhaps they would’ve otherwise rejected her straight out, but Pip got lucky. On her response to the job, she ticked the wrong box in the right-to-work section. ‘They sent the application back to me,’ says Pip. ‘It said, ‘well, you can’t work here – you don’t have a visa’. So I phoned them up and told them I do. I had no experience as a chef, so they said ‘why would we do that?’ I convinced them to do an interview over the phone.’ Needless to say, they gave her the job. ‘I loved it straight away.’

Albeit with some degree of prior front of house experience, you wonder what Pip might have said to convince them. Especially when, considering her background in art, she was more used to wielding paint brushes than pestle and mortars. ‘That whole creative side has actually been a massive help,’ says Pip. ‘Just in trying things out, because that’s what you do in art. You don’t know what the outcome’s going to be when you first put brush to paper. It’s that drive to create.’

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Except for a short stint at Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road (where Pip says she gladly learnt as much in three months as others would learn in six years, but the kitchen was so intense it was ‘a bit silly’), Pip has worked the entirety of her culinary career with Angela. From commis at the York and Albany to head chef at Murano in Mayfair. Apparently, moving back under Angela’s tutelage at Murano from Royal Hospital Road was a ‘no brainer’.

‘I’ve learnt so much from her,’ says Pip. ‘Sometimes she still surprises me, even though we’ve worked together for almost ten years. She’ll tell you to take something off the menu and replace it with something else, and you’ll say, oh, but I don’t really agree with that. The next week, it’ll be the biggest seller on the menu.’

British-Italian fare is the way Pip, Angela and the team run things at Murano. That means the likes of quail, foie gras and Jerusalem artichoke, with red cabbage and almonds. And it means those Italian nonna-like dishes, such as gnocchi, lobster Carnaroli risotto and rabbit tortellini. Regulars will also know of a particular menu stalwart. But what they won’t know is there’s something a bit fishy about the head chef’s relationship with it.

‘I’d never pick monkfish to eat,’ says Pip. ‘But it’s always been a dish I’ve got spot on. We had one with artichokes, crispy shallots, and a twenty-four-year-old balsamic. Really simple, but every check that came through had it on.’ When your dishes are as simple as they can often be at Murano, each ingredient has to be as good as it possibly can.

‘Ever since I went to Bologna and Modena, anything with balsamic has been on the menu somewhere because not many people have had the real thing. It’s like a completely different product. I went to a couple of balsamic houses and the fact it takes twenty-five years to make and they charge you £100 is crazy – it should be £1,000.’

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Pip tells me even Italian chefs were blown away when she introduced them to proper balsamic. Maybe it’s this pursuit for what’s truly good that will stand in her favour if she wants to open her own restaurant. In fact, a place of her own is something she says she’s put some thought into. ‘It’s probably on the cards at some point shortly. I’ve spoken about it with Angela. That’s what’s great about her – I want to do what she’s done, and I can offer more to the business than staying behind the pass. I’m obviously not going to take over from Angela [as chef-patron of Murano], so this is going to be with her full support.’

As to what the new place might entail, Pip’s keen to give a few clues. In spite of her experience with British and Italian cuisine, not to mention classic French techniques, it sounds like we ought to expect a change of tack. ‘I’m very much into Asian food,’ Pip says. ‘Not completely Japan, but some Japanese food. Very much into Nordic food too at the moment, which is similar in that it’s to do with the Northern hemisphere, and surrounded by sea. Which means a lot of fish – and a couple of monkfish! But the restaurant would be a little more relaxed. A lot of chefs get hung up on Michelin, but I want somewhere that just does good food.’

After several years as Angela Hartnett’s so-called protégé, it sounds like Pip’s ready to lead her own charge in the restaurant game. And to have someone like Angela – widely regarded as one of the UK’s best chefs – offering backup will be a boon. After all, Gordon Ramsay did the same for her. What does that mean for the rest of us? Well, despite her successes at Murano, and in light of her return to Great British Menu for the second time, it could mean Pip’s best is soon to come.

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