Michelin-starred chef-patron of Murano Angela Hartnett grew up with ‘la cucina’ in her blood. Now she’s passed on her skills to protégée and Cafe Murano head chef Sam Williams, an Italophile who is yet to visit the country
My grandfather and his two brothers had fish-and-chip shops in the East End when I was a kid and I always liked the idea of running my own restaurant. But it wasn’t until I started to work with Gordon Ramsay that I realised I wanted to be a chef. My mum worked and had three kids to look after, so I started to help her out in the kitchen at an early age. My older brother certainly wasn’t going to help, which meant I was always the one cooking alongside my mum and grandmother.
My grandmother, who came from Bardi in Emilia-Romagna, was fantastic at savoury food, but she wasn’t a great baker. So I was always making cakes and, by the time I was a teenager, fresh pasta. My nonna would go back to Bardi for the whole summer and we’d join her in this village in the middle of nowhere for a few weeks. When I go back there now, I live off very simple but incredible food: cheese, ham, bread, salad and fruit.
I opened Murano, in Mayfair, with Gordon Ramsay in 2008, becoming sole owner in 2010, and Cafe Murano opened on St James’s Street last November. I wanted a restaurant that reflected the simplicity of the northern Italian food I loved, and was as good as the River Café or Locanda Locatelli without being that pricey. There was nothing between those top-level restaurants and Jamie’s or Ponti’s and I thought a restaurant with great service offering simple, authentic food, cooked well, at mid-range prices, might be a success.
I first met Sam, who is head chef of Cafe Murano, in 2011. I was leading Smart Hospitality’s chef team at the Olympic Hospitality Centre in preparation for London 2012 and she was one of more than 100 chefs. She was calm and organised, without ego, could taste food brilliantly and shared my ethos about food. She also had the passion: she was a head chef but took a pay cut to work at Murano for two years till I found the right site for Cafe Murano.
It’s rare I have to tell Sam something isn’t right, but she has had to learn to loosen food up, to relax it on the plate. It’s hard for a chef who was used to cooking classic French food that wasn’t exactly fancy but was quite set. She showed me a pork belly dish recently that was delicious, but it looked too pretty on the plate. All we had to do was throw all the garnish in a bowl and put the pork on a plate on its own. Gordon once said that chefs with too much time on their hands make food that’s too finicky, and he’s right. If you have 130 covers a night, you have to concentrate on flavour, flavour, flavour.
My last supper
I’d start with antipasto of salami and prosciutto, followed by anolini – stuffed pasta served in a broth from my grandmother’s region in north-east Italy. I’ve made it since I was a kid and it’s great comfort food that evokes good memories. I love roast chicken, but for the main course I’d probably choose a whole baked fish. I’m not a big dessert fan, so I’d finish with a selection of British, French or Italian cheese.
I’ve never been to Italy. It’s quite embarrassing – shocking even. I said to Chef [Hartnett] the other day that she had to take me soon. But I think I understand the combinations of food and I’ve got a good palate. My training is more classical French – I worked at Racine with Henry Harris and at the Fifth Floor in Harvey Nichols. We made our own pasta, but that was about it. Then I ran the pasta section at Murano and I started to develop a real love for Italian food.
I grew up in Cape Town with a Norwegian mum and an English dad. Food was important in our family, especially with mum’s heritage. We had a dining table that could seat 20 that was the heart of the house. The food we ate was a real mixture: Sunday roasts or barbecues using fresh local fish. My mum always baked and cooked healthy food for us as kids. From a young age, I’d stand on a chair, watch her roll dough and get covered in flour.
My career choices at school were, in order, doctor, marine biologist or chef. I loved cooking so much that I went off to catering college and university before coming to England 16 years ago to pay off my huge student loan.
I was scared ahead of Cafe Murano opening, but in a good way: if you’re not terrified, you’re not passionate enough. What I love about working here is that it’s about getting the simple things right. It’s about taking fantastic seasonal produce and not messing with it. Everyone loves the truffle arancini (rice balls) but my favourite dish is probably the pork belly with romanesco, pea shoots and clams that is now – thanks to Chef – beautifully simple. The winter menu is dominated by heavy northern Italy dishes, but I find spring greens much more exciting, and they look so lovely on a plate.
My last supper
I grew up on the coast, so I’d have a seafood starter: crayfish, lobster or prawns cooked really simply. Then barbecued or pan-fried red meat for the main and homemade chocolate ice cream for pudding. Q