In a pre-conference exclusive, Angela Hartnett talks to Joanna Wood about new projects, her career and fellow women chefs.
Angela Hartnett is the UK's most respected and most high-profile woman chef. She learnt her trade in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and went on to become one of Ramsay's most trusted chefs, opening many restaurants for his restaurant group over the past 10 years. She breached the male bastion of London's Connaught hotel, gaining a Michelin star for Angela Hartnett's Menu and in 2006 opened under her own name in Florida for Gordon Ramsay Holdings
The opening of the new hotel and restaurant have been put back a little - what's been the problem?
We were due to open in May and June, but now Murano looks like it'll launch on 1 August, then we're looking at York and Albany in the first week in September. It was going to be the other way round, but there's a lot of things wrong with the building at the York and Albany that we've got to put right first. At the end of the day it's a pain, but I haven't lost any members of staff because of the delay which was my main worry.
What have your team been doing since the Connaught closed?
Most of them were placed within the group. We had an initial wobble after about four months because someone had heard unofficially that there was a delay. So I called told them that this is the state of play and if they wanted to go I would understand. But they all said they were prepared to wait - they wanted to work for me. So that's good.
You've got a deli attached to the hotel. Tell us about it.
I don't want to take the piss and make it too expensive - I want it to be approachable. So far I haven't done loads of trips abroad, because we're not at the stage yet where we'll be importing direct - that'll happen gradually. Initially, we've gone to suppliers we know, done some tastings - and liked most of the cheeses, for example, I'll be getting through La Fromagerie. And it's not an Italian deli - I want it to have more of a general store feel and I want to use British produce. Eventually, we'd like to hook up with a farm and raise our own pigs, for example - butcher them, too. That's the way I want to go.
You've overseen many openings for GRH - what's the most important thing to get right in the opening process? Relaxing your staff. You often walk in to a restaurant on opening night and you can see everyone all bunched-up and tense. What you really want is for them to feel like they've been there for years, but it's an element that's very difficult to get right. The lead has to come from the chef or the owner. One of the best openings I've ever seen was Cipriani. "Mr Cipriani" was there, serving food. This 80-year-old man was coming up to everyone and saying, "Ciao - how are you?", and because he was there and very relaxed everyone else was relaxed, too.
And what about the pitfalls of restaurant launching? There's an element of having to be seen to have a "wow" factor which is potentially dangerous. We're getting more and more like New York now - you've got to be different. Soon one of us will be opening a rice pudding shop or something, just to do the "next big thing". What's the "wow factor" anyway? Is it because you're totally organic, you knew the pig, killed it yourself, butchered it and cooked it? Or is it because you've got helium gas coming out of your arse? Whatever it is, you know, you've got to get a balance between giving the "wow" and getting the food right.
Give us the essential differences between American and British brigades. There's such a huge immigrant population in the US - everyone speaks Spanish, so that's interesting. The hours of working, especially in Florida are different: people only want to do seasonal shift work - they only want to do six months because they know that come the summer it's going to quieten down and the tips will change. The also seem so much more relaxed, really laid back - they are very "Yo, let's go. Let's go, dude. High five." You just want to say, "Jesus Christ - simmer down!" And in Florida we struggle with produce - we're freighting things down all the time: certain meats - they've put a shopping mall over any bit of land, so there are no farms. And then there's this thing about calling Gordon, "Chef Ramsay" - it makes me die! But I like Americans because they are as they are, what you see is what you get.
Where are your favourite places to have a cup of coffee, or just hang out, in Florida?
Delray Beach is nice - a big beach with a strip of bars, cafés and restaurants. But generally, I'm shocked at how bad some of the food is in Flordia.
Did you ever think about being a pastry chef?
No. Never. But I think a truly rounded chef needs to know how to make puff pastry, bread. Pastry's very scientifically driven - you can't just throw things together and hope it works, you need to question everything and I don't have the patience for it. And ultimately, I suppose I don't like sweet stuff, it's not my thing. When I go out, I'd rather have cheese than pudding. And I also like the pace of the kitchen - I much prefer the adrenalin of the hot kitchen.
Tell us the female chefs who you rate? Nadia Santini. Anne-Sophie Pic, Alice Waters. I love Sally Clarke, she's one of my favourite people in this business and she cooks with real love and passion. And Skye Gyngell, she's great.
What about Hélène Darroze? I haven't eaten her food yet - but yes I will go and eat at the Connaught once she's up and running.
Is it easier being a female and a chef today, than when you started? I don't feel there's much difference and I certainly didn't feel that I was a trail blazer as I was working my way up, although in hindsight, because of the kitchen I worked in and who I worked for, I realise I probably was. I think it's generally a lot easier in the industry now. The pay is better, there are a lot more restaurants to go and make your way in and they're not all doing five double shifts a week and having the hideous lifestyle that I had.
So, do you think it's been an easier route to the top for Clare Smyth [head chef of Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road]?
I'm sure that she runs Hospital Road very tightly with huge authority but I think probably, yes, if I'm honest, things were tougher for me - if only because you haven't got Gordon breathing down your neck all the time. The pressure of hearing those footsteps at 7.20am six days a week (Aubergine didn't closed at weekends), cleaning until 3am on a Friday, him never leaving until 1am - you couldn't do a thing without Gordon looking over your shoulder. Your respite was about 10 minutes from 7.10am - 7.20am. That was it.
Tell us something nobody knows about you?
I love eating crisp sandwiches.
Give us a question to ask Marco Pierre White at the conference?
Why did you give up your three stars?
Angela Hartnett is appearing at the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Chef Conference. Further information and to reserve your place at the event and the star-studded gala dinner
For more on on the Chef Conference go to www.caterersearch.com/chefconference