"Working completely seasonally, and working with a vegetable garden, what you tend to have is a feast or a famine," says chef Skye Gyngell of the restaurant Spring and author of a book by the same name.
Noelle Carter: Spring is your first solo restaurant. Restaurants still have this reputation for being male-dominated, and not just in the kitchen. From its inception, Spring was largely designed and built by women with you at the helm. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Skye Gyngell: Probably not conscious, although I have to be honest that I do find women amazing, and I'm drawn to a specific type of creativity. It was extraordinary. Halfway through the project, we looked around and thought, "God, the project architect is a woman. The interior designer is a woman. We have these beautiful ceramic blossoms all over the wall -- that's a woman. The uniforms were designed by a woman." My partner was a woman. I think we were drawn to each other. It was so mutually supportive; I felt carried by them.
Spring is in a very, very beautiful building called Somerset House, but the actual site where we are is the old Inland Revenue offices. It was quite a forbidding site in a way -- very beautiful, very unloved and you needed a lot of courage. It has 24-foot high ceilings and huge windows; it's right on the Thames. It felt like this empty palace.
I just felt that all the women who seemed to pop up along the way, we all trudged it together. It was a project that took almost two years.
NC: There's something almost poetic about the way you connect with your ingredients. The recipes are very produce-driven and seasonal. What is your thought process when creating recipes?
SG: I always start with one ingredient. We do work very seasonally, and we also work with a biodynamic farm called Fern Verrow. They provide 95 percent of our produce. The dishes in the restaurant are completely led by Fern Verrow.
I'm so fortunate to work with such beautiful ingredients. I see them in a box, and I literally cannot believe how beautiful they are. What I try and do is showcase the ingredients and try to not get in the way of the ingredients too much.
NC: Can you talk a little bit about some of the simpler recipes? I love the way you write about making basic butter.
SG: During the process of looking to start another restaurant, a restaurant really on my own this time, I felt very lost and very out of the kitchen. We found ourselves returning to things like breads, making butters, and all the almost-forgotten skills, the really, really basic. I always say to everyone in the kitchen they're biblical things, making bread.
We were very inexperienced, in fact, in making bread. We started, and our first attempts were poor. But over 18 months or so, we just found ourselves making bread every day. Then we branched into butters because that became a natural follow-on from bread.
It sounds funny, but the butter that we make and that is in the book is actually cultivated butter with kefir grains, but we started with so many different creams, mascarpones or crème fraîches. It was actually a really lovely time because in a restaurant, it's so busy every day that sometimes you don't have the luxury to really get to the heart of things like breads and butters. In the book as well, there are some liqueurs and things that we started making with fig leaves.
It was an experimental time for us, really. Those fundamentals that are in the book, the yogurts, the ricottas and things, they're all things that we were doing to keep ourselves sane as the restaurant was being built. They became part of the journey of opening Spring. I really wanted to include them in the book.
NC: Another recipe that I tried recently was your Slow-cooked Zucchini with Tarragon. It's just a handful of ingredients, and the method is relatively simple, but the results are so incredible. You mention at the top that it's one of the recipes that you keep coming back to, and it's one of the most popular recipes that you've served.
SG: That recipe, I have come back to over 15, maybe even 20 years. I've cooked it every summer for such a long time. It's such an old friend of mine. It's beautiful with chickens, it's beautiful with lamb, it's wonderful with fish. But it came about, really, because especially working completely seasonally, and working with a vegetable garden, what you tend to have is a feast or a famine. You get a glut of -- we call them courgettes.
It's almost like a jam you make. You cut them very, very finely, and you just tickle out the flavors through really long, patient cooking. It's just keeping the temperature incredibly low. The tarragon, which is lovely with it -- sometimes I have it without the tarragon at all. It depends what it's with. Oftentimes, I put so many other herbs in it: mint, chervil, or sometimes I put dried chili in there.
Of all the things I've ever cooked, strangely enough, it's one of the simplest, but it's also the one that everybody always says: "I love that zucchini recipe. That's my favorite. Will you make the slow-cooked zucchinis?" Everyone in the restaurant loves it too. All the staff, we always love making it.
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