Food writer, TV host and chef Sophie Michell has been cooking professionally since she was a teenager. Now taking the helm of Pont St restaurant in London’s Belgraves hotel, she’s fast gaining a reputation for light, creative dishes and a Californian spin on seafood. Britain’s youngest female executive chef talks sea urchins, her new airport restaurant, and lunching with Al Pacino…
At 15, most kids would struggle to rustle up a bowl of pasta: you were already cooking 60 covers a night at a pub in Somerset. What was that like?
I was quite headstrong, and wanted to prove to everyone that I could do what I wanted and do it all by myself. I left school and didn’t even take my GCSEs; my parents had spilt for the second time and that drove my ambition a lot. So I dived in headfirst and later realised that being a chef was an actual career choice. I loved it from day one, though.
What would you say is your signature dish? And what’s tickling your tastebuds this month?
My food cravings vary so often! This month I am really wanting to play with some sea urchins, they are one of nature’s wonders and I love the flavours, they are tricky to get consistently here though. I am also loving the scallops we get at Pont St: they are from the Ethical Shellfish Company, caught off the Isle of Mull. Their sweetness is perfect for our scallop, coconut and chilli ceviche.
How important is a sense of place to your menu at Pont St?
Our menus at Pont St are very reflective of the area in which Belgraves hotel is based: Belgravia and Knightsbridge are very health- and fashion-conscious – dishes like our crudité platters, Belgraves super-food salad and plancha-grilled fish are perfect examples.
I also like to pay homage to our US roots with my playful gourmet bar food menu upstairs: we have very good burgers, Siracha chicken wings, honey-glazed pork belly, truffle fries and home-made pastas.
Who inspires you most?
My mother inspired me a lot when I was younger. She is a classical musician and always worked very hard. She has always pushed me to do more and dream big.
Which other chefs do you admire?
It might seem clichéd but I seriously admire female chefs like Hélène Darroze and Angela Hartnett. This industry is hard for women to be successful in, especially at the Michelin-star level. They’ve smashed it.
Dream dinner companion?
Someone who loves to eat and drink, and who appreciates both pastimes a lot! A younger Jack Nicholson looked fun. I had dinner with Al Pacino once in LA – I was starstruck for the first time in my life.
You’ve written cookbooks, penned food columns, hosted TV shows and catered for celebrities… is there anything left on your to-do list?
There is SO much more I want to do! Next June, I am opening a new restaurant called the Gorgeous Kitchen in Heathrow’s Terminal 2 with three other amazing female chefs – Jo Pratt, Gee Charman and Caroline MiLi Artiss. Opening a restaurant in an airport has always been one of my dreams, so that’s exciting. I also want my own to-go healthy food range; we are still so lacking in that department across the board, especially when travelling.
What’s your idea of a great hotel?
Understated luxury and muted decadence. If it’s for business, I want good sized rooms, great room service and a gym. If it’s for pleasure, I want a good bar and restaurant scene, spa treatments and excellent location. I’m not into hotels that are so trendy and edgy that they forget how to look after their guests properly.
What’s your kitchen like at home? Favourite gadget?
I’m not really a gadget girl. You can do wonders with a good knife and an olive-wood chopping board.
What is the single most important thing you have learnt about food?
Not to take it too seriously, respect the ingredients, and remember that it should be about the consumers’ pleasure, not the chef’s ego.
And what is the most important thing you have learnt about life?
Also not to take it too seriously (see above!). Life has its ups and downs and I’ve experienced extremes of both. You just always have to have faith, and remind yourself that life will balance itself. A positive outlook goes along way.
SOPHIE MICHELL: HOME AND AWAY
I live in Knightsbridge – it’s good to be so close to the restaurant. If friends come over, we have a wander round Hyde Park, do some shopping etc. Then I love to take them on a food tour: we always have a good dim sum meal, a foodie night in Soho and probably do one Michelin-starred dinner. Also I love the farmers market and vibe in Marylebone on a Sunday.
I love Beirut, it is such an exciting and creative place; it has you mesmerised from the second you get there. I lived there for a year doing restaurant consultancy, and found it hard to leave. The pool at Le Grey Hotel is great, as are the bars in Gemmayze.
One of my favourite beaches is Shell Beach in St Barths. Head there for the sunset, with great music and cocktails. It’s got a more hippie vibe than the rest of the Island.
Madrid in Santa Fe is an amazing little town. There’s a tavern there that serves the best cucumber jalapeño margaritas I have ever tried. I actually think about them often, but haven’t yet managed to recreate them. The food is great, and you kind of feel like you’re on a movie set.
Sophie Michell is executive chef of Pont St restaurant at Belgraves hotel in London; last orders for food is 10.30pm.