Angela Hartnett is one of the most successful female chefs this country has ever produced. She's intelligent, driven, single-minded, witty and very, very tough. Not surprising, then, to find her breaching the walls of that London bastion of male chefdom, the Connaught.
For Hartnett has just taken over as chef-patron of the hotel's fine-dining restaurant - the latest addition to the Gordon Ramsay restaurant group. It's a high-profile job that will call on all her qualities as a leader and a talented chef, including perhaps a touch of self-confessed arrogance. But she makes no apology for this: "If you don't believe you're as good as any man, then you're not going to make it to the top in the kitchen," she says.
Clearly, Hartnett's not a woman to be fazed either by managing a 35-strong brigade, or by her larger-than-life boss, Ramsay. "I'm not afraid of telling Gordon exactly what I think about things, and we do have very frank discussions. We're both adults and are partners in this venture, so of course I'm going to put my point of view."
While Hartnett is reluctant to disclose exactly what percentage of the Connaught restaurant venture is hers - "Gordon would be seriously pissed off if I did that" - she's happy to reveal how the deal to lease the space from the hotel's owner, Blackstone Group, came about.
"Gordon was out visiting Blackstone executives in America last year and they were talking about wanting to open a Pétrus restaurant in the Connaught [a sister to Pétrus on London's St James's, which Ramsay co-owns with Marcus Wareing]. Gordon said "no way", but said he had a fantastic girl working for him at the Hilton Dubai Creek and proposed that I could run the restaurant.
"So I came over to the UK to meet the people from Blackstone last September and had an interview. They basically asked me about how I got on with Gordon, if I liked publicity and what I wanted to achieve. After then deciding to go ahead, several months of negotiations went on before Gordon finally signed the deal to lease the restaurant in March this year."
Hartnett has yet to begin cooking full-time at the Connaught, but Ramsay's company has already taken over the running of the kitchens, with Neil Ferguson (ex-Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea and ex-Amaryllis in Glasgow), currently overseeing them. "He'll be staying on and working as my head chef once I'm there," Hartnett says. Ferguson's career includes five years at Aubergine under Ramsay's reign, and periods in France with Alain Passard and Marc Meneau.
Over this summer top designer Nina Campbell will be carrying out a makeover of the restaurant interiors, with its official relaunch date set for October. A name has yet to be decided. "Personally I like 'Angie's Caff', but Gordon wasn't too happy with that," Hartnett says.
Joking aside, Hartnett is keen to stress that, unlike at Claridge's, where the restaurant carries Ramsay's name above the door, the Connaught will be a Ramsay name-free zone - primarily because he will not himself be patrolling the Connaught's pass at any time. "This is not going to be a copy of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, it's very much going to be Angela Hartnett at the Connaught," she says. "I'm not going to be doing Gordon's food, or Marcus Wareing's food, or anyone else's for that matter - I'm going to be doing my food."
Her cuisine is Mediterranean in style, with a particular leaning towards Italian ingredients and flavours - the food she grew up with at the apron strings of her Italian grandmother. As yet, however, Hartnett hasn't drawn up her menu, preferring to leave that job until later in the summer after she has undertaken a lengthy culinary tour of Italy, Spain, France and the USA.
"I plan to eat in some really authentic little restaurants to get some inspiration before we open," she says. "If you don't get out there and see what's going on from time to time, you never get any fresh ideas and just end up cooking the same dishes again and again."
So, looking ahead, what are Hartnett's hopes for her restaurant? "What I really want above all is a happy, relaxed dining room full of regulars. Of course, if Michelin and the AA like it, even better, and I'd really like three stars from Fay Maschler [restaurant critic of London's Evening Standard], although I won't lose any sleep over it."
As for her ultimate career goal, Hartnett says: "This is it. To run a restaurant with my name attached to it. I think that's pretty much any chef's dream."
How old were you when you first became interested in cooking?
About five or six, making fairy cakes.
Who first taught you to cook?
My Italian grandmother, Clarinda - my mum's mum - who was originally from Emilia Romagna. She taught me how to make anolini pasta [tiny, half-moon-shaped, stuffed pasta parcels, native to Emilia Romagna], when I was eight or nine.
Which other chefs currently working in the UK do you most admire?
Marcus Wareing [Pétrus, London] and Giorgio Locatelli [Locanda Locatelli, London].
What's the most overrated ingredient currently?
Coriander - personally I can't stand the taste of it.
What would be your desert island ingredient?
I'd have to get marooned with three - pasta, olive oil and Parmesan cheese.
And what single piece of equipment/gadget would you take with you to a desert island?
A pasta machine.
Where and what would be your last chosen meal on earth?
I'd like my late grandmother's anolini recipe, made by my mother.
Where's your favourite place to dine in the UK, when you're off-duty?
Riva in Barnes, south London.
Who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?
My family because they are my best friends - my mad mother, 35-year-old brother, 27-year-old sister, uncles, aunts and all their partners. We'd have the most brilliant time - we always do when we're together.
What single thing do you think would most improve the restaurant industry in the UK?
Fewer hours for staff so they could have some kind of life outside work.
Is there anywhere you still haven't eaten in the UK that you're dying to try?
Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon, and, believe it or not, I've never eaten at Pétrus, despite having worked there for a year and a half.
What's your ultimate long-term ambition?
I'd really like to have some children one day. I don't want to work this hard forever.
Hartnett describes working as executive chef of the Hilton Dubai Creek as "the best job of my life", adding that coming back to the UK to take on her new role as chef-patron of the Connaught was the toughest decision she has ever had to make. "It was a total career decision as I was really happy working out there," she says.
Aside from the obvious attractions of endless sunshine and a "Las Vegas-style culture and lifestyle", Hartnett says it was her 30-strong brigade of Indonesians, Filipinos, Sri Lankans and Indians that made her love Dubai so much.
"They were all amazing - so hard-working, enthusiastic and respectful. I'd really love to bring some of them over to the UK at some point as I feel I've left my children behind and it's really difficult to find their level of enthusiasm over here."
There were tough times, too, during her time in Dubai. Opening the hotel's Verre restaurant on 1 October 2001, less than a month after the terrorist attacks of 11 September when no one was travelling to the Middle East, was difficult, to say the least. "We had two diners in on the day we opened, so that was a real low point - and an experience which I hope I never go through again."
Angela Hartnett came to cooking at the age of 23, having taken A levels and a degree in modern history at Cambridge Polytechnic. Finishing her student days in debt, she first got a job in a pub, before persuading Midsummer House in Cambridge to take her on as a waitress. Further "blagging" then saw her moved into the kitchen, where she spent the next two years.
Short stints at Tamarind Cove and Sandy Lane resorts in Barbados followed, before Hartnett returned to the UK in 1994 to do 10 stages in restaurants across London - including one at Aubergine, where Gordon Ramsay was then head chef. "I loved the enthusiasm of the kitchen - it was so buzzy and lively, although I'd never worked so hard in my life."
Hartnett was taken on by Ramsay full-time for more than a year before spending six months in Giorgio Locatelli's kitchen at Zafferano. She then became part of the opening brigade at L'Oranger under Marcus Wareing, working her way up to sous-chef level. When Wareing moved to P‚trus, she went with him as his sous chef, remaining there for about 18 months.
A short spell in Glasgow, helping with the opening of Amaryllis, followed before Ramsay appointed Hartnett executive chef of the Hilton Dubai Creek a year ago, where she oversaw both the fine-dining Verre restaurant and the Glasshouse brasserie. Her tenure lasted until last month.
Featured video - for more, visit Caterer and Hotelkeeper’s YouTube channel >>