The British culinary traditions mixed up with the elegance of technique. The one and only Michelin starred gastropub in London told by the head chef Sally Abè.
Sally Abè didn’t have much interest in food growing up. “It is something I came to love after I left home, I started cooking for myself at home and I really enjoyed, so I wanted to know more about it.” Coming from the middle of England, she enrolled at the hospitality business management and culinary arts degree at Sheffield Hallam University, which she really enjoyed, and for her final placement year decided to head to the Savoy.
“As soon as I got into the kitchen, I knew that was the place I was meant to be”. She decide to move to London and not go back to Sheffield. She moved to Gordon Ramsey Claridge’s and worked there for two years where she learned the basics of cookery. Sally’s next step was to work with Brett Graham at The Ledbury, where she stayed for five years, learning everything from the kitchen and service management “I loved working there but it was a very hard place and I was tired so I looked around and I ended up working for the website Great British Chefs, doing food writing for a year and a half and then I started missing the kitchen so much and this job at the Harwood Arms came up and I became the head chef.”
How was learning from Gordon Ramsey’s battlefield?
He wasn’t in the kitchen: Steven Allen was the head chef at the time. It was a tough place of course, it was very busy, but everyone had each others’ back and it wasn’t unfriendly. I really enjoyed the time there and learned a lot so I won’t really call it a battlefield. It wasn’t as bad as some people think!
This is a man’s world” James Brown used to sing. You learned from many man in the kitchen: How was growing professionally as a woman?
I suppose going through these kitchens you choose to try not to think about the fact that there are more men than women, but obviously there are. You do have to work harder to be taken seriously and I think there are some situations in which men stereotype women as being weak or emotional but it’s something that we are now trying to change and prove to the contrary. It’s not that a woman can’t do it but it’s maybe they feel they don’t have the support they should have and that’s what I’m trying to give to the women that work for me now.
Do you think nowadays is still difficult to be a successful chef woman?
It is changing, but I don’t think that has changed enough. There are still a lot of old school attitudes that need to be wiped out. But obviously you can’t change a culture overnight: it’s something that people are standing up for now. It’s not even about women or men, it’s about how we treat human beings: the old school of screaming and shouting, it just has to stop. Of course, kitchens have been male dominated for so long, but if I could change the way people view kitchens, then I think more women would come into the industry. It has to be an accessible role!
How would you define the soul of The Harwood Arms cuisine?
The soul is a British gastropub: It’s fun, payful. I want to cook food that puts a smile on people’s faces, makes them feel good. I’m not interested in deconstructed dishes. I just want to do some delicious courses that people wants to have bite after bite.
What is the dish of your heart? The one that defines you?
My favourite thing that we make here is the Venison Wellington, that suits the Hartwood soul perfectly: it’s absolutely delicious. We get a large fallow deer fillet, put it into mustard, wrap it in spinach, pancake and puff pastry and baking it. It’s just everything about how food should be here.
How come you have become the one-starred gastro pub in London? What is the difference between the other pubs or restaurants?
Obviously, the background of the owners had a big part to play. I think the whole approach to the food and service is at a two-Michelin stars level. Pretty much all the chefs here had worked at the Ledbury: so, it’s easy to transfer those methods and processes into the Harwood.
The topic of local food, from small producers, is becoming more important. What are some of your local partners from whom you source? And an example of which products do you use from one of these producers and what do you create out of them?
It is a game focused pub. One og the owners, Mike Robinson, has a deer processing company and provides the deer meat on Mondays and his company supplies, a lot of restaurants in London. So, we get two whole animals every Monday, wholly traceable, and we use everything.
What does it mean working as a cook in today’s society?
I think ultimately my job is to bring people pleasure. I would like to think that when people come to the Harwood they can forget about everything else in their life for a bit, having great food and wine. It’s not about anything more. It’s an experience, it’s leisure, pleasure, it’s something that you do to enjoy with friend or for celebrations. As a person I feel I’ve got a responsibility to try to make the industry a better place to be and that’s what I am trying to do, alongside cooking, good food.
How today’s society is reflected in gastronomy? And how should it be reflected in your opinion?
I think the UK food culture is probably more relaxed than France or Italy. In the rest of Europe they have a really ingrained culture of food, they understand the real value of food. In the UK we don’t really have such tradition, which is a shame but also it means we have to work harder and then teach people the value of food. It’s about educated people. Besides, there is much more than food if you come to a restaurant: you pay for the quality of food but also reward hard work.
Do you believe there is a relationship between food and climate change? And if yes how can the role of chefs influence costumers’ choices?
Absolutely. The way they intensively farm cattle in the USA or grow soy, or chop down the Amazon forest in order to grow soy and feed cows, it’s a disaster. In the UK I think there is a lot happening under the surface in contrast to that. I have a friend who is really into regenerative farming and trying to fix that problem: we don’t have the necessarily stop eating meat, we just need to be more sensible about the way we grow our animales and how we use the land. By using cheap meat and produce, we have a huge impact on the environment and chefs should be aware of that. In our restaurant we use the choise of the animal, nothing goes in the bin: I’m very conscious about not wasting food.
Want to know more about the Harwood Arms? Or interested in pursue a career in a Michelin starred Britsh Gastropub?
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