Ramsay's kitchen queen
No one had a tougher apprenticeship than Angela Hartnett, a nice, quiet girl schooled in the brutal, war-torn kitchens of Gordon Ramsay. Now she has a Michelin star, her name above the premises and a TV show of her own
Sunday April 29, 2007
Observer Food Monthly
There must be more macho places you can work than a kitchen. An oil-rig, perhaps. A coal mine. On the editorial staff of Nuts magazine. But not all that many. When Angela Hartnett went to work for Gordon Ramsay in 1994 - before anyone had ever heard of him and the staff turnover was so high it was more like a body-count - nine out of 10 employees simply did a runner. Hartnett routinely worked a 17-hour day, six days a week, in conditions that she describes, in an offhand way, as 'psychological warfare'. Chefs in other restaurants simply referred to the place as 'Vietnam'.
'It just really appeals to my sense of humour, all that chauvinism. It'd have to I suppose, otherwise I couldn't do the job that I do.'
Too right. You'd have to be mad, otherwise. Or have sustained a heavy blow to the head. Because when it comes to sensitive handling of gender issues, Life in Ramsay's kitchen circa 1994 makes Life on Mars look like a moderate and progressive manifesto for well-meaning liberals. And Hartnett has survived 12 long years. More than survived: five years ago she was put in charge of one of the most ambitious outposts of the Ramsay empire: Angela Hartnett at the Connaught.
She's perhaps the leading female chef in Britain today. Certainly, she's at the top of her game right now. She got her first Michelin star within the first year of the restaurant opening, an MBE from the Queen for Services to the Hospitality Industry, she's just opened another Ramsay restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, she's just about to see the publication of her first cookery book, and while the Connaught closes for the next seven months for a multi-million pound refit, she's off to do a television programme - Kitchen Criminals
All of which, could make her seem like, well, let's just use the words that Gordon Ramsay employed when she first went to work for him, a bit of a bitch. Which she isn't, far from it, in fact. These days Ramsay calls her 'warm and natural with everybody she meets ...she has no airs and graces'. And she is. Her sheer normality is almost enough to mark her out in itself. I like her book too, Cucina: Three Generations of Italian Family Cooking. It's the usual, here's-how-to-whip-up-a-couple-of-stuffed-rabbit-legs-type thing, but there alongside the glossy photos of osso buco and saltimbocca, there's also what seems to be her entire family album. Some of the photographs are sort-of relevant - snapshots from the Thirties of her Italian grandmother, for example, and her great Aunt Ilda - but others, her brother, in a tie-dyed T-shirt, her sister-in-law at a birthday party, seem to be there, for no other reason, than for the hell of it. It's a rather lovely and sentimental thing and a nice change from all those books where there's page after page of shots of televisual types stirring sauces and sniffing truffles (although there's a few of those too).
More of the family later, though, because right now I just can't get enough of her tales from Gordon's kitchen. This was back in the days when he was just starting out at his first restaurant, Aubergine. In 1994, she went for a day's trial. 'I'd been to other places. But he was the most exciting. For starters because he was in the kitchen. He was there at seven in the morning, and he was still grafting away until one the next morning with all the other guys. He was just really driven. And slightly mad. You were going into this crazy environment where everyone was screaming and shouting. And all the cooks were as nervous as hell and just completely wiped out. They were wiped like there was no tomorrow.'
Weren't you scared?
'Yes. Definitely. But I thought it was quite fun. I like people who are quite, arrogant is the wrong word, but in your face.'
In your face? Marcus Wareing, who's now the chef-patron at Petrus, another restaurant in the Ramsay empire, and a fellow veteran from the early years, puts it slightly differently. He remembers Hartnett's first day, too.
'We had a sweepstake on how long she'd last. After she'd gone home, Gordon said, all right, what do you reckon? And some people said an hour, others said a day, I think I said, "two weeks". Maximum. And f*** me, 12 years later, she's still there. You've got to hand it to her. It was f***ing hell. And Angela would take as much as anyone could. The hardest thing for us was the number of people who came and left. Less than one in 10 actually stayed. But Angela Hartnett is a grafter, she just battened down the hatches and got on with it. She's a true-grit chef.'
True grit, though, came at a price. 'You worked a six- day week there,' she says. 'You worked Saturday night so you had a lie-in until 12am on a Saturday - big bloody deal. And then we had Sunday off, your one day off. At the time, my grandmother had cancer and as a family we're extremely close. I was living with my aunt, which was great because I never had time to shop, or to put my washing out, and on a Sunday, we'd go and visit my grandmother and I'd sleep in the car on the way there. I was just permanently knackered.'
Didn't you ever have times when you thought it's just not worth it?
'Oh God, all the time. When I started I thought I'll get through to Christmas. I'll do three months here. And then afterwards you get better. Things change. You go through weeks when everything's going wrong. And then you have a good service and you think actually, it's all right.'
Did he change the nature of his insults for you? Or was he still, 'Put your bollocks on the table!'.
'Oh yeah. He called me a bitch a few times. And the first time I was like Jesus Christ! And then afterwards, you become blanketed against it, you get a thick skin. He used to call me Dizzy Lizzy. The thing is that if he's peed off with you, you hear about it. And he never forgets anything. I think that's the worse thing. If you screw up at the beginning of service, then he'll go on and on about it all night. And even now, he says, ooh, do you remember the nage you cocked up? Yeah, about 20 years ago, give me a break. But in a way, it's a good thing. And in a way he sets the standard for himself. He's got impeccable standards. He's not one of these chefs that just bollocks you and doesn't explain after. And I think that's his secret. Every single time he bollocks you, he'll pull you over at the end of service and say "Do you know what you did wrong?" It's not just fire and brimstone. Marcus was harder on me in some ways.'
I can believe this. When I talk to Wareing on the phone, he's full of admiration and respect for her and then says, 'but you can tell when Angela Hartnett is a bad mood. It's written all over her face. And it happens every bloody month'.
What? You're saying you could tell if she was pre-menstrual?
'Too bloody right. I worked with her for five years. And if she denies it, she's a liar.' Oh Marcus, get back in your Ford Cortina.
Ramsay, of course, is also prone to making crap proclamations on women in the workplace.
'Oh yeah,' agrees Hartnett. 'He's always saying things like "women can only work three weeks out of four" and I think, oh, just give it a break.'
Hartnett's not immune to the odd crap proclamation herself. All her closest friends are women, she says. But her colleagues are men. Every kitchen she's ever worked in has been dominated by men and she's had to compete with them on their terms. And, in some ways, she's absorbed and continues to perpetuate those terms.
'Sometimes I say to the cooks, "Oh stop moaning. You sound like a woman".'
'You can't say that!' I say.
'I know,' she says. 'It's terrible, isn't it? I know. I shouldn't do it.'
But then, even when she's being praised it's in strictly male terms. Ramsay is always telling her that she has 'bigger bollocks than most men'. She was the first woman to manage a year in his kitchen, an achievement of which she seems as proud as winning her Michelin star and receiving her MBE. But then, it was very tough and it's been the making of her career. She's tremendously loyal towards him because he's the reason why she's where she is today. She grafted and sweated her way up through the ranks, until, five years ago, she was rewarded with her own restaurant: Angela Hartnett at the Connaught hotel. Run like a gentlemen's club, the gentlemen did not take kindly to the news, but she pulled it off. She won her first star with her Italian-inspired cooking and is now going for her second.
Do men and women cook differently, I ask her?
'I think that by nature, men can be more pernickety. I've worked with Marcus Wareing and Jason [Atherton - head chef at Maze] in Dubai and they have to have all their ladles just so. And don't get me wrong, I like to be organised. But my office is pandemonium, there is shit everywhere. And I think the food men produce is sometimes more tight, it's not relaxed. Whereas I think if you go to Sally Clarke's or the River Café [run by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray] it's more relaxed. It's more natural. I've been to three-star restaurants in Italy that are run by women and even there it's not as stiff. I'm not sure how to describe stiff food ... I think that sometimes women make food with a bit more feeling compared to some male chefs.'
The Italian connection is what separates Hartnett from the rest of the Ramsay empire. She was born in Kent and spent her first eight years there while her dad was in the navy.
Then he died and everything changed. For somebody who entered such a male-dominated profession, there was an absence of men in her childhood - which Hartnett agrees may not be such a coincidence. They moved to Essex to be near both sets of grandparents and for the rest of her childhood, she lived five minutes down the road from her Nonna - her mother's Italian mother, and she was the one who taught her how to cook.
'I was the eldest daughter and being from an Italian background, the son gets away with doing sweet FA, so if Nonna needed shopping or if someone needed food it would be me who did it. By the age of 11 or 12, I would be cooking the dinner. Mum was working as a nanny up in London so she wasn't getting back until six or seven. Upminster is one of those upper-working-class/ middle-class sort of towns, where the kids are being picked up from school, whereas we were walking home ourselves and just getting on with things. I don't think that's the worst thing in the world. You just grow up quicker.'
Her family are Italian, by way of Wales. Every town in the South Wales valleys has an Italian cafe run by an Italian family, all of whom come from a single Italian town: Bardi in Emilia-Romagna. Her mother moved to Essex at 18 but her Aunt Ilda still has the original family fish and chip shop in Ferndale in the Rhondda valley.
'Do you know the Carpaninis in Treorchy?' I ask. I met them a month ago when doing a story on the Burberry factory, two sets of them, running two lovely old-fashioned cafes, set up in the Forties by two brothers who married two sisters.
'I think maybe a cousin might have married into them. It's all so interconnected. When I go back to Bardi in the summer, you just hear all these Welsh accents. One minute it's all "Oooh, there's lovely!" And the next minute they're all talking Italian.'
At 18 she went off Italy for a year to work as an au pair and then to Cambridge poly to do a history degree. It's still unusual enough, this, to be worth mentioning: to be a chef and to have a degree. It meant that by the time she worked in her first kitchen, in Cambridge, after graduating, she was already older than most of the cooks. In the catering trade, it's traditional to start at 16 as a semi-indentured slave. Hartnett was older, female, degree-educated, and had never been to catering college. She learnt on the job, first in Cambridge, then at a restaurant her old boss found her in Barbados, and it was only after she returned and moved to London that she met her Svengali, one Gordon Ramsay.
The Hartnetts are still a close, tight-knit family. Angela lives with her sister, Anne, in a Georgian house in Spitalfields that she half-owns with her brother, Michael, who's now in New York. 'We've got my mother staying with us at the moment while she's having an extension built and she's driving me up the wall. I love her but we just really wind each other up.'
She goes on family holidays with her brother and his wife and kids and socialises with her uncle. 'It's the Italian connection, I think. It's definitely Nonna's influence. My family are a huge part of my social life.'
Marcus Wareing goes even further. 'She is tremendously loyal towards her friends and family. I'd say that they're the most important thing in her life, more so even than her job, her great passion is her family and friends.'
You can see it on the pages of her book and you can hear it in the ways she talks about them. She loves her brother's children, her nephews, loves children, would love to have her own. And she's 38 and, at the moment, unattached.
Her working day starts at nine and finishes around 11pm. It's not an easy schedule to fit a boyfriend around or even meet one. 'If a man under 40 comes into the Connaught, we're like, "What's he doing here?" Most of the men who come in are 60 and married with four children.'
'Do you feel that you have had to make sacrifices because of your job?'
'Oh yes, without a doubt. There's been a couple of guys who I could have married but I chose another path. Mum definitely thinks that. She says, "I've given up on Angela now". When I went out with this guy, one of the things he said was "I hate your job. It's so restrictive, I can't just ring you up and say c'mon, lets go to the cinema, or do you fancy going down the pub?" It takes all the spontaneity out of a relationship. And it does in a way. Because you plan. And I'll be the one going, "What do you want to do a week on Saturday?", and then the blokes think you're some freak who's trying to plan his life and it's not a case of that, it's that it's the only way to see him. I'm a bit of a hopeless romantic in that I think there is someone out there. Which is sort of Jackie-like, isn't it? A bit nerdy.
'My brother said to me recently, "All the bits of your life are working - your professional life is working, your financial life's working; now you've just got to spend the next seven months sorting out your personal life. Focus, Angela, focus. Just go and get totally bladdered and go to a club and cop off with someone, get yourself pregnant, and you'll be fine." And I was like, "Oh yes, I can really tell Mum that one ... "So who's the father of your child?" "Dunno, Mum. I was off my face"."
Would you contemplate having a child without a partner? I ask.
'I've thought about it. But I think it's a lot of hard work, and I think it'd be even harder if I wanted to do the job that I do and have a baby by myself. I think that would be quite tough.'
She'd like to meet someone, have a family, and prove that you can do it: that you can be a woman, run a Michelin-starred restaurant and have some semblance of a normal life.
'It really pisses me off when people say, "Oh you couldn't have a kid doing a job like yours". Why not? I don't have to be there all the time. You train your staff and you have to trust them. I'd like to prove them wrong. It's different to France and Italy where the three-starred restaurants are in the country, they're family affairs, they might not even be open every day. It's very different in London but still it is possible. Sally Clarke is a friend of mine and she's got a son now.'
It's so depressing all of this. Not Angela, she's warm and charming and open and engaging as well as being successful and all the rest, and of course she'll meet her Mr Right. But depressing because this is still an industry that discriminates against women reaching the top because they self-select out.
The hard choices that face women in all walks of life are exaggerated in the restaurant trade. There are only four female chefs in her kitchen out of 25. It's still not a job for women because if a male chef wants a family, he can have one. Just so long as he has a wife who's happy to stay at home and look after them.
This isn't a biological thing. There's nothing at all about cooking that makes men better suited to it than women. It's simply to do with archaic working practices that see restaurant employees working split shifts from 7am to midnight.
Wareing, who has two children and a third on the way, tells me in another candid aside that if it was his wife who was coming home at midnight, 'I don't think we'd still be together'.
However, the business is changing, Wareing says. Restaurants have had to move a bit with the times. But they need to move more. Angela Hartnett has succeeded where countless other women have failed. She's inspired a whole new generation of female chefs. But truly, it just shouldn't be this hard.
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