Petersham Nurseries in central London is branching out, with two new restaurants and a bar, all with the same homegrown ethos and laid-back, luxurious vibe of the Richmond original. James Stagg meets chef-director Damian Clisby, the man putting the greenery back into Covent Garden
Tucked away in a bustling corner of London's Covent Garden is a new restaurant and retail development that's attempting to bring a little bit of the relaxation of the leafy banks of the Thames in Surrey to the city.
It's the ambitious project of the Boglione family, who opened Petersham Nurseries in 2004, having bought the plant nursery on the bank of the Thames overlooked by their Richmond house. There they partnered with friend and chef Skye Gyngell to open a casual restaurant which was awarded a Michelin star in 2011 and held it until her departure in 2013. Now they are attempting to transplant some of the atmosphere and character that has won Petersham Nurseries such plaudits to a city site in one of the busiest areas of London.
Chef-director Damian Clisby, who joined the business in 2014 from an executive chef role at Cotswold House in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, is the man tasked with bringing the food concepts to life, working with managing director Lara Boglione, daughter of Petersham Nurseries founders Francesco and Gael Boglione.
"The aim isn't to recreate Richmond," Clisby says. "We're just taking the DNA. When you walk through the gates at Richmond, your shoulders drop; you're relaxed. That's what we want to recreate, but in an urban setting. We'll offer tranquillity in the Petersham, liveliness in La Goccia and energy and fun in the courtyard."
Like in Richmond - where diners can only access the restaurant having wandered among the flowers and foliage of the nursery and through the shop selling furniture sourced by the family - guests in Covent Garden enter the restaurants either through the vegetation-rich shop or the newly created courtyard, dressed in foliage and magnolia trees.
ign notes in the restaurants emphasise the contact with nature, and plants feature throughout. Large paintings by artist Sarah Graham hang in La Goccia, one depicting an amaryllis and another an iris, the floral symbol of Florence. The striking centrepiece is a bar entirely made from a variety of leaves that have been individually cast in bronze.
In the Petersham, the walls have been painted by the same Italian artisan who worked on the Boglione family's house. The furniture includes handmade wrought iron chairs with bee motifs and leather seat pads in earthy colours.
The restaurants will be served from a subterranean complex of kitchens that are significantly larger than those the chefs are used to in Richmond.
"In Petersham the kitchen is in Francesco's old Ferrari garage and the range is far smaller," Clisby explains. "Everything is bespoke here. We went to Charvet and designed the kitchen around the menu. We'll be preparing plenty of pasta, gnocchi and risotto, so there is lots of space for pasta cooking."
Farm to table
Both restaurants will focus on the seasonal Italian cooking for which Petersham Nurseries is known, with La Goccia offering a more accessible all-day menu and the Petersham aiming to rival some of the capital's top Italian restaurants.
Although there will be plenty of cross-over between the two, particularly when it comes to sourcing, there will be points of difference, too. Clisby says: "For example, risotto in the Petersham will be made from a hand-planted grain, but we won't use that in La Goccia. We'll lean towards Presidia products [accredited slow food produce], organic where possible, so there's lots of integrity in that sense, and we'll source in the UK where we can."
That commitment is backed up by the family-owned Haye Farm in Devon, run by son Harry Boglione, which supplies lamb, Gloucester Old Spot pigs, chickens, rabbits, ducks and organic fruit and vegetables.
"The passion at the farm marries with our passion for the food," Clisby adds. "Between the restaurants we'll take 50 lamb carcasses a week - we might use the hind quarters at Petersham Nurseries café in Richmond, the trim will be for meatballs in the teahouse, the offal might go to La Goccia, while the saddle will go to the Petersham.
"The farm won't supply all of our meat, as it can't produce everything on 60 acres, but we work with other farmers around Haye Farm."
The dishes created using this produce will be recognisably Petersham Nurseries, according to Clisby, but with a little more elegance and refinement. He adds: "In La Goccia it will be more café or osteria-like, where diners can enjoy a slice of porchetta with a few potatoes and a beautiful salad, while in the Petersham it might be a cutlet of Haye Farm lamb with some peas and artichokes.
"There are dishes that have evolved from Richmond. For example, we're opening with a venison tartar with Zisola almonds, Original Beans cacao and pennywort. It's quite refined, but you wouldn't see that in Richmond - it's more likely to be beef tartare topped with truffle and hazelnuts."
At La Goccia diners are likely to be offered Tamworth pork chop, sage and capers; a pizzetta of Haye Farm egg, spinach, chilli and anchovy cooked in the wood-fired oven; and a range of vegetables served simply with the group's exclusive Zisola olive oil. The Petersham will open with dishes including varieties of courgettes with peas, broad beans and Culatello di Zibello; and fillet of hake with Gavi di Gavi, asparagus, peas, broad beans and crème fraÁ®che.
Though the menus will remain static for a couple of weeks while the restaurants bed in, they will soon change day by day depending on availability and atmosphere.
"We wanted to create two restaurants that are fluid and have the energy that we have in Richmond," Clisby explains. "So we'll change dishes daily depending on the weather and our mood. I don't want a restaurant that has a fixed menu. That helps with sustainability, too. What if there's a storm that takes out all the raspberries on Harry's farm? We won't buy them elsewhere - we'll take them off the menu."
That dedication to sustainability won the business a Sustainable Restaurant Association award last year for serving more vegetables and better meat, a commitment Clisby says he plans to continue.
"We'll build the menus by leading with the vegetables. In La Goccia there will be a 'hero vegetable' card in the menu - right now it's peas and broad beans - and the card will have a recipe using that produce that can be bought in the deli to make at home."
e initiative is one of many that, like the focus on nature and sustainability, links the various strands of the business. Whether it's the vases on the tables in the Petersham that are also available in the shop, or the wine from the Mazzei estate that is served in the restaurants and also for sale in the shop, the consistency and commitment to the finest produce and craftsmanship is evident throughout.
"Just as we want to look after our people in the same way as we do at Richmond, we're committed to ensuring it's the same with the food," Clisby says. "We won't compromise because the volume is greater. Covent Garden is very much designed on what we have at Richmond, but it's the next stage of its evolution."
About the restaurants
Managing director Lara Boglione
Chef-director Damian Clisby
Operations manager David Durban
Executive chef Simon Whiteley
General manager Nigel Mason
Head chef Joseph Fox
Head pastry chef Lucy Pearce
Covers 120 in the restaurant, plus 30 in the courtyard
Typical dishes Portland crab and fennel salad with pistachios and crème fraÁ®che (£16); robiola casoncelli verde with the first of the season's nettles and marjoram (£14); and Haye Farm loin of lamb with crisp sweetbreads, Spinosa artichokes, chard and basil (£29)
Head chef Lewis de Haas
Restaurant manager Henny Fox
Covers 96 in the restaurant, plus 30 in the courtyard
Typical dishes Montanara - tomatoes, basil and Parmesan fritti (£4.75); pizzetta - robiola, basil and pistachio mortadella (£7.75); and Haye Farm chicken breast (£9)
Having gone from 16 chefs at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond to 76 across the expanded business, chef-director Damian Clisby is conscious of creating the right conditions to ensure staff retention is high.
To that end, he plans to give the chefs plenty of creative freedom when it comes to dish development, as well as rotating them to different posts around the restaurants.
"There will be no 'them and us' - it's all one team. We'll create an atmosphere where a chef can do three months in the kitchens at Covent Garden, then go to Richmond for three months and get some vitamin D, then go to La Goccia's bright, open kitchen for three months. A lot of the youngsters will go to Richmond first before Covent Garden. It's where they will get their schooling. It's our osteria.
"It's paramount to look after our people. At Richmond we had 100% staff retention for three years. A lot of it was the environment, but we want to bring that same philosophy to London."
From Castello di Fonterutoli to Covent Garden With provenance being so key to the identity of the business, it's no surprise that the wines across the group have the same focus. There's even a family connection too, since Petersham Cellar, which supplies the group and sells online and in the deli, is run by managing director Lara Boglione and her husband Giovanni Mazzei from Castello di Fonterutoli in the heart of Tuscany.
All wines in the Covent Garden restaurants are imported directly from Italy. The Petersham offers 300 wines and La Goccia has a list of 10 reds, 10 whites and three rosés. These are presented on a map of Italy identifying the regions from which they originate.
"The placemat map is meant to be playful and fun," says Clisby. "It explains where the estate is and helps people understand the various regions.
"The Mazzei family has been making wine since 1435, so it has real heritage. They have estates in Tuscany and also in Sicily, which produces some beautiful white wines. Meranwhile, the Zisola extra virgin olive oil they produce and that we use in the restaurants is to die for.
"Because of the cellar and Lara and Giovanni's passion for wine, we've got a real connection with the winemaker and an understanding of the product."
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