Sally Abé


Sally Abé

After cutting her teeth at the likes of Brett Graham's The Ledbury and Phil Howard's Elystan Street, Sally Abé rose to fame at The Harwood Arms. She's now at the helm of The Pem inside the Conrad London St James hotel, along with three accompanying establishments.

Originally from Mansfield, Sally Abé had no lifelong dreams to become a chef or cutesy stories about helping her grandmother in the kitchen. It wasn’t until she was eighteen, working a mundane office job in Sheffield, that she started to get into cooking at home and decided to pursue it further. ‘I enrolled on a hospitality business management and culinary arts degree at Sheffield Hallam University, which I really enjoyed, and for my final placement year I decided to head to the Savoy,’ she explains. ‘As soon as I got into the kitchen, I knew it was where I wanted to be.’

When the Savoy closed for refurbishment in 2007, Sally moved on to Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, which is where she learnt the basics of cookery – a pretty good place to start. When the time came to head back to Sheffield, she decided to stay in London. ‘Claridge’s was hard – it was always busy, we were cooking for a lot of people and it was a proper army-style brigade in the kitchen. But I really liked it. I’d always drifted through school because it didn’t really interest me, but I really thrived off the challenge of working in a kitchen. I wanted people to know I could take anything they could throw at me.’

With a good grounding in the foundations of classical cookery and after a brief stint with Marcus Wareing, Sally’s next step was to begin the most influential part of her career – working with Brett Graham at The Ledbury. ‘I stayed there for five years, which is a really long time, going from chef de partie to sous chef. I just loved it there – Brett is a hard person to work for but he’s very fair and he really helps you to learn all aspects of running a restaurant. By the time I left, I was looking after a lot more than just the food, which put me in really good stead for the future.’

Feeling like she’d achieved what she set out to achieve, Sally left The Ledbury in need of a bit of a break from the non-stop chef life she’d experienced since moving to London. Swapping chef knives for a mouse and keyboard, she joined Great British Chefs as a recipe editor and developer.

‘I’d always loved writing, and I wanted to see if I could apply that side of my brain to something for a while. Brett was really supportive about it – I think he knew it was time for me to try something else. I really enjoyed things like food styling and editing recipes, which I hadn’t really done before, but after eighteen months I knew I needed to get back into the kitchen. I really missed it.’

When Sally saw that Phil Howard was selling his two-starred restaurant The Square to open Elystan Street, she knew she wanted to work for him. ‘Phil is the nicest man and his ethos on food is just so wonderful. He loves big, gutsy flavours and he’s not really bothered about meticulous recipes; he just wants to make things taste great. I got to be involved with opening the restaurant and we would make all these old-school things like tureens or apple jellies. It was really fun and the food was so good – the only reason I left was because the opportunity at The Harwood Arms came up.’

The Harwood Arms – London’s only Michelin-starred gastropub – is co-owned by Brett Graham, so Sally was already familiar with it. ‘Me and my husband Matt used to eat there all the time as we lived very close by, and I’d always loved the ethos of the place,’ she explains. ‘I’ve never wanted to run a fine dining restaurant with tablecloths and waiters wearing gloves – that’s not who I am at all. At the same time, however, I don’t want to cook really casual food. I think The Harwood hit the sweet spot in the middle, which suited me completely.’

Because The Harwood is co-owned by Brett Graham and the previous head chefs before Sally had also worked at The Ledbury, Sally says the kitchen was run in a familiar way. ‘It was easy in that sense, but when you join somewhere at a senior level you always have to gain the trust of the team, which can be the tricky bit. I just laid my cards on the table, was very open about what I wanted us to do and we pushed forward.’

It took about eighteen months for Sally to really develop The Harwood Arms into something she could call her own. ‘You never really get to put dishes on the menu until you’re head chef,’ she says. ‘It’s weird because you’re never trained for it; you just go from doing someone else’s food all the time and then suddenly it’s all your own. As a chef you always have lots of ideas, but it takes time to get used to being actually able to serve them.’

Sally spent several years pushing the team at The Harwood Arms ever-forward, building upon the pub's already lauded reputation. In 2021, she moved on from the restaurant to lead an exciting project at The Conrad London St James hotel, which puts her at the helm of four different establishments. The flagship is called The Pem, named after the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, with a female-led team keen to create a working culture that's far removed from the shouty, intense kitchens of old. Alongside that, Sally is also overseeing The Blue Boar Pub, as well as an afternoon tea lounge and a cocktail bar.