Angela Hartnett taught her that “less is more” during their 10 years working closely together, but now Pip Lacey is transferring Hartnett’s Michelin-starred kitchen philosophy from Murano to her first solo effort, a sharing plates eatery with a focus on wood-fire cooking.
Murano head chef is but one string to Lacey’s bow. The chef also won BBC television series Great British Menu in 2017, an accolade that exposed her to international audiences, including the royal family of the UAE, who she cooked for as she travelled the world searching for inspiration for her own restaurant.
Now open within Coal Drops Yard – London’s newest culinary quarter and an element of the ever-expanding King’s Cross regeneration – Hicce (pronounced eee-che) serves seasonal and experimental dishes.
In this interview, Lacey ruminates on being her own boss, why boldness and self-trust is essential in forming new dishes and menu creation, and how Brussels sprouts became her most popular dish – so popular she hopes they’ll never leave Hicce.
My earliest memories with food are days spent on the beach in Tenerife. I’d be with my uncle, who’s Spanish, and my dad, who loves fish. We used to go to little shacks on the beach and eat sardines whole, Tom and Jerry style. I remember getting really involved with my hands, so that’s where the menu at Hicce comes into play now, with all the sharing plates and finger food.
At Hicce, I’m involved in everything, from the books to the design, to the furniture and lighting. I have a design background, so I find all those extras really interesting to do, but my main passion is being in the kitchen. I get the most joy from being in the kitchen creating menus.
I didn’t want to be a head chef for someone else when I was 40, busting my ass and slaving away, coming home just with a wage. You put so much into it. I want to come home and it be actually mine. I always treat where I’ve worked as if it was my own. There’s never a job too small. If there’s stuff on the floor, I pick it up.
Angela Hartnett taught me that less is more. A lot of new chefs put so many things on the plate. I let the guys at Hicce create dishes but I say, “Remember, don’t keep putting more stuff on – why’s that thing there?” Some dishes are amazing with a million things on, but the best things – the deep-fried Brussels sprouts, for example – are simple. Cut them, wash them and deep-fry them. Even without the garnish, the simplest things are the best.
I was hoping my Brussels sprouts would become a signature dish, and they have. I stole the dish off a Japanese chef I met. I didn’t even know they had Brussels sprouts in Japan!
In the kitchen, I’m firm but fair, and always have a sense of humour. Sometimes cooking can get a bit serious, but I lighten the mood. A lot of chefs get stressed. It’s tough, but it’s cooking at the end of the day. It’s not like we’re in a hospital doing heart surgery. The more light-hearted you are, the more flavour comes through in your food; the more fun you have, the better your end product is. There’s no reason you can’t get stuff done with music on as well. When people get stressed and upset, you lose staff, and the food and the business suffer.
Good food is difficult to make. It’s the pressure. If you get it wrong, can you get it done again in time? Sometimes you just take things off the menu and relieve that stress, but to a certain extent, you have to make dishes happen: that’s what people expect. Having an open kitchen, having windows, creates a completely different temperament. I’ve noticed a difference in the team and in myself.
I’d never made gluten-free bread before in my life. The first one I made, I made it up and it came off pretty well, people love it. I practised the rye bread for a year to get it right. For the beer bread, we’re using Hackney lager. I never really thought of myself as much of a baker.
I’m very proud of the pineapple dessert. We grill the pineapple, then tempura it and deep-fry it. It is inspired by a food memory from when I was younger, when our flight was delayed. My dad suggested we have a three-course meal in the airport while we waited, and one of the puddings was tempura fruit. It was strawberry, but at the restaurant, we wanted to find something in season all year round. With a pineapple, you can grill it first, then there’s the tempura flavours. People love it; it’s something I won’t take off.
The menu is naturally thoughtful for vegetarians. My partner is vegetarian. However, it’s easier to create a meat or fish dish because you have the base of the fish or the meat. It’s always harder to make a good veg dish that isn’t an afterthought but is still substantial.
There aren’t that many places to go on Sundays for a decent lunch. The ones that are good are booked, so we’re trying to get a name for ourselves with litre bottles of red wine to create the family vibe, for big groups. We have two options, one meat and one veggie – I don’t think people want many decisions on a Sunday.
The menu is designed so diners can enjoy lots of different tastes. I didn’t want to make a massive menu. If there’s four of you, you can eat plenty of diverse flavours with the smaller plates. You can taste the majority of the menu when you come.
Before Hicce, I’d been working for Angela Hartnett for coming up to 10 years. At Murano, as a sous chef you were thrown in with not much guidance. You made mistakes, then learnt from them. It was nice to be left to do it all, in a sink-or-swim environment. But I’m ambitious, and I wanted what she had got.
When I finished at Murano, I went to Abu Dhabi and cooked for the royal family. I experimented with wood, fire and cooking on the grill: lots of things influenced my journey to Hicce. Some people say it’s stupid doing something new in your first restaurant – fire cooking is a skill I’ve not been trained in – but I like doing new things, combining different influences from cooking backgrounds.
I saved money for 10 years to open this restaurant. I got a couple of jobs where I got paid very well, and I also don’t go out very often as a chef so it’s easy to save money.
You can’t properly write the menu until you get in the kitchen. I had written the menu for Hicce, but I’d never cooked here before. My team were looking to me for guidance, and I was looking to no one for guidance.
Angela Hartnett loves it here. She’s happy, we have meetings every few weeks. It fills you with confidence having that support, and it’s good to know that if you need someone to turn to, you have someone.