3 weeks ago

“It takes so much more than food to be a success” Irish Chef Anna Haugh Opens Her First Restaurant

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I’ve lived and worked in London for 16 years. I opened my own restaurant, Myrtle, in May this year so I work every weekend, but I still absolutely have a life. We close on Sunday night, Mondays and Tuesday lunch. My boyfriend will come and meet me after work on Sunday evening, and we might go to Darby’s – my friend Robin Gill’s restaurant – which has live music on Sundays.

I love dining out. I love the variety in London, but it’s also the standard. The Dairy in Clapham [also owned by Gill] is probably where I eat the most. It does ridiculously tasteful small plates of food. Robin does a famous chicken-skin terrine that comes with a homemade barbecue sauce that is off-the-charts delicious. The style of food is so different to what I do, but there’s a similarity between us in that there’s heart and soul going into the food. There’s a network of Irish chefs over here; we all get along and it’s very supportive.

Around six years ago I tried to open a restaurant with the same concept as Myrtle: modern European with Irish influences. I had everything in place and then at the last minute, the landlord decided to keep the site. It nearly broke me – I went home and cried for two days. Failure is such a difficult pill to swallow. But I had this mantra running through my head, “Don’t give up, just take a break”. I worked for Gordon Ramsay for a few years, opening London House as head chef. London House is similar to Myrtle in lots of ways, because I had already planned what I wanted to do, and Gordon Ramsay and the group were very kind in letting me do it – I was lucky to get a chance to practise. The food has always been the easy bit for me. In our industry it takes so much more than food to be a success.

A few years later, when I was working at Bob Bob Ricard, the idea came back like a floodlight switching on in my brain. I thought, “What am I doing? I have to open my own place”. I started to put the wheels in motion to look for a site again. I was still working away – not telling my family or my boyfriend much – and then eventually I plucked up the courage. I came back from a Food on the Edge event [the annual chefs’ symposium in Galway, October 21-22] and I said to him, “I’m going to open my own restaurant”. I really got the confidence from Food on the Edge to push the Irish feel of the restaurant. Just going around the Burren and seeing the produce that we have in Ireland was inspiring. I found the site last summer – we eventually got the keys on March 6 and we were open by May 9. Two months – unbelievable. The location was perfect. My boyfriend loved that it’s in Chelsea and I loved that it’s a residential area – I wanted it to be a local restaurant and to know the people who come through the door. I was never chasing – and I’m still not chasing – Michelin stars. If you cook for a guide I feel you’ve got your priorities twisted. I just want to have a busy successful restaurant, to cook the food that I’m passionate about, to speak to my guests.

The name was inspired by Myrtle Allen, famous for being the champion of Irish produce. We also have a signature cocktail with myrtle berries and there are two myrtle trees outside the door. The Allens have been very supportive. I was doing a pop-up at Selfridges to promote the restaurant before it opened, and Darina Allen was invited to the tasting. When I came out of the kitchen, she came straight towards to me and said, “You can cook!” It was one of the biggest compliments of my entire career.

The issue that matters to me most is mental health. It’s an important topic in this industry. I want to be known as strong and kind – you can be both, and you can train your staff to be both. I see it as a responsibility that if you work for me, I’m not just training you to work a section, I’m training you to be a great leader. It’s all about teaching – you are 30 per cent creative, and 70 per cent teacher. I’ve always said I was opening this restaurant to have a work-life balance. I love being here in the restaurant – I don’t want to be off – but the truth is work-life balance is also about trusting people. I’m also very pro-music and I sing in the kitchen all day long. I try to have music on – not in service, obviously, but during prep – because it’s good for the soul. Singing releases endorphins and relieves stress.

Two years ago, I moved to Streatham Hill in southwest London. It’s a busy, family area, with a bustling high street, with lots of different restaurants and nationalities. It has great venues for music and comedy. There’s a jazz bar called The Hideaway that’s always full of life. A lot of the shows I go to are in small venues. I went to see an incredible one-man show at Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell called Purged, starring an actor called Orla Sanders. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. On my day off, I’ll go to Tooting Common. The park is gorgeous and has a lake, tennis courts and a little café. It’s also dog-friendly. After wanting a dog for ages we got one last year. A Pugzu – a cross between a pug and a Shih Tzu – and she’s called Myrtle!

I’ve always had quite a spendy lifestyle but once I knew I was opening the restaurant, I had to nip that in the bud. Even just buying clothes – all of that stopped. There’s a Trinity Hospice Shop at the end of my road and I sometimes go in there – you can get gorgeous vintage coats and really good designer stuff. I really support the idea of second-hand shops, because everything has become so disposable. For food shopping, I do my weekly shop at Waitrose online. It’s more down to convenience – I don’t have the time to get near a market, but I do go to P&V, a lovely Italian delicatessen on King’s Road. They have an amazing cheese selection, herbs, meat, all the Italian produce, I get my coffee there too. I love crafts and making things – when friends have babies, I’ll knit booties. At one stage, three friends had babies at the same time, and I had six booties and there wasn’t a pair to be found among them – so bad, but made with love. It’s not about perfection.

My favourite room in the house is the kitchen. On my day off I love having friends over, and I’ll cook all day long, listening to an audiobook or music. I still find it therapeutic. We have a dinner party roughly once a month in one or other’s houses, and we take turns. A perfect example was a recent last-minute barbecue. I made strawberry Bellinis. I had some tuna and anchovy dressing from the restaurant. I barbecued salmon with miso; baby gem lettuce cut in half and chargrilled. I did barbecued corn with a cheese topping made with fresh Cáis na Tíre and some chilli – it was really delicious. We played some music and some games, the little pooch jumping around – that to me is just the perfect day off.

Myrtle Restaurant, 1A Langton Street, London SW10; myrtlerestaurant.com.

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