Pip Lacey

Pip Lacey

Pip Lacey

Pip Lacey may have first donned her whites at twenty-seven, but she has since worked in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and Clare Smyth, been mentored by Angela Hartnett and headed up Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Murano. Today, she is at the helm of her woodfire-focused restaurant Hicce at Kings Cross and Islington pub Hicce Hart.

Despite the best efforts of recruitment drives and marketing campaigns, professional kitchens have traditionally struggled to pitch themselves as career paths for the long haul; vacancies pigeonholed instead as part-time or stop-gap work. It's not uncommon for the most successful of chefs, even, to have initially overlooked it until a twist of fate or nudge in the right direction encouraged them to think again. Pip Lacey is a prime example. Though she’d spent years working front of house and was a keen cook, it wasn’t until she was twenty-seven that she realised her calling had been in front of her all along. By that point, she’d studied an art foundation course, graduated in graphic design, explored professional snowboarding, launched a screen printing business and even risen through the hospitality ranks.

‘Even as assistant manager at Med Kitchen, I still wasn’t thinking it was going to be something I did forever,’ she laughs. ‘It was my career at the time, and I was happy climbing the ladder and learning a lot, but I just didn't see it.’ She – and we – have a friend to thank for the realisation that, maybe, her love of cooking could be more than a hobby. ‘It’s easy to not connect it, because it’s something you do every day, even though it had probably been staring me in the face for years,’ she smiles. ‘I had been in the industry since I was younger and loved it – I loved working front of house. I absolutely loved the service, making sure everything was right, that pressure and buzz.'

Pip’s unfaltering work ethic would have led her to success sooner or later, but a twist of fate landed her a rather helpful first step on the cheffing ladder. While applying for a commis chef job with Gordon Ramsay's group, she ticked the wrong box when asked if she needed a visa to work, resulting in a speedy rejection. Keen to explain the error, Pip phoned the recruiters and, when they pointed out her lack of kitchen experience, persuaded them to give her a shot. ‘I was saying ‘give me a chance, give me a chance' and the lady said ‘are you mad? Do you have any idea what you’re getting into?’ But she told me to go to the York and Albany with whites and knives.’ So she did, armed with borrowed whites and hastily-bought knives ('they were the worst, with big, plastic green handles, but they were sharp,' she laughs). While her first day is largely a blur, a couple of memories stick out – including injuring herself while cutting the butter.

Her focus, from then, was simple – catch up on lost time. ‘I remember [head chef Colin Buchan] sitting me down and saying ‘look, you’re slow, but you’ve got the right attitude’. That’s what I believe, too – you can’t teach the right attitude, but you can teach someone how to cook. He said ‘don’t make the same mistake twice, concentrate and learn’. I took those words and ran with them. I was twenty-seven and fully aware I was behind in years. I worked so much because I loved it – I loved that every day I was learning something new.’ Fresh to a professional kitchen (along with the pace, personalities and, as she puts it, ‘occasional bad eggs’), Pip was a blank canvas, with no bad habits to ditch. ‘I didn’t even want to pretend I knew how to do things because I had cooked a bit at home,’ she says. ‘Instead it was like I’d not done anything at all, literally not even strained some broccoli. I put it out of my head.’

It was there she first met then-head-chef Angela Hartnett, a ‘firm, fair’ mentor who would prove instrumental in her career. After three years, Pip left the York and Albany to work under Clare Smyth at the three-star Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, but when Angela called three months later, looking for a chef at her one-star Italian restaurant Murano, in Mayfair, she accepted. The Murano team, under head chef Diego Cardoso, were like siblings, Pip says, and bonded quickly. ‘I missed so many social engagements, and the thing is, I didn’t mind,’ she says. ‘That was my prerogative, and that might not be for everyone, but I wanted to get somewhere, I wanted to learn everything and I wanted to be at the top.'

Pip rose through the ranks fast, eventually landing her first head chef role. ‘There’s more pressure then,’ she says. ‘Angela holds a Michelin star and it’s holding that baby for someone.’ As well as more responsibility, the seniority brought attention, and in 2015 Pip appeared on Great British Menu for the first time (during her second outing in 2017, she took her Wimbledon-themed starter all the way to the grand banquet). At the same time, she and friend Gordy McIntyre – who first met during a snowboarding trip – began to revive long-held dreams of opening their own venue. Pip left Murano and enjoyed a brief stint heading up Angela’s The Delaunay, but the itch to have her name above the door remained. ‘I was happy to give blood, sweat and tears,’ she says, ‘but at the end of the day I wanted to do it for myself. I wanted to spread my wings.’

Furnished with Angela’s guidance, Pip and Gordy left their jobs and started the search for investment. It was fellow Great British Menu contestant and friend Selin Kiazim's woodfired cooking at a festival that inspired what would become its concept. ‘Off I went on this culinary journey of cooking with fire,’ Pip says. ‘That’s where the style for Hicce began to grow.’ In 2018, they opened Hicce – Latin for ‘in the moment’ – at the new Coal Drops Yard development in Kings Cross. A small plates, modern British menu with Japanese and Scandinavian twists, the focus remains on open fire cooking, though it has evolved (an initial determination to avoid keeping dishes on the menu has softened, in part thanks to the popularity of their miso butter potatoes). Hicce was later joined by Hicce Mkt, a marketplace born out of lockdown selling artisanal products, and, then Islington pub Hicce Hart. ‘There’s nowhere nicer to be at a weekend than in a nice pub with your mates or family,’ Pip smiles, ‘with the fire on and decent food. Even if you drink or don’t drink, it doesn’t matter – it’s that nice environment, that buzzy atmosphere. It’s always been a part of my life.’

We all have reason to be grateful that Pip found her way into the kitchen. It might have felt like a late start, but it’s certainly not one that has held her back. Today, she is at home running her own show, cooking her own menus. ‘It’s about tasty, good looking food,’ she says. ‘Seasonal food, using seasonal produce and simplicity – don’t mess with things too much. And have fun – that will come through. If you’re enjoying what you cook, it will naturally taste better.’ We can’t argue with that.