Skye Gyngell

Skye Gyngell

In the serene surroundings of her restaurant Spring, Skye Gyngell works closely with biodynamic farm Fern Verrow to bring the UK’s best produce to London. With an emphasis on simple, zero-waste cookery, her dishes allow the ingredients to speak for themselves.

Cooking with the seasons, championing produce over everything else, keeping things simple on the plate – there are dozens of chefs now following this mantra in restaurants across the UK. But one of the first to walk this path was Australian-born Skye Gyngell, someone who now encapsulates this zero-waste, ingredient-led style of cooking at her beautiful London restaurant Spring.

Growing up in 1970s Sydney meant Skye was brought up amongst a variety of food cultures, eating out every weekend at the many Korean, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Greek and Italian restaurants set up by immigrants to the city. While her family were very food-focused (‘they followed a macrobiotic way of eating, which was quite big in the ‘70s’), it wasn’t until she got a job washing up in a charcutier whilst studying for a law degree at university that Skye started to really fall in love with cooking. ‘There was this amazing woman there who’d studied in France,’ she says. ‘She taught me how to make mayonnaise, stock, pies, things like that, and after a year at university I moved to Paris to do a cookery course before spending two years cooking in a two-starred restaurant called Dodin-Bouffant.’

After three years in Paris with a strong understanding of classical cooking under her belt, Skye moved to London to work under Anton Mossimann at The Dorchester. ‘It was hard – there were a lot of chefs and you’d arrive and leave work in the dark. I’d fallen in love with cooking in a light, relaxed way, so becoming one of 120 chefs in an intense stainless steel environment made me question my career. I left after about a year and started cooking with Fergus and Margot Henderson at The French House, where they were doing something quite new. It was all stripped back, simple, really good cooking, which was pretty different to everything else in the early ‘90s.’

It was around this time that the UK’s food scene began to change. Up until this point there were high-end, formal, Michelin-starred restaurants at the top and fast food joints at the bottom, but not much in the middle. Places like Ruth Rogers’ The River Café and Peter Gordon’s The Sugar Club began to make waves, offering something delicious yet casual to a new generation of people interested in good food.

After ten years working in restaurants Skye left the restaurant industry for five years so she could teach, become the food editor for Vogue and bring up her children. It wasn’t until 2003, however, when Skye started cooking out of a little shed in the garden centre at Petersham Nurseries, that she really started to make a name for herself. ‘I knew the people who bought the garden centre, and they wanted me to come and cook over the summer,’ she says. ‘They had the beginnings of a vegetable garden and it sounded quite nice, so I literally took my own pots and pans down there and cooked on a little green four-burner stove. We made three dishes each day and when they ran out we packed up and went home.’

Within a few months of opening, Skye had received rave reviews and awards for her seasonal, simple plates of food. ‘Back then, people didn’t talk about cooking seasonally. If you looked at a Gordon Ramsay menu it would have things like pineapples, strawberries and asparagus on during December, and supermarkets and globalisation meant people just didn’t know when an ingredient was in season. We just worked with what we could get from the vegetable garden, and people were wowed by it. I was thirty-nine years old when I started at Petersham, which was my first restaurant, and it was only then that I really got into my stride.’

Skye continued to cook at Petersham for just under ten years, eventually winning a Michelin star – something which she famously branded a ‘curse’ as it made the restaurant far too busy for the small team to cope with and altered diners’ expectations. She left Petersham Nurseries to seek investment for a new restaurant, which came in the form of the Chan family. After two years of searching for a space and months of planning permission requests and refurbishment, the old inland tax revenue offices at Somerset House were transformed into Spring – a stunning restaurant where Skye is finally able to cook the food she loves in surroundings that match the beautiful dishes.

While Petersham Nurseries was all rickety tables and glassware from IKEA, Spring is quite the opposite – a grandiose dining room where every detail has been carefully designed and thought out. What hasn’t changed, however, is Skye’s approach to cooking. ‘On a personal level, Spring is a natural progression from Petersham,’ she explains. ‘The biggest change was the amount of freedom and space Spring offered. We have twenty-six chefs compared to just six at Petersham, we open in the evenings, we make absolutely everything ourselves – even the tonic for the gin and tonics. But the same things are important to me now as they were fifteen years ago: to cook beautiful food and create a really lovely experience for people who come to eat here. With a larger team under me my desire to be a good boss has grown; I want to teach and train staff and for them to think of Spring as a happy place to work. Environmental issues are really important too – we managed to eliminate all single-use plastics from the kitchen at the start of 2019. My idea of success has definitely changed from being concerned about what people think of me as a cook to how we work as a business overall.’

While the incredible team Skye has put together (including her very talented head chef Rose Ashby) and the beautiful interiors have helped Spring become one of London’s top restaurants, the ingredients she sources play an incredibly important role, too. Without the luxury of a vegetable garden next to the kitchen she began collaborating with Fern Verrow, a sixteen-acre biodynamic farm in Herefordshire which now supplies the vast majority of her fruits, vegetables and flowers. ‘I’d known about Jane Scotter and Fern Verrow for years – she used to sell produce at Borough Market and Maltby Street,’ says Skye. ‘I wrote to her and asked if she’d be interested in working together, not expecting much of a reply, but she wanted to give it a go. It took us about a year to work everything out, but it’s turned into the most amazing relationship – she’s a real friend and I have immense respect for her.’

Good chefs, good surroundings and good ingredients – it’s the perfect formula for a restaurant people want to go back to again and again. And while dozens of other places are focusing on seasonal, simple cookery, few know how to do it as well (or have access to the same quality of ingredients) as Skye.