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Skye Gyngell's Mission to Tackle Food Waste

Ahead of the launch of her new pop-up restaurant TABLE at Spring, Skye Gyngell tells Luxury London about tackling Britain’s problem with food waste, championing women in the industry and her 30-year love affair with London

When it comes to trends, the food industry certainly has its fair share of unconventional crazes. No longer reserved for the fashion pack, fads for foodies range from the sublime to the ridiculous and, in some cases, can linger in the most unlikely of ways. Kale, for instance, was not only the superfood du jour of 2013, but became the unfortunate name of 262 newborns in the US that year. And it doesn’t stop there; in the world of fanatic fodder, it seems that juices will forever be green, crusts eternally stuffed and breakfast never complete without a side of avocado and a Clarendon filter thanks to Instagram.

But verdant monikers and hashtags aside, some trends can hold more water than initially predicted, and Skye Gyngell is hoping that the ones she’s championing will go some way to changing the nation’s habits of a lifetime. The Aussie chef – who brought Petersham Nurseries Café its first Michelin star back in 2011 – opened her own restaurant, Spring, in 2013, where she specialises in seasonal produce cooked in the simplest of ways. Shortly after, she launched Scratch, a pre-theatre set menu that allows diners to enjoy her cooking at a lower price point, aided by the fact that the dishes are made entirely from the food left over from her main restaurant. 

Now, in a bid to highlight the world’s problem with food waste, Gyngell is hosting a four-day pop-up event in conjunction with Photo London. A new community-eating concept, TABLE at Spring, will serve a menu created from excess produce, not just from Spring, but donated by partnering restaurants and farms, too.

The aim, she tells me, is to show people how they can reduce the amount of food waste they produce, as well as encouraging them to treat eating as a more social experience, a concept that Gyngell believes has been lost in recent years. Here, the chef discusses the new menu, her favourite cooks and why she thinks the term celebrity is “revolting”. 

I grew up in a macrobiotic family that was very health conscious, so food and nutrition were very important. I always loved helping my mum cook and I always felt comfortable in the kitchen growing up. I got a part-time job washing up in a restaurant kitchen to earn money while I was at university. There was an amazing woman who was the head chef and she would teach me to make mayonnaise or fish stock. I couldn’t get enough of it. I left university early and went to Paris to train as a chef.

Petersham Nurseries Cafê was an accidental restaurant. I went with pots and pans to cook for a summer in a garden shed that wasn’t in the A-Z, and I stayed for nine years. It built up very slowly and organically. We used to feed 12 people with a pot of stew and when it ran out, it ran out; slowly, it changed into a restaurant.

When Spring opened, the critics were in for the first lunch, so it was like hitting the ground running. We make everything here, the breads and the yoghurts and all of the things that we couldn’t do at Petersham, so I was really stepping up a few gears. But I’m used to it now. I’m very happy here; I love Spring and everyone who works here.

Table is an idea that I’ve had for a really long time. It is about feeding people nutritious and delicious food at a much lower price point. For me, personally, what’s really important is to highlight the importance of community. With Table, everybody arrives and leaves at the same time, and all of the contributors and farmers come to eat here, too. It’s about getting people together.

One way that we can feed people nutritious and delicious food at a good price point is by looking at things that are often discarded. A lot of people in the industry have been very aware [of the problem with food waste] for a long time and, statistically, one-third of all food that’s grown in the world will never be eaten. It will find a bin before it ever finds a shop shelf. It ravages the land; we can’t put the pressure on our soil to grow the amount of food that we’re growing and to raise the amount of cattle that we’re raising. It’s literally devastating the planet.

Table is much more about how we can make use of not just crazy, wacky ingredients but bits of the ingredient that we might not use. For example, we’ve made a beautiful pickle out of the tops of beetroot leaves, so it’s about using the whole vegetable and some of the things that we’d often discard. It’s not so much cooking with waste as it is cooking with economy.

I definitely don’t think I have a signature dish; I couldn’t even pull one out of my head. I have a style of cooking that is produce-driven and very simple. You can recognise my dishes because it’s about what’s in season and that’s put on the plate in the simplest way possible, and this carries through every single day of the year. 

To be honest with you, I need nothing in my kitchen [at home] because the least amount of cooking goes on in there. I love cooking but when you go home after 12 hours in a kitchen, you eat really simply. I often have boiled eggs on toast. On Sundays I make a big vat of vegetable soup and that runs us through the week. I can – hand on my heart – say that I never eat fast food; I like food that’s really delicious and simple.
 
I don’t eat out that much.
The one question people always ask me is, ‘How do you cook restaurant-standard food at home?’ And my answer is always the same: ‘Why would you want to?’ There’s something so lovely about eating at home. My favourite thing is to have Sunday lunch with a friend and to cook together. I don’t necessarily want to be in a restaurant when I’m already in one 80 per cent of the time.

I don’t find it hard working in the industry as a woman but I think when I was younger I probably did. I’ve had an amazing life working with food and in kitchens and actually most women love restaurant work, but it’s just so hard to do it when you have children. I wanted to make a place where women could work and we have been quite successful; we have 22 chefs at Spring and 15 are women. When I first worked at a restaurant in Paris, there were 30 men in the kitchen and me, and I remember being really intimidated by that as a 19-year-old. But now, because I’m so good at asking for what I want, I don’t take any prisoners.

There are millions of chefs that I like. Alice Waters from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, has been incredibly important and has spoken on a lot of important food issues in terms of being organic, locally sourced, and sustainable, and I love what Dan Barber’s doing at Blue Hill Farm and the book he wrote, The Third Plate. I suppose the chefs I admire the most also address issues in the food industry. It’s the biggest business in the world and I’m the most inspired by those who care about the land and whose aim it is to feed people well.

I think the term ‘celebrity anything’ is revolting. I don’t like the word and I don’t know what it means to be a celebrity chef. I’m not sure how many people would actually identify with that. Of course, there are people such as Jamie or Nigella who are huge, but I really don’t like that whole culture of celebrity. I wish we could be celebrated for what we do rather than who knows you.

I love everything about London. I’ve lived here for 30 years and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I love this time of year; it’s the most beautiful city in the whole world, with all the magnolias, blossoms and daffodils. I love all the culture here, I love the buildings – I don't even mind the weather. 

Table is open 17-21 May, £20 for three courses, Somerset House, Lancaster Place, WC2R www.springrestaurant.co.uk