What are your childhood memories of food? “My grandparents on my mother’s side came from Italy, and on my father’s side they were Irish. They all were a product of the [second world] war. My parents were born just before the war and lived through it, so that generation had real respect for food. We sat around a table and ate together as a family. That was hugely important, more so than just food for the sake of it.”
What did you eat growing up? “We used to have anolini – pasta filled with breadcrumbs, parmesan and meat juices, and then cooked in a broth. We would make fresh pasta and my grandmother would make her own bread. She was never good at desserts, and that’s why my mother was good at making cakes, apple pies and tarts.
“I cooked a lot with my grandmother, since I was the eldest granddaughter. My father died when we were young, so I would help my mum a lot. And it was expected that you helped. There was no choice, not like today’s kids. We had to lay the tables, all that sort of thing, which I think is a good thing.”
What do you like about cooking? “I like eating, and if you’re a good chef you need to be able to eat. Chefs that don’t taste their food are the ones that have bad restaurants. And it’s not just about eating food – it’s company, it’s everyone being together, it’s conviviality, it’s sharing. That, for me, is what food’s about.”
When did you know that you wanted to be a chef? “Probably when I was a teenager. My mum kept saying to me, go off to a Le Cordon Bleu school, or France, and I didn’t want to do that. So I went to university and studied history. I worked in restaurants to get experience, which, for me, was the better way to do it.
“My first restaurant was Midsummer House, in Cambridge, with Hans Schweitzer. I started off as a waitress and managed to chat my way into the kitchen. Then I went and worked in Barbados and came back to work in the UK. I had a lucky break when I started working for Gordon Ramsay [in 1994]. It was the time to work for him; he was doing this thing and you just were sort of on his coattails.”
What was Ramsay like? “His bark is worse than his bite. When you see him on TV, he’s obviously not like that every minute of the day. I worked with him in Aubergine [in London], his first restaurant, and it was phenomenal – the pace of it, the challenge; I went down to a size eight, I was so thin. It’s like going to a health farm for a year, I just shrivelled.
“Gordon would be in the kitchen with you at seven, eight in the morning, he was there till the end of night, he did every service. He taught me respect for produce, great ingredients and consistency, to make sure that each dish is exactly like it should be.”
Was it difficult working with him? “Yeah, there were challenges. He could shout a lot. When he shouted at you, you just wanted him to hurry up because then you needed to get on with your job, and so it’d be like, ‘Come on, move it, speed it up’ – ‘Yes, Gordon, yes, Gordon.’ But it was good, I enjoyed it, but it sounds a bit masochistic.”
What do you like about being a chef? “I like the idea of working with a team, and inevitably it’s a young team. You’re nurturing people, you’re teaching people and you have a responsibility to make sure that you teach the next generation what you want them to do, how you want them to cook.”
Angela Hartnett was in Hong Kong for the Christmas cocktail party to celebrate Fortnum & Mason’s pop-up store in Lane Crawford, IFC Mall, Central.