Friday 23 February 2018

Hell's (kitchen) Belle - Dubliner Anna Haugh on being head chef at Gordon Ramay's London House

As head chef at Gordon Ramsay's London House, Dubliner Anna Haugh is winning awards - and compliments from her infamous boss - as she tells

Irish chef Anna Haugh
Irish chef Anna Haugh
Kitchen dream: Anna Haugh at London House with her boss Gordon Ramsey.

Shilpa Ganatra

There are not many people in the world who cost Gordon Ramsay $20,000 and still remain on his payroll. Although Tallaght's Anna Haugh insists that the celebrity chef may have been somewhat over exaggerating the amount concerned, she concedes that she did have one rather bad day in Ramsay's kitchen.

"When I was in LA with Gordon, he got me to judge a final of Hell's Kitchen. It was at a mansion in Beverly Hills. I visualised myself being brilliant and perceptive and making concise, strong points. Then I got up on stage and I was terrible - all I could say was 'it's delicious!' and I marked the contestants wrongly. Gordon was sitting there laughing at me, and then he kissed me on top of the head and told me we had to redo it. Every time Gordon introduced me to anyone after that, he'd tell them I cost the show $20,000 for the reshoot - which wasn't true," she says with a laugh.

The notoriously fiery Ramsay is famed for flying off the handle at contestants in the reality TV show for a lot less - but luckily for Anna she had already impressed her boss back in the UK.

After a turbulent period of expensive lawsuits, falling profits and a high-profile falling out with his father-in-law and former business partner, in the last few years Gordon Ramsay launched a new phase of operations. London House is the second youngest baby of the revamped group, and the one that's made the most noise. Opening in February 2014, it took just 12 months for it to earn three AA rosettes, allowing Ramsay a sigh of relief, and putting the restaurant on par with places such as The River Café and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Moreover, it means that 34-year-old head chef Anna is the newest major player in a fiercely competitive industry.

"When the letter came through my door, it was just unbelievable," says Anna, who's cooked for Frank Lampard, Christine Bleakley and Michael Caine. "I saw the envelope from AA and I thought 'but I haven't taken my driving test. Are they trying to sell me insurance?' I just couldn't believe it. The restaurant has become busier since the award. And it's made the entire team hugely proud as it's recognition of all our efforts." When we meet after a hectic Friday lunch service, Anna proves herself everything the stereotypical high-end head chef is not: bubbly, unintimidating. Her down-to-earth nature is at odds with the menu she's just served, with braised pig's head croquette with pickled carrot and caper mayonnaise one of the more interesting starters on offer. Served in relaxed surrounds, London House's cuisine is, she describes, "modern European with a French influence - and a secret Irish one".

"For a long time, small plates and modern techniques have been gripping everyone, but now it's moving back to basics, with poaching, frying, less water baths, less fluff, and more real food. I use a lot of Irish produce in the restaurant, like Clonakilty black pudding, Irish lamb and our artisan cheeses. I also do a take on boxty - I've changed its shape and now it's in the signature dish of Cumbrian beef fillet, as stuffed gnocchi."

The youngest of four children, Anna grew up in Tallaght, Dublin, on home cooking by her mother, a PA at UCD, and her father, a FAS trainer. "I didn't appreciate it at the time because all I wanted was sticky, sugary things, but they made sure to cook everything from scratch. We grew apples, pears, blackberries and gooseberries in the back garden, and one of my first memories was making jam. Mum used to make me top and tail blackberries, which are the size of a peanut. That's three-star!" she laughs, referring to the Michelin award. "By the time I was 12 I was doing the Sunday dinner."

Her first time in a working kitchen - except for a stint a premises where she learned to "open up packets and put water in" - was in the Michelin-starred L'Écrivain, under the watchful eye of Derry Clarke. "When I started out, I'd work 16-hour days, seven days a week. I'd fall asleep on buses, trains, cars, clubs, pubs," she says. "I'd even sleep standing up. If I was in a kitchen doing a repetitive task, I'd nod off and it would only be my knee hitting the fridge that would wake me up. But it's never a pain to go to into work."

Eager to broaden her horizons in 2000, Anna left for Gualtiero Marchesi per il Lotti in France, where she became head pastry chef for its eponymous restaurateur.

"Chef Marchesi was an amazing man," she says. "He was the first Italian chef to win one, two, three Michelin stars. I was head pastry chef at his one-star, but keen to get into the hot side of the kitchen. So on my days off, I'd go in to try and watch and help them. But they sat me down and said, 'listen, you're a head pastry chef here but you're never going to go any higher.' They were trying to talk sense into me but being the hot-headed twentysomething I was, I handed in my notice, and left for London. I never did pastry again."

In London, Anna worked under Shane Osborn at Michelin-starred Pied à Terre, and later at The Square as chef de partie under Philip Howard. "If Shane taught me techniques and discipline and working under pressure, Phil started to talk about the food, about the seasons which was new to me," Anna says. Her next venture was as Director of Food at high-end catering company, Rocket.

In 2013, Anna got the call from Gordon Ramsay's team. Her interview involved creating dishes for a team including Ramsay's second-in-command, Stuart Gillies. "I had to prepare a main course and dessert that I could plan, and they gave me a mystery basket. I did carrageen moss as my dessert and made that boxty-based stuffed gnocchi - basically all the modern techniques but inspired by Irish cuisine.

"I was so nervous when they were eating that I had to hold the table because my arms were shaking. Stuart told me I got the job there and then, but I thought I must have misheard him."

Anna helped out at Ramsay's ventures Maze and Union Street Café while the finishing touches were put to London House. "When I was first opening, Gordon came to an awful lot of the tastings and was very, very complimentary of the food. And as you can imagine, he's not one to compliment for the sake of it. I used to type out the dishes on a piece of paper for him, and at the end of one meal I could see that he'd scribbled notes like 'wow' and 'delicious' on it. I've squirrelled it away! Things like that, they make you work on invisible energy.

"He's charismatic, and inspiring and electric. He is encouraging, but he also has a certain level that he expects you to abide by, and by God I want to do that."

Working in a male-dominated industry, Anna pinpoints times during her career when she feels that being a woman was held against her. She's separated from her husband of 13 years, and acknowledges that not having children helped her commit to the gruelling schedule of a fine-dining head chef. "I'm so lucky I don't, because I wouldn't be able to do this job at this stage with children. But I don't feel I've sacrificed a family for this. I haven't sacrificed anything," she says. "Everything I've done is a decision I've wanted. I've had plenty of opportunity to have a family, especially when I was working for the events company. But I'm ambitious, and I wasn't ready. Maybe one day I will have kids, maybe I won't, and I don't feel bad about that. I love my life."

Anna still has plenty to achieve. There's a secret business idea about Irish food; she's particularly enthusiastic about our artisan produce… and red lemonade ("on the rare times I get hold of it, I always drink it in a champagne flute"). London House earning a Michelin star is always a goal, though she insists awards are secondary. And, like her boss, she understands that to be successful, a high profile is necessarily, so TV projects are a future aim too - without the need to reshoot preferably.

"I wouldn't do a programme for the sake of it. If it's going to take me away from here, it's got to be good. I was offered a couple of shows but I turned them down because I wanted to carry on doing what I was doing."

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