It’s no mean feat to make a name for yourself in one of the world capitals of food; but Angela Hartnett has done exactly that. In this 2018 interview, the Michelin-starred chef and restauranteur revealed how she’s forged her path in a male-dominated industry; and why she’ll never get complacent.
There is little danger of Angela Hartnett getting too big for her boots. For though the Michelin-starred chef and MBE has won over some of the country’s most formidable critics, she has her mother Giuliana, as brutally honest as only a mother can be, to keep her feet on the ground.
“She’s the first to criticise me when I’ve screwed something up,” sighs Hartnett. “I cooked her a spinach tart the other week and she said ‘that was a bit over, Angela’ and put it in the bin. She was right. I had left it in the oven too long.”
The odd kitchen nightmare aside, this self-described Essex girl has plenty to shout about. She’s having a rollicking year – turning 50, getting married, appearing on Desert Island Discs, and celebrating the 10-year-anniversary of her restaurant Murano, the Mayfair Italian which won a Michelin star within just four months of opening.
Nobody questions her staying power now, but they did back in 1994, when the sparkly-eyed young history graduate first joined Gordon Ramsay’s notoriously tough Aubergine kitchen. There were people, male people, who ran a sweepstake on how long the new girl would last. MasterChef judge Marcus Wareing was one of them. “I said she’d last a week,” he confesses. “Some scatty woman who arrives on her bicycle – with a basket on the front! – and cheekily enough ties it to the lamppost outside the Aubergine! We’re like ‘Guys, how long are we going to give this one?’ We all threw in a date and we were all wrong.”
In fact, Hartnett went on to work for Ramsay for 17 years, during which time she ran the entire round-the-clock food and beverage operation at the Connaught for five years (“A colossal responsibility, almost mission impossible,” Wareing reminds me. “She just dug in and got on with it”) and won her first Michelin star in the process.
In 2008, she launched Murano with Ramsay and bought it off him in 2010. Since then, she’s added two Café Muranos and Shoreditch’s Merchant’s Tavern (which she runs with husband Neil Borthwick) to her portfolio. The “busiest woman alive” (according to her protégée, Pip Lacey, whose restaurant Hicce, backed by Hartnett, opens this autumn) finishes the year with a bang with Murano’s 10th birthday celebrations including a series of guest chef suppers at the restaurant with a select few of her industry friends.
Joining Angela in the kitchen for the anniversary is Northcote’s Lisa Allen; others will include Lee Tiernan (Black Axe Mangal), Paul Ainsworth (Paul Ainsworth at Number 6), Jason Atherton (Pollen Street Social), Marcus Wareing (Marcus at The Berkeley) and Jeremy Lee (Quo Vadis). An £80 birthday menu will include such Murano signatures as oven-roasted San Marzano tomatoes with burrata and Manni olive oil and pheasant agnolotti.
One might imagine Hartnett is giving herself a well-deserved pat on the back for all she’s achieved but, it turns out, self-congratulatory simply isn’t her style. “You can never say you’ve done it, you’ve nailed it, whether you’ve been doing it for 10 years, 20 years or 30 years,” she insists. “You have to just always assume you’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to move with the times, you’ve got to keep it relevant to dining today. If there are regulars we haven’t seen for a while, we will call them up and ask ‘Are you all right? Did we miss something last time?’ The moment you start getting complacent is the moment you should shut your restaurant door and give up.”
When, I wonder, did Hartnett first know she had something special? She bats off the question. “My family is full of very good cooks. My mum, my aunt, my grandmother. My aunt is always going to make things better than I’ll ever make. My grandmother would always make these stuffed onions which I’ve never quite nailed. The difference is I can run a business and a restaurant. My mum would get panicked with all the checks coming in whereas I thrive off a busy service.”
If Hartnett won’t sing her own praises, her colleagues will. Says Pip Lacey, Hartnett’s “natural flair” and “great taste buds” are a given but it’s her common sense and confidence that distinguishes her. “Angela makes other people feel that it’s possible to do what she does. She loves what she does and people feed off that passion.” Adds Marcus Wareing: “Angela doesn’t cook for the industry. She cooks her own food – it’s ‘home’, it’s warm, it’s got a drink next to it. She’s very comfortable in her skin because she’s got nothing to prove to anyone because she can cook anyone under the table.”
The middle child of three born in an Italian-Irish family, Hartnett learned to make pasta at her beloved nonna’s knee. “We ate well,” she recalls. “We were brought up on good food. I was very fortunate. My mum and grandmother made everything from scratch – lasagne, bolognese, apple pies. These were people who had just lived through a war. They didn’t take food for granted. They bought the best food they could afford to buy, not because they’d just seen it on MasterChef but because it was an important part of what being a family is.”
Hartnett’s professional career started casually enough. She “fell into it” after college (Cambridge Polytechnic), picturing herself one day “running a local restaurant on a high street”. Instead, after working in pubs and Midsummer House in Cambridge, she joined Gordon Ramsay, putting in 17-hour days, six days a week, in his Chelsea restaurant.
Hartnett knows better than anybody the toll professional cooking can take on women (she’s spoken of her disappointment at not having children because she was “working and working and working”) but doesn’t dwell on the subject of gender. “I don’t know, just do your cooking and be done with it,” is her take. “It’s a bit of a conundrum,” she continues. “All these awards for top female chefs, they’re as insulting as they are gratifying. Why are you saying females can’t be judged in the same category as the blokes?” For her, what matters when she recruits is: “Can I go and have dinner with them? Will they get me? Will they get my food?”
“I’ve never felt it’s been a hardship being a woman. I’ve always felt I have it as my advantage”
Ramsay obviously did. “He’s a good guy. I wouldn’t have worked for him so long if he hadn’t been. He helped me launch my career. He gave me my first head chef’s job. He invested in my first restaurant. I wouldn’t have had the experiences I’ve had if it wasn’t for Gordon, quite frankly.”
These days, Gordon Ramsay’s foul-mouthed rants are the least of Hartnett’s concerns. Those are, in no particular order: rent hikes, business rates, staffing costs, the minimum wage and Brexit – challenges that have even household names like Hartnett occasionally wondering: “Oh crikey, are we going to break even this month?”
“Running a restaurant is much tighter than people think. I’m not someone who enjoys numbers, but I do understand them and I like to understand them. You can’t just hope it all works out.”
Nevertheless, she pronounces London’s restaurant scene “still great” and is happily settled in the Huguenot silk-weavers’ home in Spitalfields that she shares with Borthwick, their beagle Otis and Hartnett’s collection of Elizabeth David first editions. Married life is suiting her very well, thank you, though the newlyweds do their best to avoid cooking together. “Neil’s messy and it does my head in.”
Food is, of course, a shared passion (in case you’re wondering, they served steamed asparagus, crab salad, vitello tonnato, pasta, rib-eye beef and pavlova at their wedding breakfast). When not eating at home – “I do make a good bowl of pasta” – they’re dining out (St John Bread and Wine, Quo Vadis and Black Axe Mangal are favourites). Hartnett rates anywhere “that does really lovely delicious simple food”.
“To have the confidence to believe in very simple cooking and do what you want to do is the sign of a good chef,” she says. And she would know.
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