A look at Skye Gengall’s food revolution at Heckfield Place in Hook
PUBLISHED: 09:34 11 June 2020
The Michelin-starred chef has brought her food sustainability ethos to Heckfield Place.
For one of Britain’s most celebrated chefs, the intrinsic link between food and sustainability isn’t simply a question of adopting a modern mantra or riding the wave of a new fad.
It’s been the philosophy which has driven the elegant cuisine and style of Australian-born Skye Gyngell for years. From food writer at Vogue to winning a coveted Michelin star at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, London, Skye’s commitment to championing a vision for a greener future has always been reflected in the perfectly pared-back dishes she creates which celebrate the seasons and allow ingredients to speak for themselves.
“I grew up in a house where food and health were so important,” she says. “A lot of things that I really rebelled against as a teenager make so much sense to me now – eating close to home, eating what’s in season. It came from my family. Food that’s pleasing to the eye, the heart, the soul. I definitely cook to give pleasure. For me it’s an act of giving, a generosity that’s important to me and satisfying.”
Throughout her career, not only has she has led the way in highlighting environmental issues within the industry but she’s shown that, on a practical restaurant level, it’s possible to combat food waste as well as take on the war against single-use plastics. Spring, her London restaurant, successfully became one of the capital’s first plastic-free restaurants by 2019. It’s one of the many reasons that made her such a worthy winner of last year’s AYALA SquareMeal’s Female Chef of the Year award. Devising a scratch menu which takes overlooked and waste ingredients and turns them into something delicious also presented Skye with the opportunity to use her food as a mouthpiece. Dishes are uncomplicated and simple but come with a clear message which Skye is passionate about.
“I’m obsessed with food waste at home,” she explains. “The scratch menu came from that. You use everything. People love it. I’m amazed. They don’t realise that a third of all food grown in the world never sees the shop shelf because it doesn’t meet shop standards. It depletes the soil and threatens food security for future generations.”
Perhaps the biggest eco-commitment Skye decided upon – following her departure from Petersham Nurseries to set up on her own – was ensuring that at the essence of her business was a farm-to-table relationship. Meeting Jane Scotter, biodynamic gardening guru and founder of Fern Verrow, a 16-acre biodynamic farm in the foothills of the Black Mountains in Herefordshire, was a moment of kismet for them both. It wasn’t just about being in the right place at the right time, it was a meeting of minds as Skye explains.
“My relationship with Jane is one of the most important relationships in my life. She’s a true artist, she’s so connected to the soil and cares so deeply about the stewardship of her land. She gives me the paints to paint with. Our work is so incredibly hand-in-glove that I can’t imagine cooking without Jane anymore.”
It’s this shared respect for nature, caring about ecosystems and the environment that has made their relationship such a success. Not only has Jane supplied Spring for years, but she has also been instrumental in transforming Home Farm at Heckfield Place, the lovingly restored luxury hotel within a 400-acre secluded Hampshire estate where Skye is culinary director. Under Jane’s guidance, it now boasts a thriving market garden with biodynamic farming becoming the beating heart of the hotel and creating the palette from which Skye and her chefs in the hotel’s restaurants, Marle and Hearth, create their culinary masterpieces. It’s this holistic approach to food and farming which Skye believes makes all the difference. Sharing this with others in a bid to bring about change is just part of what she hopes to achieve with Jane at both Spring and Heckfield Place. The hotel runs retreats in line with the seasons, encouraging guests to realign themselves with the natural world as part of an integrated wellness approach through workshops, suppers devised by Skye and a programme of outdoor activities.
“If you think about it, we rise when the sun comes up and go to bed when it’s dark. Our lives are governed by the cycles. That’s really what biodynamic growing is – reconnecting with nature’s cycles. The earth provided us with the perfect circular economy. We come from the earth and we return to it,” she stresses. “The food is so full of energy. On such a small amount of good soil, you can grow so much. There’s an abundance of food here at Heckfield. It never ceases to amaze me.”
Never more has there been such a need to reconnect with nature. Skye witnessed the devastation of the apocalyptic bush fires ravaging the country when she returned to Australia to visit family earlier this year. Thinking about our relationship with our planet, our impact on it, our food, is crucial Skye believes but it’s a difficult message to impart. “Everyone’s got an opinion on food but the one question that never seems to get asked is where does my food come from? Where was it grown? A lot of our future depends on the health of our soil. It certainly depends on the health of our planet. We have to be part of the solution. I think ultimately, all that we (as chefs) can do is make delicious food, make it look beautiful, showcase how amazing nature is, that’s how we can revolutionise. We have to speak with our food.”
The innate moral and social responsibility she feels to strive for change is palpable. There’s a great sense of humanity and purpose in everything she does, to utilise the platform she has following an illustrious career. “I’m blown away by the perfection of nature. We need to be caretakers of that. I want to keep moving forward, be of service, whatever that is. I’m in the last third of my life and I want to feel proud and be able to leave this planet with a clear conscience.”
Keen to serve even with the UK in Covid-19 lockdown, she has galvanised an army alongside Jane and her staff at Fern Verrow and those at Home Farm, Heckfield, including talented luxury florist Kitten Grayson to deliver a box scheme filled with vegetables, eggs, flowers and much more from the Spring and Heckfield kitchens across London and locally in Hampshire. Spring’s team coordinated by head chef Rose Ashby has also provided hundreds of meals each week for NHS staff at the Royal London Hospital as part of the Hospitality for Heroes scheme to fuel frontline staff in these difficult times.
Somehow neither of these acts seem in the least bit surprising. It all comes back to that core philosophy Skye holds – that well-farmed food isn’t just food. It can nourish both body and soul.