Ten minutes with Skye Gyngell

Published on June 7 2019.

Photo: Skye Gyngell

Australian chef Skye Gyngell returned from London this week to co-host Two Good Co’s equiTable dinner in Melbourne, a fundraiser and chance for the women Two Good supports to spend a night enjoying fine food and the company of others. It was Gyngell’s first visit to Melbourne in more than 10 years, her last being for an appearance at the 2008 Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. We spoke to Gyngell about her first defining Melbourne food moment, priorities when you’re in your 50s and the pantry item she’s always willing to spend money on.

You’re now devoting time to two restaurants at the luxury hotel Heckfield Place, in addition to Spring in London. There’s no chance of you slowing down now that you’re in your 50s?
No, definitely not. I feel like I’m in the last third of my working life in a way. All my kids are grown up, so I feel like I’ve got a lot of energy to devote to things. I’ve racked my brains about what to do with the environment and health and the industrialsed food systems. You hear a lot about personal health but then I don’t believe personal health can be sorted out until the planet’s health is sorted out. We’re in the middle of conversion to a biodynamic farm at Heckfield Place, which will be 430 acres. It will be the largest biodynamic farm in Europe. We’re going to put a dairy on it, and I really want to do an education program down there and we’ll have a bakery. We’ve started to plant ancient grains. It’s the kind of project that I feel we’ve really got to work hard on to make it viable and sustainable financially because if that can happen, then change can happen.

Does cooking in the country and having this project of the biodnyamic farm feel like a progression of what you started doing at Petersham Nurseries?
It does. It was a tiny little garden that we worked from [at Petersham Nurseries] that was not much more than a show garden in a way. It was very easy to propel yourself to only cook seasonally. Then when I opened Spring and started working with Fern Verrow farm and Jane [Scotter] it felt like a whole world opened up to me. I do all the planting lists with her and we plant all the seeds and review all last year’s seeds. Although in a way she curates what’s on the menu [based on what she can grow], it’s really feels like a 50-50 collaboration and that’s been incredibly enriching.

I feel like I’m going one step further all the time. Heckfield has been another real challenge. It’s a much bigger landscape. We’ve planted 500 apple, quince, pear, plum trees and created a traditional orchard layout. We’ve planted rye and khorasan and some really interesting grains that hopefully we can mill. And hopefully this year we’re going to be able to press and make cider.

It’s very challenging working in a hotel. It never stops. It’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: breakfast, lunch dinner, afternoon tea, room service, events, Christmas, Easter. Restaurants are like part-time work in comparison. At a hotel you’re writing menus until they’re coming out of your ears.

What was your first defining food moment in Melbourne?
The last time I was here I came to the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival maybe 10 years ago and I went to MoVida with – I want to call him Matt’s Cravat but I know it’s not right… Matt Preston! He took me to MoVida. He was heading up the Festival then I think. I know MoVida’s very different now, there’s even one in Sydney airport, but this was the original one, down one of the laneways, and I remember having a tomato sorbet with an Ortiz anchovy on it. That meal lingered with me for a very long time. Frank Camorra is such a beautiful cook. That first MoVida book was a great book.

Then I went to this amazing little restaurant, is it called Da Noi? Where you have to walk out through the kitchen to go the loo in the garden? And I remember we had kid – goat – with braised celery. That was really amazing.

What are some of the new places that are on your list this time?
I went to Lune Croissanterie today.

How was that?
Well they’re beautiful croissants. The lamination is really beautiful. But it’s obviously a very slick operation. When I went there at 2pm there were only plain croissants left. There were people coming in on trucks, running in more croissants on baking trays.

And I’d love to go Embla actually. But I won’t get there, I fly tomorrow morning. The chef [Dave Verheul] actually just did a pop-up with James Lowe at Lyle’s [in London] and I couldn’t get tickets. They always sell out in a nanosecond.

Why did you want to be involved in the equiTable event with Two Good Co?
It resonates with me. I’m 55 and when I looked at the statistics, apparently the fastest growing area of homelessness is 55-year-old women. I found that so shocking and scary. You probably work all your life and you’re always thinking that there’s going to be a time when maybe you’ll stop working and things will be OK but sometimes through catastrophic or sometimes just minor sequences of events your life kind of unravels.

Tell us about the salad you created for Two Good Co’s meal delivery service.
It’s a sort of aubergine, tarragon, tomato and crème fraîche salad. They were really clever because it’s actually a warm dish, and they’ve adapted it so it’s a salad. I tasted it yesterday and it’s really delicious.

What’s the most expensive thing that’s in your pantry?
Olive oils for sure. The Capezzana and others from Tuscany, the really prized, peppery, make you cough at the back of your throat oils. I always take them from work, I have to say, and we get a wholesale price, but I think they’d probably be the most expensive thing.

I believe in spending money on food. I think food in general is too cheap. I really see that from working at the farm. When you think of olive oil, when it’s the first press and it has to be in a thick dark green bottle so it doesn’t oxidise and keeps its flavour profile, if you pay £30 for a bottle of olive oil, that’s why.

And the cheapest thing in the pantry?
I have a pantry that’s full of pulses, because I love any grains: farro, freekeh, chickpeas. I think you can mix it up - you can keep that bottle of extra virgin olive oil – not necessarily to cook with but for dressings and salads – and then you can buy a packet of rice and you’ve paid £1.60 and it will last you about three weeks, so it balances out.

What’s one thing about Australian food that you miss in London?
The food scene has definitely changed in London, but for a long time there were a million things I missed. Like just good coffee. That’s a really new thing and it’s still not amazing. You literally have only been able to get a flat white for about five years. When I first went there it was crap and there were hardly any restaurants. You had Pizza Express and then Michelin hotel food like Roux brothers or Gordon Ramsay but you didn’t have any of the stuff in the middle which Australia does so well.

I missed very much the ease and confidence of Australian cooking. Because there wasn’t the structure of training in Switzerland or Paris or in the great hotels of Europe, there was an unfettered kind of magpie cooking. People would throw in a bit of fish sauce in with something else. I don’t even know if they threw out the rule book, they didn’t even know there were rules.

What cookbook do you return to again and again?
I have thousands of cookbooks because I’ve kept every single book I’ve had for the last 35 years, but there’s probably three that still sit by my bed. One is Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rogers. Her voice! She galvanises you to be a better cook. She’s so precise with all her details about how to make a granita or a rabbit in all its parts. I find her voice absolutely amazing and her intent soars off every page.

The first Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli Chez Panisse [Cooking] cookbook, which is probably 40 years old now, is a really beautiful, very inspirational book. Chez Panisse Fruit, as well, is one of the books I would use as a reference in terms of dessert and purity.

And Book No. 3 of Tartine Bakery. I love all of what Chad does but Book No. 3, honestly, you open it and there’s a whoosh of creativity. You can tell he’s on fire, like he’s really breaking ground on a really personal level.

The Skye Gyngell salad is available to order now on Two Good Co in Melbourne and Sydney. twogood.com.au