Petersham Nurseries in Richmond - chef Skye Gyngell and a host of famous faces

PUBLISHED: 15:08 16 February 2012 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

Skye Gyngell, head chef at Petersham Nurseries (Photo by Martin Hartley)

Skye Gyngell, head chef at Petersham Nurseries (Photo by Martin Hartley)

Fast gaining a reputation as one of Surrey's most popular eateries, the multi award-winning cafe at Petersham Nurseries, near Richmond, has become a mecca for the rich and famous, attracting the likes of Richard E Grant and Madonna.

Originially published in Surrey Life magazine August 2009

Fast gaining a reputation as one of Surrey's most popular eateries, the multi award-winning cafe at Petersham Nurseries, near Richmond, has become a mecca for the rich and famous, attracting the likes of Richard E Grant and Madonna. EMMA ROBERTS went to meet head chef Skye Gyngell to find out more

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Petersham Nurseries: Need to know

  • Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey TW10 7AG. Tel: 0208 940 5230 /

  • Petersham Nurseries Cafe has received numerous awards including the Tatler Restaurant Award 2006, Time Out's Best Alfresco Dining and The Observer Food Monthly's Best Sunday Lunch shortlist 2006/2008, among many others.

  • Skye's first book, A Year In My Kitchen, was published in October 2006, receiving two awards: Best Cookery Book at the 2007 Guild of Food Writers and Cordon Bleu Book of the Year 2007. Her second book, My Favourite Ingredients, was published in 2008 and won World Gourmand Cookbook Award for the UK's Best Woman Chef Book.

THE INTERVIEW: There are countless places to be in Surrey on a beautiful summer morning. However, sitting in the sun-dappled Petersham Nurseries Cafe, enjoying fresh coffee with Skye Gyngell, international chef and food writer, is pretty hard to top.

Certainly one of the county's more unusual eateries, we are seated in a large orangery, red earth beneath our feet. The whimsical dcor oozes quintessential Englishness with a touch of the Mediterranean - among the mismatched iron-scrolled rickety chairs, worn wooden garden tables are adorned with mossy stone vases bursting with vibrant flowers and mouth-watering lemons.

It's enchanting, elegant and totally inspiring. And there is definitely no other restaurant quite like it.

"It's totally unique here," says Skye. "And I'm still so in love with its beauty. Every day I come to work, I'm overwhelmed by the place. It's a magical place to be. It's very easy to be happy and in tune here.''

Celebrating five years
It was back in 2004 that the owners of Petersham House, Gael and Francesco Boglione, opened Petersham Nurseries at the foot of their home, and asked Skye to run the cafe.

Five years later, it is one of the most talked about and original restaurants in the world, receiving food awards yearly for its fresh, seasonal fare, some of which comes from the nursery next door.

A well-known haunt for Richmond's many celebrity residents, such as Richard E Grant, the restaurant is also popular with visiting stars - among those who have dined there in recent months are Madonna, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, to name but a few. So, who was the nicest person to cook for? Her reply is immediate.

"Oh, the general public," she says. "Quite honestly, they're the most appreciative. Lots of celebrities have seen it all. They love the food, but nothing really surprises them.

"People come here for all sorts of reasons - birthdays, anniversaries, just for a really special day. I love that and feel honoured."

Local, seasonal produce
Skye is delightful, charming and very laid back (despite describing herself as 'ditzy'!), but incredibly focused about what she wants. Her charismatic personality is reflected both in the eclectic but carefully thought out surroundings and, of course, in the delicious food on offer.

Advocating a simple and holistic approach to her cooking, she uses local, seasonal produce whenever possible, producing uncomplicated dishes that still manage to taste divine.

The menu is certainly concise - a maximum of four starters, four mains and four desserts, differing through the week, increasing to five at weekends.

"It freaks me out when I see over 45 options on menus; I just don't get it," she says. "We only do one cheese at the moment, because we really believe it's the best cheese we can do at this time of the year.

"I don't have a signature dish - we always try different things - but I have my favourites of course I love slow cooking - I love food that's convivial. This restaurant to me was always 'put your elbows on the table, throw your head back and just enjoy'."

It seems to be the same philosophy in the kitchen where the frenetic, heated atmosphere normally associated with restaurants of this level is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the ground floor kitchen, visible from the restaurant, with skylights and glass doors, opens up into a labyrinth of greenhouses, stocked high with vegetable seedlings and multitudes of flowers and plants.

In fact, visitors wandering through the nursery can often have the added surprise pleasure of stumbling upon Skye rustling up lunch with her fellow cooks.

"I think it's so important to laugh in the kitchen and be happy," says Skye. "We don't have a hierarchy in my kitchen - I'm the head chef of course, but we're very much a team."

Planting by the moon
Naturally, they source as much produce as they can from the nursery's own herb and vegetable gardens, which are overseen by Lucy Gray (daughter of chef Rose Gray from the River Cafe).

"She is an amazing gardener," Skye tells me. "I'm constantly learning wonderful things from her.

"Last year, we planted by the moon or 'lunar planting' as it's known - it's very Italian! There's a lot of trial and error, of course! The thing is to experiment - some things grow really well and others don't."

In a world of arguably male led celebrity chefs, and a culture of big personalities in the kitchen, Skye Gyngell is certainly a breath of fresh air. She is a gentle, passionate woman who, in her own words 'simply loves to cook'.

She doesn't compare herself to other celebrity chefs. However, she does identify with other women chefs like Judy Rodgers and Alice Waters.

"I think that women cook in a different way from men," she says. "Being female, we have a desire to nurture. I don't mean this in a critical way but we run differently from men; we're less ego bound. I have never sought a Michelin star, I just don't want to be in that fiercely competitive world any more. I just do what I do.

"I think Jamie Oliver is a fabulous guy and has done some great things and Gordon Ramsay is a personality, a real entertainer, but I'm just not that type of chef. I just like to keep it simple and learn new things every day with my team."

Love what you do
Despite her growing fame, and the fact she has now written two best-selling books about cooking, Skye remains incredibly down to earth. A mother of two daughters, Holly, 19 and Evie, 12, she still manages to squeeze in the school run and walk the dog every day. In fact, she can't help wondering what all the fuss is about and continues to be overwhelmed with the success of the restaurant.

"I am work-driven but money and fame doesn't really interest me," she says. "Food, cooking, family and friends; that's what's important to me. My father always used to say, you can do anything you want. Just have fun and love what you do."

A journey to chef stardom

  • Daughter of the late Bruce Gyngell (the Australian media magnate), Skye has worked all over the world as a chef.

  • Having completed her training in Paris, she moved to London in her twenties, going on to work at some of the capital's top restaurants, including The Dorchester and The French House.

  • Later, having tired of long hours in hot kitchens and not being able to spend enough time with her family, she started her own catering company, hosting parties for top celebrities such as Madonna and Guy Ritchie.

  • Before long, out of the glare of the public eye, she had made a name for herself as one of the most innovative chefs in the country.

Skye Gyngell recipes

Asparagus with tomato dressing and creme frache

This a lovely asparagus starter. The tomato dressing has an intensity that contrasts well with the slightly nutty flavour of briefly cooked asparagus - and soft, gentle crme frache bridges the gap between the two flavours beautifully.

Serves 4
about 32 asparagus spears
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 tbsp crme frache
Tomato dressing
12 little ripe tomatoes
200ml extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle
2 rosemary sprigs, leaves only
1 garlic clove, peeled
4 good-quality tinned anchovy fillets in olive oil, drained
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp good-quality red wine vinegar

To finish
rosemary sprigs with flowers or finely chopped parsley

  • First make the tomato dressing. Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Pierce each tomato once with a small sharp knife - this helps to release the juice while the tomatoes are cooking. Place them in a roasting tin in which they fit quite snugly. Drizzle over a little olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast on the middle shelf of the oven for 20 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft and bursting from their skins. Set aside to cool.

  • Pound the rosemary leaves, garlic and anchovy fillets to a rough paste, using a pestle and mortar. Add the tomatoes one by one, pounding after each addition, until all have been incorporated. Add the mustard and wine vinegar and stir well to combine. Pour in the olive oil, stirring as you do so. Taste and season with a little salt and pepper. The dressing should be quite coarse and textural. Set aside to allow the flavours to adjust to each other.

  • To cook the asparagus, place a large pan of well-salted water on to boil. Snap the asparagus spears near the base - they will naturally break off where the fibrous part ends. Peel the lower end of the stalks. When the water is boiling vigorously, drop in the asparagus and cook for 11/2 minutes or until the spears are still firm but yield to the bite. Remove with tongs and place in a warm bowl.

  • Immediately season the asparagus and dress with the extra virgin olive oil. Arrange on warm plates, add a dollop of crme frache and spoon on the tomato dressing. Finish with rosemary flowers, if available, or sprinkle with a little chopped parsley and serve.

Borlotti, clams and fino

The combination of fresh clams and fino sherry is a marriage made in heaven. Borlotti beans are equally at home here, as they mop up all the lovely flavours and pad the dish out. Salty, deep and delicious, I never tire of this dish.

Serves 4
1.5kg fresh clams
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and tough outer layer removed
4-5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 dried red chilli
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
250g good-quality peeled plum tomatoes (from a jar or tin)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
200ml fino sherry
400g cooked borlotti beans
bunch of flat leaf parsley, leaves stripped and roughly chopped

  • Pick over the clams, discarding any that are damaged or open and do not close when gently squeezed. To clean the clams, simply leave them immersed in cold water for 20 minutes or so.

  • Roughly chop the fennel. Heat 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan (large enough to hold all the ingredients comfortably) over a medium heat. Add the chopped fennel and cook gently for 5 minutes.

  • Now crumble in the chilli, and add the garlic and tomatoes. Stir well to combine and break up the tomatoes. Season with a small pinch of salt, bearing in mind the saltiness of the clams. Let bubble gently for about 10 minutes to reduce the tomatoes slightly and bring out the warmth of the chilli and flavour of the garlic.

  • Add the clams and sherry. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, turn the heat to high and cook for about 3 minutes. Once the clams have opened, add the cooked borlotti beans and warm through.

  • Drizzle in the rest of the olive oil and sprinkle over the parsley. Stir well to combine and add a good grinding of pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary - the flavour should be salty and unctuous with a marked dryness, which is the fino's contribution. Ladle into warm soup plates and serve immediately.

Clams like to feel they are still in the sea, so store them in the fridge in a covered bowl of cold water with a good pinch of salt added until you are ready to cook them.

Carpaccio of beef with red pepper relish

A well-executed carpaccio makes an elegant first course. It's also a lovely way to showcase the flavour of good-quality beef. Traditionally, carpaccio is simply finely sliced pounded beef, dressed with nothing more than salt, extra virgin olive oil and perhaps a few shavings of Parmesan. Here, I have paired it with a little more - summery red peppers and the lightest curd cheese. In winter we serve it with shavings of white truffle, deep-fried artichoke hearts, or slivers of white celery heart.

Serves 4 or 8
500g best-quality fillet of beef
extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle
sea salt
juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste
Red pepper relish
1 large red pepper
40g currants
50g very fresh pine nuts
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
small bunch of basil, leaves only, finely chopped
small bunch of rocket, chopped
20ml sherry vinegar
1 tsp Pedro Ximnez sherry
50ml mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil

To serve
4 generous tbsp fromage blanc or other sweet young curd cheese

  • Trim the meat of any sinew or fat, then wrap and place in the freezer for about 20-30 minutes until thoroughly chilled but not frozen. (This will make it easier to slice.)

  • Cut 16 x 25cm squares of baking parchment. Using a very sharp knife, slice the meat with the grain into 8 slices. Brush one parchment square with a little olive oil and lay a slice of meat on top. Cover with a second oiled square of parchment. Working from the centre outwards, pound the meat evenly and gently using a wooden rolling pin. Keep pounding (but not too hard or you will tear the flesh) until the meat is no more than 3mm thick. When you have finished, the slice should be two or three times its original size. Continue until you have 8 slices of finished carpaccio. Refrigerate until ready to serve, but for no longer than 4 hours, or the meat will discolour and lose flavour.

  • To make the relish, roast the pepper under a hot grill, turning until the skin is charred all over. Transfer to a bowl, cover with cling film and let stand for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Soak the currants in a little warm water for 15 minutes to soften. Warm the pine nuts in the oven for a few minutes to release their flavour.

  • Peel, halve and deseed the pepper, then cut into small dice and place in a bowl. Add the pine nuts. Squeeze out the excess water from the currants and add these too. Season and add the garlic, basil, rocket, sherry vinegar, sherry and finally the extra virgin olive oil. Stir well and let stand for a few minutes, then taste and adjust the seasoning. The relish should be slightly sweet, soft and fresh.

  • To assemble, carefully peel off one sheet of parchment paper from each parcel. Then lay a slice exposed side down on each chilled plate and peel off the top layer of paper. Add a second slice of beef to each plate if serving two each. Drizzle with the olive oil, season with salt and sprinkle with a few drops of lemon juice. Spoon over the relish, leaving most of the meat exposed. Finish with the fromage blanc and a final drizzle of relish. Serve immediately.

Chicken with garlic and fennel

This is the sort of food I cook at home - quick, simple and satisfying. During the summer, I'll most likely serve it with a plate of green beans and new potatoes from the garden, drizzled with peppery extra virgin olive oil.

Serves 4
1 organic free-range chicken, about 1.4kg, jointed into 8 pieces
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 red onions, peeled and finely sliced
1 dried red chilli
1 tsp saffron threads
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and fibrous outer layer removed
250ml white wine
2 x 340g jars (or tinned) good-quality peeled plum tomatoes
pared zest of 1 orange
3 bay leaves
5 thyme sprigs
1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (optional)

  • Season the chicken well all over with salt and pepper. Put the olive oil into a flameproof casserole (large enough to hold all the ingredients comfortably) and place over a medium heat. When hot, brown the chicken pieces in batches, turning to colour them all over - they should look really golden and pleasing to the eye. Once browned, remove the pieces and set aside. Pour off any excess fat from the casserole, leaving around 1 tbsp or so.

  • In a separate pan, gently warm the fennel and coriander seeds until they release their fragrance, then tip into a mortar and pound with the pestle to grind finely.

  • Add the onions to the casserole and cook over a low heat until sweet and translucent, about 5 minutes. Crumble over the chilli and add the ground spices, saffron and garlic. Season with a good pinch of salt and a little pepper, and stir well to combine. Cut the fennel bulb into quarters and add to the pan.

  • Pour in the wine, turn up the heat a little and let bubble and reduce for a minute or so, then add the tomatoes. Return the chicken to the pan and add the orange zest and herbs. Turn the heat down and put the lid on the casserole. Cook very gently for 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and almost starting to fall from the bone.

  • Taste and adjust the seasoning. If you're like me, you'll want to add a splash of extra virgin olive oil to bring the whole dish together. Serve with bread - or something else to mop up the delicious juices.

A dish such as this often tastes even better if allowed to cool to room temperature before reheating to serve. The flavours somehow adjust, get to know each other and are that much better for it.

Hazelnut tart

This is a simple tart - both in flavour and execution. These days I always make pastry in the food processor - it is so much quicker and less messy than mixing it by hand. I prepare this tart most often in the autumn, when the first nuts of the year begin to appear. My favourite way to serve it is with crme frache and sweet tender autumn raspberries.

Serves 8-10
250g plain flour, sifted, plus extra to dust
125g unsalted butter
30g caster sugar
1 organic free-range egg
1 organic free-range egg yolk
?nely grated zest of
1 unwaxed lemon
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

300g shelled hazelnuts
300g caster sugar
3 whole eggs
finely grated zest of
1 unwaxed lemon
300g unsalted butter, in pieces

  • For the pastry, have all the ingredients well chilled. Tip the flour into a food processor. Cut the butter into tiny cubes, or grate it if you prefer. Add to the flour along with the sugar, whole egg, egg yolk, lemon zest and vanilla extract. Now turn on the machine. The mixture will soon have a granular, moist texture, the consistency of wet sand. Keep going and it should soon gather into a ball. Just occasionally you may find you need to add a little iced water to help it along - do this sparingly as it is easy to over-do it. Take out the dough, wrap it in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes or so while you make the filling.

  • Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas 5. Place the nuts on a baking tray and roast on the middle shelf of the oven for 5-6 minutes - to tickle out their flavour and make the skins easier to remove. Tip the nuts into a clean dry cloth and rub the cloth between your hands - the skins should slip off, so you can discard them quite easily.

  • Place the nuts in a blender and add the sugar, eggs, lemon zest and butter. Pulse to combine - keeping the nuts quite textural, rather than grinding them finely. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

  • Lightly flour your work surface and rolling pin and roll out the pastry to a large round, about 3mm thick. Lift the pastry onto the rolling pin and drape it over a 25cm flan tin, about 2.5cm deep, with removable base. Press the pastry into the edges and sides of the tin and prick the base all over with a fork. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes to rest.

  • Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper and baking beans and bake 'blind' for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and paper and return the pastry case to the oven for a further 5 minutes. Allow to cool slightly. Spoon in the hazelnut filling, distributing it evenly. Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden; the filling should still be just soft in the centre. If it appears to be overbrowning, cover loosely with foil.

  • Allow the tart to cool to room temperature before slicing and serving, either on its own or with crme frache and raspberries.

Pink grapefruit, avocado and watercress salad

This elegant, light salad is ideal to serve as a first course. Pink grapefruit and peppery watercress cut the richness of avocado, and a scattering of toasted hazelnuts and hazelnut oil in the dressing suggest a flavour of early autumn. Parma ham is a graceful inclusion, but you can leave it out for a lighter vegetarian salad if you like.

Serves 4
16 shelled hazelnuts
bunch of watercress
1 pink grapefruit
1 ripe avocado
8-12 slices of Parma ham
8-12 wafer-thin slices of young pecorino (optional)
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley

1 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
40ml mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp hazelnut oil

  • First make the dressing. Combine the mustard and sherry vinegar in a bowl and add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil, followed by the hazelnut oil to emulsify, then set aside.

  • Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Place the nuts on a baking tray and roast in the middle of the oven for 3-4 minutes to warm and release their flavour. Turn into a cloth and rub gently to remove the skins, then roughly chop the nuts.

  • For the salad, wash the watercress and gently pat dry. Peel the grapefruit, removing all the pith, then cut out the segments over a large bowl to catch the juice as well as the segments. Halve, stone and peel the avocado, then cut into slices, similar in size to the grapefruit. Add to the grapefruit with the watercress and toss gently with your fingers to mix.

  • If the dressing has separated on standing, give it a whisk, then drizzle half of it over the salad and toss lightly, so you don't break up the avocado or grapefruit. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

  • Arrange the salad on a plate, interleaving the Parma ham slices and pecorino if using, with the watercress, grapefruit and avocado. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and drizzle over the remaining dressing. Finally, scatter over the hazelnuts and serve.

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