Angela Hartnett: 'I started out at my grandmother's chippie'

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'Not in a million years would my younger self have thought that this is how it’d end up' Credit: andrew crowley

We asked the chef what her younger self would make of her today... 

When I was really young, I wanted to do everything – definitely not just cooking. I watched a crime show on TV and wanted to be a police officer, then Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram at the 1984 Olympics, which made me want to be a runner. So it might have surprised my younger self to learn that I’d just have the one career!

I was quite lucky that I grew up in a good family where it was important to sit down and eat a good meal

I cooked when I was a member of the Brownies, and with my mother and grandmother a bit too. It was easy stuff, like shepherd’s pie: things that didn’t require too many bits and bobs. I’m sure I wasn’t left to do it by myself, but I think I probably showed some aptitude and I liked doing it. Because Mum was born of Italian parents, we used to have homemade pasta – unusual at that time for a family living in Kent and then Upminster – and we made dishes for special occasions like spinach and ricotta tortellini at Easter. 

Angela as an infant

My father died shortly before my eighth birthday. It’s the kind of thing that makes you more independent, which is how I still am. People were more trusting then, and even though my mum had three kids under ten she would just put us on trains and allow us to go places. When I was a bit older, 15 or so, I remember Mum letting me see Simple Minds at the Ally Pally. And my brother and I went interrailing when I was 14 and he was 16. I was independent and would get things done – no faffing, and I’m the same now.

I’d seen my grandmother and her side of the family own those fish and chip shops, and I liked the idea of being in charge of my own schedule and deciding when to take holidays

When I was about that age, I started working on a Friday evening at the chippie owned by my grandmother. It was quite good fun! It wasn’t difficult: I put the potatoes in the chipper and them took them over to the fryer. I finished by 9pm and then went out with my mates.

After that, when I was a bit older, I worked for my cousin – in another chippie. We were still living in Upminster at the time and he’d pay my fare to Barking as well as paying my wage. It was around then, when I was in my late teens, that I realised I wanted to be a cook. I’d seen my grandmother and her side of the family own those fish and chip shops, and I liked the idea of being in charge of my own schedule and deciding when to take holidays.

Angela is today one of the UK's best-known chefs Credit: justine trickett

So I just wanted to run a restaurant, and while I didn’t know exactly what kind of food I wanted to make, I was keen on Italian food, which wasn’t as big as it is now. I thought I’d have a local restaurant, not multiple sites. Not in a million years would my younger self have thought that this is how it’d end up.

But I learnt what makes good food when I was young – I was quite lucky that I grew up in a good family where it was important to sit down and eat a good meal. We bought the best-quality food we could afford, and didn’t have any fizzy drinks. If we ate something sweet, it would be something like the apple pie my mum made. We had lovely roasts, and bread that my grandmother would make. That’s what makes good food – sitting and chatting.

I still do that with my mum, brother, sister, cousins. We’ve never been a big partying family: we just sit and eat and drink and chat. I do the same at home; I live in Spitalfields with my boyfriend, my sister and a lodger. We all get together on a Sunday night, which is probably the one night of the week that we’re all in. One of us will cook, and we’ll invite friends and neighbours. It’s nice, and that’s one element of my life that my younger self would always recognise.

Angela is head judge and mentor at this year’s S. Pellegrino Young Chef UK, for which the finalists will be announced this week.