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Culinary Wars
January/February 2015

Skye Gyngell: Spring, her new restaurant at Somerset House, has divided critics (photo: Amber Rowlands for Spring)

"Parochial: having limited or narrow outlook and scope." Reacting to something another critic says in print seems almost touchingly retro, a shoring up of the collective delusion that anyone any longer actually cares about or is influenced by an opinion aired in a newspaper. A spat between a film critic and a food writer seems of Lilliputian significance, the definition of a shrill parochialism which still insists that someone, anyone might be listening. But the review of Australian chef Skye Gyngell's new restaurant at Somerset House by Sunday Times writer Camilla Long was so vituperatively foul, and the response of veteran gourmet Matthew Fort so scabbard-flashingly gallant that one couldn't help peering into the playground to see if anyone got hurt. Ms Long's views on Spring, Gyngell's first permanent London offering, were less a restaurant review than a vicious personal attack, while Mr Fort weighed in with the comment that her piece was "a singular mixture of bile, ignorance and stupidity". Any restaurant which provokes such powerful reactions in two highly talented writers had to be worth eating at.

Trained in Paris and a former Vogue food editor, Skye Gyngell opened a restaurant at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond in 2004 with the express intention of creating the "antithesis" of a West End experience. The West End schlepped out to Surrey in droves, followed by the Michelin inspectors, who awarded Gyngell a star in 2011. Gyngell resigned from Petersham a year later with the bravely controversial remark that the star was a "curse", a view she has since retracted but which one feels might be privately shared by many chefs who feel the accolade creates unfeasible and distracting aspirations in their customers.

Gyngell is a cook who is passionate about simplicity and flavour, which she claims ought to "whisper rather than roar", and who was committed to ethical and seasonal sourcing of ingredients long before it became de rigueur. In a sense, her aesthetic might be deemed parochial, in that she strictly limits her dishes to what is timely and constructs her menus accordingly, a point which Ms Long, in sneering at this "ingredients-led" approach, willfully misunderstood. Of course all menus are ingredients-led, but it is the rigour of Gyngell's approach which made her cooking so successful at Petersham: one thinks of Coco Chanel's maxim that true elegance is refusal. 

Somerset House as we know it today stands on the site of the old Tudor palace where a young Princess Elizabeth received William Cecil in secret months before her accession. The present design, conceived as an "ornament to the nation" by its architect Sir William Chambers in the 1770s, was determinedly fresh and modern.

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