Sophie Michell left school aged 14 to start working in a pub, and it's as clear now as it was then that food is her calling. 20 years later, she's the youngest female executive chef in London, heading up the kitchen at Pont St at the Belgraves Hotel. The start of 2016 has seen her launch a new Eat Well Live Well campaign with ingredient company Merchant Gourmet. Here, she talks to us about what it's like being a woman in the food industry, this year's trends and cooking for Leonardo diCaprio.
You're a very experienced chef, but where did you learn about nutrition specifically?
My weight fluctuates a lot and I definitely am affected if I eat the wrong food. I tend to feel not very good if I start eating bad food, so over the years, I've veered more towards healthy eating. On top of it, being a chef, it means you have the capabilities to make the food taste good. It's about experimenting with the flavours and how to make tasty food and going from there. Having private clients over the years who are health-conscious contributed to it as well, I think. But, at the end of the day, tasting good is important for me whether it's healthy or not.
Why did you start working with Merchant Gourmet?
In all honesty, I've loved Merchant Gourmet products for years, and particularly the new pouches of pulses and quinoa, so I approached the company. We discussed the new year and we've now come together for its new Eat Well Live Well campaign, and I'm the 'wellbeing chef'. I'm going to be working with the company for the whole year, and I'm working on recipes to build up an easy, accessible healthy eating line. It's a lovely collaboration because it's so nice to work with products that I enjoy so much.
Which are your favourite recipes?
I've done six so far, and I love the mixed grain pouches – I've just done a Mexican dish with them. I made another one last night, it's a wholegrain spelt rice pudding type thing, with cinnamon and apple, and it's really good for this time of year. And because it's spelt, it has a lower glycemic index so it's better for you, but it also tastes really good as it has that nuttiness to it.
What's your favourite ingredient to cook with?
At the moment, I love chilli. I put it on everything – and apparently it's quite good for metabolism. From Merchant Gourmet, I love their wholegrain spelt pouches. I work really long hours and the last thing I want to do when I get home is cook, but equally I'm never going to eat processed food. I just get home, fry it up with a little bit of oil and veggies, or pop it in the microwave. They're instant and it's just brilliant. It makes a world of difference.
When you're eating out, where do you like to eat in London?
It depends what I'm in the mood for. I had an amazing meal at Barrafina recently, that was brilliant, casual tapas-style food. Then there's Shotgun on Carnaby Street. I had a really fun meal there, it does great barbecued meats. I do love going out for dim sum, too, and A. Wong in Victoria is one of my favourites.
How do you balance eating out with wanting to eat healthily?
It epends what phase I'm going through. Generally I don't eat desserts when I go out, or at home, and I tend not to eat any of the bread you get given at the beginning of meals just because it's not really my thing and it doesn't really make me feel well. I just tend to stick to the good stuff in between.
Sophie's recipes for Merchant Gourmet – in pictures:
You've trained with lots of highly regarded chefs –which ones have been the most influential on the way you cook?
I worked with Paul Merrett for a year in The Greenhouse Restaurant, and he was very influential on my cooking. He has a Michelin star, but he used spices and had that slightly fusion influence, which I love and use a lot when I cook. And Michel Roux Jr, of course, but I was only with him for a very short time doing work experience.
What do you like most and least about the London food scene?
What I like most is that now, at the forefront, it's better than New York. I was there recently and personally, although I might be shot down for it, I think it's better here. In the old days, we used be really bad at street-level food, or cheap eats, and very good at fine dining, but now we have such an amazing variety of food and it's all of such high quality and everyone's very food conscious. There's some amazing food coming out of London. I think the thing I like least about it is that it can sometimes be a bit cliquey. I think food should be taken on face value, not what everyone thinks is hot and trendy at the time.
Which trends are you looking forward to most and least in 2016?
I'm seeing a real surge in Californian-inspired food. California inspires me quite a lot at Pont St, because it's that really fresh, farm-to-table vibe, mixing interesting flavours, like a more modern take on fusion. And going back to Alice Waters in California, that's a really good vibe in food, I think that's a great trend that we're getting more towards. I saw something about black pudding being the new superfood, which I think is a load of absolute bulls**t. I'm looking forward to people being a bit more holistic about food – hopefully not being so trend-obsessed and going for good, natural produce. I do think that pulses and supergrains, the new kinds of grains including freekeh and things like that are going to become more and more popular.
You're the youngest female executive chef in London. What do you think the future is for women in food?
Although it's quite a dire situation and there aren't many of us, each year more and more female chefs are emerging, and I think that's brilliant. I have to say, when I interview for staff, I get very, very few female chefs applying. I've just done an advert and I had 60 applicants, and only two of them were female. I have no idea why – maybe female chefs just aren't out there. I think that the media is slightly responsible, as the industry is still displayed as this hardcore, really gnarly, Gordon-Ramsey-shouting environment, which it isn't, and it doesn't have to be, and it's changing more and more to get away from that. I also think a lot of women choose to go and have a family at the time when you become an executive chef and reach that senior level. I like to think you can do both. I think it's just about pushing forward and trying to change perceptions of it all. It's across the board – there aren't many female senior executives in any industry, which is just sad.
Each year, more and more female chefs are emerging, and it's brilliant
What would you have done if you didn't work in food?
I have no idea. I don't think I ever intended to be a chef when I was growing up, but by the time I was 14, I went to work in kitchens, so I don't even know if I had really considered being anything by that point in time. I think my family expected me to go to university, but I was never remotely interested. I was always going to leave school as early as possible, I just happened to leave it much earlier than normally is allowed. A lot of my relatives said I would never make any money as a chef, but I made the decision and I decided to do it well. And I've just stuck to it since then.
By the time I got to the point where I realised I could make money out of cooking and something which I loved so much, there was just no way I would have considered anything else, so I don't really know what I would have done. That said, I did want to be a marine biologist because I loved the seaside and the ocean. There was just no way I was going to have the discipline to do that science aspect of that.
Would you ever open your own restaurant in London?
Absolutely. I love Belgraves and I love where I am, it's an amazing hotel with an amazing New York vibe to it and the team are great here, but in the future it would definitely be nice to do something simple. A hotel is huge and there's a lot going on. I'd like to open something by the sea, really, so it's a few years off yet. I've got so many different things I'd like to do that it's hard to pinpoint what I'd like to do next.
You've cooked privately for a few celebrities, who was the most fun and why?
Leonardo diCaprio, just because he's so good-looking! There's not much to say other than that. It was years ago, so I can't remember what I cooked, but celebrities just want simple stuff. I've never had any weird requests from any celebrity that I've cooked for, because they eat out all the time, so the last thing they want is weird stuff when they get home – they just want simple, good, home-cooked food.