Angela Hartnett talks to Caterer about the latest openings, bikes, delis and female chefs. Joanna Wood reports
Watch Caterersearch.com's video interview with Angela Hartnett here.
Angela Hartnett is the guinea pig in the Ramsay stable. She was the first, and for many years, the only, female chef to have charge of one of Gordon Ramsay's kitchens - the first female chef-patron at what was once a bastion of male clubbiness, the Connaught, in London. Now she's set to open the first boutique hotel for Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH).
The 10-bedroom York & Albany is a Grade II-listed Regency building by John Nash. English fashion and interior designer Russell Sage has kept the period look, with a few modern touches.
"When you've got a wonderful old building you don't want to put some stark, modernist design in it," asserts Hartnett.
Before she even gets to fling open the doors of York & Albany, however, on the edge of Regent's Park near Camden, London - due to start trading on 22 September - Hartnett is launching another London restaurant, Murano, in Mayfair, on 21 August.
Located in the heart of Mayfair, on the site of the former Zen Central, it takes its name from the famous Venetian glass, itself named after the island of Murano, just off Venice. Hence, there are elaborate chandeliers, part of a look put together by Richmond International. The design firm is fresh off Ramsay's new Trianon Palace hotel, in Versailles.
In some ways, this is also a first. The first fine-dining restaurant that GRH has opened outside a hotel environment in the UK since launching the flagship of the group, Gordon Ramsay, in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, in the late 1990s.
This double first would be enough to faze most people, but not Hartnett. When we meet she's relaxed, jokey and unstressed by imminent openings. Hair drawn back from her face and wearing chef's whites, she seems far more concerned about her dodgy knee which she's twisted - "it's really aching" - because it will harm her ability to get around London.
Hartnett plans to ride to work, though purely in the human-powered form. She's fallen off motorbikes twice - "so it's probably better to stick to pedals", she says, in a dry manner.
She has an ability not to take herself too seriously. But Hartnett's achievements point to another trait - cussed determination. Marcus Wareing, whom she helped to open the original Pétrus in 1999, has referred to her as a "true grit chef" - qualities which have helped her succeed in the testosterone-fuelled world of professional cooking.
When Hartnett started cooking in the 1990s, few female chefs had cracked the big time. "Because of the kitchen I worked in, and who I worked for," she was something of a trailblazer. Sally Clarke, at Clarke's Restaurant, in Kensington, London, was a rare example of another top woman chef.
Now there's Clare Smyth, at Ramsay's flagship restaurant; Helena Puolakka, at Skylon in the Royal Festival Hall, London; Skye Gyngell, at the Petersham Nurseries Café, in Richmond, Surrey; and Margot Henderson, at Rochelle Canteen, in London. Plus, there's the acclaimed French chef, Hélène Darroze, who has taken over from Hartnett at the Connaught.
The "F" word (female, not her boss's trademark expletive), is always raised in interviews, but it doesn't bother Hartnett. "There are still so few women in the industry. If being a woman is one of the assets that make you stand out because you're in a male environment, and as good a chef as, if not better than, a man, then use it. It's part of who you are.
"I'm not saying parade yourself naked through the kitchen - but women have certain attributes that blokes don't have and vice versa. I don't see it as a problem," she says.
It all began with Ramsay in 1994, in the boiler room-atmosphere that was Chelsea's Aubergine restaurant, then owned by A-Z Restaurants. She oversaw the short-lived Amaryllis, in Edinburgh, in 2001, then moved on to Verre in Dubai, before her promotion by Ramsay to chef-patron at the Connaught in 2002. She gained a Michelin star two years later for her Italian-influenced cooking - both her parents are from the Emilia-Romagna region.
It was at that time that Hartnett became known to a larger public, appearing on Hell's Kitchen with Ramsay, as the foil to his forceful treatment of contestants. She appeared on Great British Menu in 2006, but then her first setback arrived - the Connaught closed in the early part of last year, with both parties agreeing that Hartnett would go back in October. Talks went on, but it became apparent that she wouldn't be returning and representatives at GRH started looking for new sites.
That's the easy bit, but then the builders come in. Original plans had the hotel opening first in April, and Murano the following month. April and May became, with opening orders reversed, August and September.
"It's frustrating, but you just have to accept things," says Hartnett". I don't know a restaurant that's opened on time yet."
When Murano does launch, Hartnett will have been out of the cut and thrust of daily kitchen life for nearly a year-and-a-half. She's been visiting Florida and taking culinary research trips, but might be rusty when it comes to handling knives and large pans.
"I'll be dead on my legs in the first week, but you get used to it, and adapt quickly," she says.
She's likely to spend more time at Murano after things settle down, but that bicycle comes into play again. It's only a 10-minute ride between the two, so Hartnett will be able to keep tabs on both places.
Argentinian-born Diego Cardoso is heading up the Murano kitchen and Scotsman Colin Buchan is taking the helm at York & Albany - both men worked with Hartnett at the Connaught.
The ventures are very different. Murano is a smart, modern, 60-seat, fine-dining restaurant showing Hartnett's much admired Italian-leaned cuisine, previously on display at the Connaught.
There'll be roasted veal loin with Parmesan cream, and frozen panna cotta with summer berries at Murano. York & Albany will have grilled lobsters, plus Gorgonzola and speck pizza.
But in another first for GRH, the York & Albany will stock a Hartnett-line of preserves too, in a new deli outlet on site.
"I don't want to take the mickey and make it so expensive that only certain people walk in," she says. "I'd like people to see generosity - baskets of fruit and veg, a big table in the middle with big piles of cookies and cakes."
There will be plenty of Italian produce on display, along with Cornish sea salt, Shipton Mill organic flour, bacon and sausages from Jody Scheckter's biodynamic farm at Laverstock Park, Hampshire, lettuces from Secretts Farm, in Godalming, Surrey, and chocolates from Damian Allsop. Hartnett even plans to hook up with a farm and raise her own pigs.
The next few months are going to be action-packed. But in the launch-hungry animal that is GRH, there must be more to come too. "You're always after the next story, you journalists," she says, with a smile. "You want me to say I'm opening a pizza place, don't you? In fact, the deli may have roll-out potential.
"If we get it right and it becomes somewhere that people go, then that's possible. But it has to be somewhere people actually want to shop, not just a place for them to buy Parmesan," she adds.
How to open a restaurant deli
Angela Hartnett's CV
By Joanna Wood