Skye Gyngell’s restaurant, Spring, is situated in the old Inland Revenue wing of London’s Somerset House. Arriving for our interview I find a serene, elegant dining room, a far cry from the drab offices it once held.
The room has large white pillars, original cornicing, pale pink sofas and beige leather chairs. Skye proudly shows us around its three floors, relaxed in her new surroundings and quietly confident.
What made you start a restaurant on your own?
“I wanted a new challenge in my fifties. I had been at Petersham for ten years and there was nowhere else I could go with that restaurant. I was thrilled to get a Michelin star but I think it altered people’s perception of the restaurant and all of a sudden what was charming became not good enough.
“I don’t see this project as me being solo. I am part of a big team. I have a business partner, Marie Jackson, and she organises everything that I don’t do, from contracts to hiring and firing, budgets, and the profit and loss margins.
“I get to cook and am supported by a team of 70 people.”
How did you get funding for Spring?
“I put a business plan together and asked a lot of people for advice. At one point we were looking a multiple funding so we would have had a lot of small investors, but out of the blue one large investor came to us and offered to fund a restaurant.
“Our investor is a Chinese company called Morningside, based in America. It is important not to be over-stretched and if we had to be squeezed to buy less expensive produce for greater profit margin we wouldn’t be who we are, and our investor very much understood that.
“They will retain more than half the business even after we have paid them back, so they’ll own 60 per cent of the business and we’ll own 40 per cent.”
Is it more difficult to set up a business when you’re in your fifties?
“Cooking is an expression of who you are, like anything, and I am probably more who I am now in my fifties: I feel much more of a fully-formed human.
“I am happy where I am. I am excited. I am in the last third of my life, my kids have left school, and I feel, ‘wow the world is really my oyster’.
“I found my twenties, thirties and early forties quite challenging, bringing up children and working. I feel more energetic now than I did then.
“We cook in a very simple way; it’s very produce-driven, very seasonal. We have amazing kitchens. It’s like my cooking at Petersham but with the tendrils outstretched, as now we can make all the breads and butters, all the tonic waters and all the drinks you see on the bar.”
Restaurant critics loved Petersham. Are they as influential as ever?
“Critics had more influence ten years ago than now. With Instagram and food bloggers, critics can’t make and break restaurants as they used to.
“As food is the biggest industry in the world everybody has an opinion on it. We got a good review from Fay Maschler on our first day, which was scary but great.”
What’s been difficult about starting your own business?
“It was such a big project to get the restaurant together. For two years we planned it with English Heritage and Westminster Council; it was a challenge and we had ages to wait to get permission to build.
“The garden hasn’t worked as well as we hoped. The kitchen is a challenge as it is based over three floors, so wherever you are what you need is not there. So you spend your whole life running up and down the stairs.”
Celebrity chefs are ubiquitous. Would you do a TV show?
“Definitely not. I don’t want to go up just to come down. Other people do it so much better. I would be terrified on TV and really boring.”
Who do you look up to?
“I admire the women that work in food, particularly Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in California, who is in her 70s and started edible school gardens for schools, and works with small producers.
“I think women cook differently from men. Women are less ego-driven in their cooking, I think women cook to nurture.
“My favourite restaurant in London that I go to time and time again is The River Café.”
Skye Gyngell’s top tips for starting a business at 50
1. Do what you love in life and love what you do. Have faith that money and success follows. But in my experience, chasing money and success is very shallow.
2. Believe that you can do anything. My father said you can be whatever you want to be in life, it just depends how hard you want to work for it.
3. Have a dream, a vision and walk one step at a time to reach it.
4. A business should always change. It should be a living breathing thing that you can adjust. It has to feel alive and moving.
Filmed by Tom Byfield for High50