LONDON — There are few things that rankle Skye Gyngell as much as a blackberry imported from Peru, a farmed salmon or a dinner thrown together in four minutes.
The 45-year-old chef has become a crusader for seasonal, locally sourced, ethically produced food, and her creations have attracted fans such as Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall and designer Paul Smith to a tiny restaurant with dirt floors.
“Each season, nature plonks things down in a perfect way for us,” says Gyngell, a willowy Australian who is the chef at the Petersham Cafe just outside London. “We should be eating seasonally and…respecting the product as much as possible when cooking.”
The restaurant, which opened in May 2004, is located in one of the greenhouses at Petersham Nurseries, and the surroundings are decidedly rustic — regulars generally wear Wellies, not Louboutins, to lunch, and always keep an umbrella handy in case they have to dash to the off-site bathroom in the rain.
Now Gyngell, who has worked at London’s Dorchester hotel, Dodin-Bouffant in Paris and as a freelance private chef for the likes of Madonna and Mario Testino, is bringing her food philosophy to a wider audience, with her first cookbook, “A Year in My Kitchen” (Quadrille).
The book features a “toolbox” of basic recipes, including chicken stock, braised lentils, tomato and chili jam, flavored yogurts and basil oil, which Gyngell uses as ingredients to flavor the meals in the rest of the book.
“If you master the toolbox, the world is yours,” says Gyngell, who has divided the chapters by season. Her dishes include sweet potato and ginger soup, roasted halibut with Szechuan aubergines and lamb with sprouting broccoli, anchovy and harissa.
Although her recipes embrace a variety of cultures and food traditions, Gyngell tries to keep the produce she uses as local as possible, and is fiercely proud of Britain’s food producers.
“I think Britain has the best seafood in the world. The cold-water fish is the sweetest,” says the chef, who also sings the praises of Galloway beef, Hardwick lamb, Saddleback pigs and a gentleman known simply as Albert the Grouseman, who supplies Petersham’s kitchen with rabbit, partridge and wild duck.
She uses more than 60 local suppliers for Petersham Cafe’s cheeses, eggs, apple cider, wild mushrooms, hops, horseradish and nettles, but also looks beyond Britain’s borders to source her mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, lentils, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. While Italian produce may not exactly be local, Gyngell says she keeps to the seasons and tries to keep the food mileage to a minimum.
Gyngell admits, though, that her crusade is an uphill effort, and that it’s going to be difficult to change the general food culture in Britain.
“Let’s face it, seasonal, sustainable, organic eating is a very bourgeois concept. And it’s expensive. Most kids don’t even know what vegetables taste like anymore. It’s going to take a lot of time for that mentality to change,” she says. “But people here are beginning to ask questions now about where food comes from, and, quietly, they’re starting to feel uncomfortable when they go to the supermarket and see blackberries from Peru in the middle of winter.”