Interview with an Innovator

Petersham Nurseries’ Ambra Papa: ‘The beauty of the produce can be lost in all the ideas a chef can have’

The head chef talks about Italian vegan food, why gnudi could be big in 2020 and why you shouldn’t mess with seasonal produce.  

31 January 2020
chefsfood wasteingredientsitalianprovenancerestaurantsseasonal

Papa on paper

  • Born and raised in Tuscany, Papa studied at culinary school in her native Italy before moving to England in 2014.
  • Her first job in London came at Hix Soho, where she stayed for one year, with Papa joining Petersham Nurseries in Richmond in 2015.
  • Rose to the rank of head chef at the popular south-west London restaurant, championing fresh and seasonal ingredients sourced from their farm on the border of Devon and Dorset. 

Having grown up in an Italian region famed for its stunning ingredients, it’s no wonder Ambra Papa has such an affinity with the seasonal and the simply prepared.

Like many chefs, Papa’s great childhood joy was helping in the kitchen, often with her mother and grandmother, with packed gatherings of endless family members for mealtimes practically a daily occurrence.

After finishing culinary school in Italy, Papa pitched up in London, unable to speak a word of English. Following a stint at Hix Soho, Papa found her London calling – Petersham Nurseries Café, a restaurant famed for celebrating the best of British seasonal produce, sourced directly from Haye Farm, a 66-acre mixed organic farm found on the border of Devon and Dorset.

Papa had come back to what she knew best: stunning ingredients, simply devised. Rising up to become head chef just over a year ago, her Italian-inspired menu is tweaked and changed on an almost daily basis as ingredients come and go, with innovation around the seasonal the leading focus for Papa and her team of chefs.

With the wider reaches of Italian cuisine enjoying its moment in the spotlight and provenance of key consumer concern going into the new decade, Petersham Nurseries – with Papa at the helm – find themselves bang on-trend, with the former Michelin-starred restaurant finding continued joy by sticking to their ultra-seasonal guns.

Here, Papa discusses the ongoing trends with Italian food in the UK, her recent dabbling with fermentation and explains how overcomplicating a dish can lead to losing the key flavours.

Italian food is a big trend at the moment, especially in London. You might find it surprising that we don’t actually do all that much pasta here. We do often have a pasta dish on the menu, but we’re definitely not a restaurant based on pasta.

Depending on our produce and the season, we might have a risotto on the menu instead of homemade pasta. When we make a menu, we always push for a balance and a variety of food. Fish, vegan, red meat, salad, pasta – today, everyone has a different idea of what they want to eat.

We change the menu all the time. We might use an ingredient in dishes on the menu one day but, if the next day there’s no more, we will tweak the recipe. Our produce comes from our farm in the country and we try to only use seasonal produce.

We serve Italian food, but we have British produce, so we try to have a twist between both English and Italian cuisine. It’s simple food and we really don’t want to complicate it. I firmly believe that if it’s high quality and seasonal, it’s going to be amazing in a dish even if you don’t do much to it.

On the menu right now, we have a salad of chargrilled purple sprouting broccoli and fiolaro broccoli, which is from Italy. We use the leaves, which are really tasty, and it’s actually a really hearty dish, so we use a bit of gorgonzola. We turn the cheese into a sauce with some chilli, lemon juice and slightly burnt shallots. Its light, simple and really nice.

Our main source of inspiration is what is really in season and what we have available. I like to use my old family recipes, to dig deep into them to modernise them, and I often travel around Italy and Spain looking for recipes I can adapt.

We believe that, if you have a good idea – and chefs often do – it is really easy to overcomplicate your dish. For me, I want to leave my food really simple, I want to be able to taste every ingredient so I shouldn’t add too many. You will lose the flavour if you do.

The beauty of the produce can be lost in all the ideas the chef can have. Leave the good quality ingredient and make your dish as simple as possible.

I’m from Tuscany and there we have gnudi, which are actually from the region. There are not that many places in England that do it and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I saw it on a menu here.

How would I describe it? It’s in between a ravioli filling and gnocchi. Usually they’re made of spinach, ricotta and a bit of nutmeg. We use egg and a bit of flour to help make a mix, then we roll the cheese into balls and then cook them as you would pasta.

It’s been so popular many of our customers have asked what they are, and we’ve been trying to teach them. Everyone knows pasta and risotto, but not gnudi.

I think it might start to appear more in restaurants in 2020. It’s a really versatile food too. I remember a chef competition I took part in years ago and my dish was gnudi, but instead of spinach, I did it with Sicilian almonds and served it with poached lobster with butter and lemon. It was a big success.

We do have a vegan menu as well as the normal menu. Most of our dishes in the normal menu are quite easy to tweak to any dietary requirements, but our dedicated vegan menu is three starters and three mains and a few desserts. And one of those is the bergamot sorbet with earl grey syrup and a citrus salad, which has been really popular and not just for the vegans.

We’ve been experimenting with preserving and fermenting recently. We know that, in the summer, we have a surplus and preserving is a great way of keeping things until the winter. Specifically, we’re working on fermenting pears and making our own kombucha and things like this.

We’re also big on food waste and preserving/fermenting is a big help with keeping things out of the bin. We also try and find a way with our recipes to not have any wastage. We have to feed our staff and that’s one way! Maybe it’s not the right shape of vegetable or the right cut of meat, but it still might be really good if you use it for something else if you think about it.

There’s no reason, if its good food, for me to throw it away. I would eat it at home so why can’t we use it in the restaurant.

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