Sally Abé

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 hits the sweet spot in the middle, which suits 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.’

Since Sally took on the head chef role at The Harwood Arms, it’s become more grown-up than it’s ever been. There’s a stronger focus on looking after staff and creating a better working environment. In an industry suffering from serious staffing shortages, Sally says little things like offering yoga mobility classes every Monday and setting up a hospitality employee assistance programme have had a huge impact. ‘We’ve not been short staffed for about nine months, and we’re only recruiting again now because two people who have been here for over two years are leaving. No one’s walked out in over a year, which can happen quite a lot in restaurants. I’ve also got more girls than boys in the kitchen, which is quite unusual.’

Sally has no desire to move on from The Harwood Arms (‘I can’t see a future where I’m not working here’) and is purely focused on running the business, making every year better than the last. Her style of food – British, seasonal and with a particular fondness for game – couldn’t be more suitable for a restaurant like The Harwood, and her drive to make the famously tough chef lifestyle just that little bit nicer makes her a harbinger of change in the industry. But of course – most importantly – it’s the food on the plate we all care about. And at The Harwood Arms, it’s faultless.

Three things you should know

Sally was named Chef to Watch at the 2019 National Restaurant Awards.

Sally has a particular passion for cooking with British game birds and venison, which she sources from co-owner Mike Robinson’s deer estate in Oxfordshire.

Sally believes The Harwood Arms really comes into its own in winter, when game birds and hearty dishes become the main focus.