Home is where the Hart is

“One thing I always tell my staff is that greeting a guest is like welcoming someone into your own home,” Angela Hartnett tells me as we hover in the dining room of Murano, her one-Michelin-starred restaurant in London’s Mayfair. It’s around 11am and I’m here to have coffee with her before guests arrive for Murano’s lunchtime service. Amid the clatter of cutlery and wine glasses of pre-service preparation I watch as multiple kitchen and restaurant staff sit down to a shared meal. This is a fly on the wall perspective into one of London’s most celebrated restaurants. I’m offered a seat and a steaming bowl of gnocchi and feel completely at home, in the knowledge that the best thing about my Tuesday morning at Murano is that when I come back as a paying patron, I’ll receive exactly the same welcome.

Angela is cheerful and driven and while we chat over tea (for me) and coffee (for Angela) she checks her emails and pencils down reminders on a notepad. She’s got a healthy glow thanks to a few days spent on the coast in Dartmouth. “I did a dinner down there with Mitch Tonks, it was brilliant!” she tells me with a warm smile, followed by a large yawn.

She may have arrived at Murano that morning at 8am but the early start isn’t the only reason for Angela’s tiredness. She’s dividing her time between the two additional restaurants she now puts her name to in London alongside Murano: Merchants Tavern in Shoreditch, launched in September 2013 in collaboration with Neil Borthwick and Café Murano, which opened in November 2013, a stone’s throw away from its namesake. In 2013 Angela also ventured outside of London, heading up restaurant Hartnett Holder & Co alongside chef Luke Holder in the five star Limewood hotel in England’s New Forest.

What’s most inspiring about Angela is that although each of her restaurants now operate independently, she’s entirely dedicated to all of them and is never far to give a helping hand; she’s in at least one kitchen every day. “That’s the way I like it, knowing what’s going on in each.”

Outside her restaurants, Angela has also become something of a celebrity in the UK, making regular appearances on TV, having published two books and also finding time for a spot of charity work as an Ambassador of The Terrence Higgins Trust.

Angela comes from a foodie background. Growing up she could almost always be found in the kitchen helping her Italian mother and grandmother making lunch and dinner for the family. “It was very much the ‘podding peas on the back step’ scenario, helping make bread and pasta,” she explains.

As a result, food has always been on her agenda. Even when she decided to study history at university she envisioned herself embarking on a career in cooking later on. “I had the idea of going into food before I started studying, I just didn’t want to go straight into it then. I went to university with the intention that if the cooking thing didn’t work out I had something to fall back on.”

The ‘cooking thing,’ however, worked out sublimely. She’s also, refreshingly one of the most down to earth chefs I’ve met and credits her early success to a man who most of us recognise: Gordon Ramsay.

Angela began working in Gordon’s restaurant Aubergine in 1994 after learning on the job at a hotel in Cambridge and then at the Sandy Lane Hotel restaurant in Barbados. “Without a doubt Gordon was the person to work for then. He’d been out to France where he’d worked for Robuchon and Guy Savoy and when he came back to the UK he worked for Marco [Pierre White]. There weren’t as many good restaurants back then as there are today, only a handful worth mentioning, and Gordon arrived as the new kid on the block. It was fantastic to work for him and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be where I am today. He invested a lot into my career and I’m very grateful for that.”

Spending time in the kitchen at Aubergine opened a lot of doors for Angela and in 1999 she took up the position of sous chef at Petrus—a Gordon Ramsay Holdings restaurant headed up by Marcus Wareing. Angela became head chef within seven months, helping the restaurant to gain its first Michelin star (it later gained then lost a second).

Prior to that she’d supported Ramsay at his restaurants Zafferano and L’Oranger and later, after launching Amaryllis in Scotland with David Dempsey in 2001, she played a vital role in the opening of Gordon’s restaurant Verre in Dubai.

It was while she was at The Connaught, however, a venerable five star hotel in Mayfair, where Angela was head chef of Gordon’s restaurants MENU and The Grill Room from 2002, that Angela experienced a real turning point in her career.

The two restaurants had already received a number of awards, including Square Meal Guides’ Best New Restaurant award by the time Michelin granted the team a star in 2004 and, later Angela received an accolade to call her own: an MBE for Services to the Hospitality Industry, a moment that Angela recalls as one of the proudest in her career so far.

Despite her growing success and Menuand The Grill Room’s reputation as one of London’s most celebrated fine dining hotspots, the restaurants closed in 2007, signalling the start of a new adventure, with her and Gordon finding a replacement project in the form of a small 56-seater in the heart of London’s Mayfair.

Born in August 2008, Murano sits on Queen Street with a well-manicured façade, complete with a gold-framed menu and olive trees lining its almost floor-to-ceiling windows. It features a private dining area with seating enough for 10 and a chef’s table to the rear allowing diners direct views into the kitchen, all in a setting of warm leather, plush cushion-covered seats, artsy-frescoed walls and murano glass chandeliers. What’s more, this time Angela can call it her own having bought Gordon out of the contract in 2010 with the help of other investors, including her brother. “I still send Gordon the odd text message and say hello if I bump into him in town,” she says when I ask her if they still keep in touch. Since breaking off from her long-term business partnership with Gordon, Angela’s business has become something of a family affair, with her brother as the financial backer to Murano and her partner Neil Borthwick as head chef of Merchants Tavern.

But it’s at Murano where she’s really mastered the art of fine dining, yet with none of the pretense that is often garnered by other Michelin starred restaurants. The food is down to earth yet wonderfully curated.

Angela teaches her kitchen staff to make fresh pasta in-house, using a chittara, a guitar-like utensil used to stretch out the dough and create thin linguine pasta. On top of well-thought out methods of cooking, Angela also pays very close attention to Murano’s ingredients. “I’ve been working in London for god knows how long and in that time I’ve had the opportunity to build up a good relationship with some really outstanding producers.”

Murano’s menu is a delight, made up of traditional Italian dishes such as carnaroli risotto, Parmigiano Reggiano and ceps and hand-rolled pappardelle, braised hare, Treviso and golden raisins, mixed with wider European influences like Cornish cod, watercress purée, grilled squid and corn and Scottish long-legged partridge, coco beans, white onion and pancetta. “We use the name Murano [the Venetian island] as a hint to Italy but there is no specific link to Venice on the menu. I would describe Murano as more of a modern European restaurant with an Italian touch, rather than the other way round.”

The other interesting point to note when perusing Murano’s menu is that you can essentially make up your own tasting menu from the restaurant’s à la carte menu. “We don’t do a tasting menu anymore,” Angela explains. Previously, Murano offered a tasting menu as an additional option to the à la carte, which changed with the seasons to offer guests a taste of Italy’s different culinary regions depending on the best places to eat at that specific time of the year. “We realised that people just weren’t ordering tasting menus or people were ordering them but asking if they could change this dish or that one.” Instead, Angela decided to restructure the menu into different sections. It now consists of a starter section, pasta, vegetarian, fish and meat section. Guests can choose two courses for £50, three courses for £65, four courses for £75 or 5 courses for £85. The courses can be made up of any of the sections of the menu—you can have four from the same section or a starter and desert, it’s all down to the guests. “Doing this kind of menu makes it harder on the kitchen because you might have a table of six people all ordering different dishes but it leaves the guests complete freedom and I think we’re one of the few places, if not the only place in London, to offer it.”

I sit and watch as the first guests for the day are greeted at the door by Murano’s beaming maître d’ and take a moment to ponder the restaurant’s and Angela’s endearing success.

By focusing exclusively on her guests and the quality of her ingredients and recipes, Angela has managed to create one of the most welcoming of fine dining environments, not to mention an award-winning one, having received a Michelin star in 2009, just one year after opening. A second star could certainly be on the cards.

But I get the feeling that none of that matters to Angela, whose focus is clearly on giving her guests one of their most memorable culinary experiences, which she achieves through encouraging a strong dish-sharing ethos and creating a homely spot where patrons can catch up with friends over memorable food and excellent wine.

“As a chef your main objective is to make sure people come back. It’s not just about the eating. Food is also about sitting down and enjoying a moment together. It’s a chance to talk and communicate with each other. I think everyone should be made to feel like that—like they’re dining in their own home.”