Angela Hartnett: ‘There’s no shouting and screaming in my kitchen’

Michelin-starred chef, Angela Hartnett, tells Tom Parker Bowles about cooking with her Italian nonna and the greatest lesson she learned from Gordon Ramsay.

Angela Hartnett
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Growing up, my mum did all the cooking as my dad died when we were quite young. She was really good. I would help her a lot, as we were from that generation where you had to assist your parents. She made the most amazing ham with parsley sauce which I still love. After Dad died, mum moved us from Kent to Essex to live near my Italian grandparents, and I cooked with my nonna. Always Italian. Lots of fresh pasta and slow-cooked ragus. Even if Nonna cooked English food – like, say, a fry-up – there would always be an Italian touch, a pinch of sugar and a touch of garlic in the tinned tomatoes. So it was a mixture of English and Italian food.

ragu and pasta
Roast chicken and a classic ragu are two of Angela’s favourite meals. Image: Garage Island Crew / Stocksy

I was blessed with meals as a kid at primary school in Kent. Those were the days you still had proper school dinners: steamed chocolate pudding with chocolate custard, roasts with all the trimmings. It was freshly made and really good. But when I went to secondary school in Upminster, East London, it went downhill pretty fast. All bought-in rubbish – burgers, chips and beans. I didn’t want to eat that, so I moved on to my mum’s packed lunches.

We would always sit down together to eat. There was no compromise, even after leaving home. In fact, I can only remember once, in all those years, eating dinner in front of the TV. It still amazes me when I go to someone’s house for dinner and they have the TV on.

When I was little, we would always make anolini (small pasta dumplings stuffed with veal) together as a family. It’s both ritual and tradition. We make them and freeze them throughout December, ready for Christmas. I still make them every year, with Neil [Borthwick, Angela’s husband and fellow chef], my uncles, aunts and cousins.

I decided I wanted to become a chef when I was at college and took part-time jobs in kitchens to pay for my courses. That’s when I realised I could do this for a living. So after college, I went to Midsummer House in Cambridge, then out to Sandy Lane in Barbados for six months. But it was all happening in London.

roast chicken
Roast chicken and a classic ragu are two of Angela’s favourite meals. Image: Getty Images

Working for Gordon Ramsay meant trying to get through the week without a b******ing. If I got to Wednesday unscathed I’d be thinking ‘only a few more days left [to get through]’! I started at Aubergine, his first place as head chef, on Park Walk, Chelsea, in 1994. Gordon was there every day, six days a week. We all were. We’d start at 7am and finish about 1am. It was hardcore, really full-on. I used to laugh, as Gordon would come in on a Monday morning and ask, ‘How was your weekend?’ I’d reply, ‘What weekend?’ – as we only had Sunday off, there was no weekend. Gordon and I got on well and I liked working for him. It was tough, very long hours, but I learned a hell of a lot. I never regretted doing it.

When I started I was the only woman in the kitchen. Gordon was very good to me in that respect. He’d always try to send me home early, and I didn’t have to clean down the big stoves like the guys. He let me get away with certain things. Gordon wasn’t sexist, just old fashioned. Anyway, I was just delighted I didn’t have to clean that bloody big stove!

Gordon taught me a valuable lesson about waste. He always had a real respect for produce, and I remember once doing staff dinner and throwing half a celeriac into the bin, as I couldn’t be bothered to make anything from it. Gordon, like a sniffer dog, must have seen me do it. He docked my wages, and rightly so. I hate waste now.

celeriac
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Restaurant kitchens don’t have to be loud and shouty. Mine at Murano [in London’s Mayfair] isn’t. I’m not saying you can’t have passion and high standards – and you don’t let people get away with stuff. But you don’t need to scream and shout and call them names just to make a point. People don’t want to be in an aggressive environment. Life’s too short!

Murano
Angels’s michelin-starred restaurant Murano is in the heart of London’s Mayfair. Image: John Carey

It’s brilliant that there are a lot more female chefs in high positions now. Clare Smyth, Hélène Darroze and Lisa Goodwin-Allen are all brilliant. There have always been great female chefs like Sally Clarke, Ruthie Rogers at the River Café and Joyce Molyneux – but there are a lot of girls in their mid-20s coming through now, and that’s a good thing.

Once you’ve got good kitchen staff you need to look after them. Staffing is tough at the moment. When I was working at The Connaught, I would have them for at least 18 months. Now, if they turn up tomorrow, bloody brilliant. If anyone says they’re overstaffed, they’re lying.

Neil and I cook well together. Sort of. He’s a brilliant cook but he’s messy, which does my head in. So when we do cook, I spend a lot of time tidying up after him. We have a small kitchen and he will use every surface and pan.

cheese board
Getty Images

After a long service, my favourite comfort food is crackers, good cheese and a glass of wine.

My last dinner would be roast chicken. I love roast chicken.

Angela’s latest book, The Weekend Cook, is published by Bloomsbury Absolute, price £26. To order a copy for £22.10 until 14 August go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.