Something exciting has been underway at East London’s experimental Whitechapel Gallery. It isn’t a new exhibition (though the venue certainly hosts some of the city’s most interesting shows and openings). Instead, it’s the Whitechapel Gallery that has lately garnered the attraction of London’s hungry denizens.
Helmed by Executive Chef Angela Hartnett and Senior Head Chef Emma Duggan, the Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room is bringing a new, innovative edge to East London’s culinary culture. Hartnett, a protégée of Gordon Ramsay who has worked at the Connaught Hotel, Murano, and York and Albany, and Duggan, who has done previous stints at the Blue Boar and Foxtrot Oscar, have together devised daily changing menus that are a prime example of seasonal, upscale British fare. The gallery’s sun-drenched, minimalist setting makes for an ideal backdrop to their lively cooking.The Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room © Amy Murrell
We sat down with the chefs for an inside look at the food-meets-art venture, including everything from the Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room’s lavish ‘Feast’ nights to the two chefs’ paths through the kitchen.
At the Whitechapel Gallery you’ve been offering monthly Feast Nights, some of which thematically relate to the artwork on display. Which has been your favourite Feast so far?
Emma: They’ve all been great, but my favorite was the game feast last year with squirrel pasties and jerk marinated venison – I think mostly to see our diners’ reactions to the pasties! Luckily, they were well received.
From Barbados to Dubai to London, you’ve spent time in kitchens around the world. How does kitchen culture differ across the globe?
Angela: The specifics, from the style to the food suppliers to the staff, all differ, but it’s a great learning experience getting to work abroad.
Between the two of you, you have British, Welsh and Italian culinary influences. Does one culinary culture inspire you more than others?
Emma: I love the fact that British cuisine is so highly regarded these days. I had always been influenced by French and Spanish foods early in my career, but obviously working with Angela has opened my eyes to Italian food styles. I love it — many elements are so simple, but you wouldn’t think of them yourself.
Angela: Italian food inspires me more than anything else, especially as I was brought up with that cuisine.
What do you love to cook at home in your kitchen, just for yourself?
Emma: Breakfast! Scrambled eggs, bacon, mushrooms and toast. Mmm. I usually share with Sid, my two-year-old boxer dog!
Angela: Chicken salad, or any simple pasta dish with tomato, garlic, and anchovies.
What future projects lie ahead? Are there any more collaborations together in the pipeline?
Emma: I bloody well hope so… Ange? …. Ange? Anyone seen Angela?!!!
Angela: None with Emma at the moment, but never say never! Otherwise, I’ll be working with Neil Borthwick to open Merchants Tavern in East London and a new Italian opening on St James’s Street.
As with many industries, the professional cooking world is still male-dominated. Was it difficult to break in, and if so, has it become easier since you’ve climbed the ladder?
Emma: I’ve never had any real problems, nothing to lose sleep over anyway; I wouldn’t say it becomes easier because of what level you’re at but more to do with you as a person and the way you work. Respect and be respected – it’s pretty much that easy.
Angela: I’ve never really had an issue. I’ve actually found being one of the few women in the kitchen assisted me rather than being a hindrance.
You both had mentors as your careers blossomed; who are you mentoring at the moment, and who would you say are the names to watch?
Emma: My sous chef, Jessica Simmons, started as a commis pastry chef with Angela at Murano so we both mentor her. Jess is a very determined young woman who works very hard and will be successful, so I would keep your eyes peeled for her!
Angela: Neil Borthwick, the Head Chef at Merchants Tavern, and Sam Williams at Murano.
What were your first of impressions of each other when you met back at Cambridge’s Blue Boar?
Emma: Ha-ha, I can’t remember that far back! I always looked forward to the weekends when Ange was working!
Angela: That she was nuts!
Having worked together for so many years, how has your relationship changed? Is it necessary to keep your personal friendship and professional relationship separate?
Emma: She answers the phone a lot more to me since we’ve been working together at Whitechapel, so I guess it’s improved!
Angela: We can still go out together and not talk about work. The key to maintaining a good balance is to always be able to talk to each other, though – being honest is essential.
The Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room is a unique concept in the way it blends visual and culinary art. Did you find inspiration from visual arts before this, or has this project made you more experimental?
Emma: In all honesty art had never influenced me before, but then I had never worked in this kind of space before. I’ve really enjoyed this chance to use the artwork, the artists, and their origins to create dishes from – it’s been really inspiring.
If you were invited for dinner round each other’s houses, what is your favourite dish of theirs you’d like to see on the table?
Emma: Braised shin of beef, polenta and cavolo nero – yum!
Angela: Emma’s roast chicken, which she cooked for me a few weeks ago. It was delicious!
You both pride yourselves on the quality of carefully sourced produce. How do you find the best of what’s out there, and what can you tell us about the importance of seasonal produce?
Emma: The way to find the best is by trying what’s on offer and making sure it’s consistent in quality and is readily available. It’s so important to use seasonal produce. The whole point of it is to support local suppliers whilst keeping down the carbon footprint.
Angela: Seasonal ingredients not only taste the best but are also available at the best price. It’s a no-brainer – if you have great seasonal produce the rest is easy.
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