(Ha. For the big reveal you'll have to read to the end ...)
At 31, Healey is a hands-on chef at the top of her game. Her Alchemilla restaurant on Glasgow’s Finnieston strip is the busiest it’s been since she opened it two years ago with business partner Fergus McVicar. She is still basking in a recent glowing review from a well-known London critic [Jay Rayner of The Observer; click to read the review] who described her food as “a thoughtful mix of great ideas and ingredients which are never overworked … the product of extremely good taste”. In fact, it is the latest in a long list of positive reviews and feedback.
Taking time out of her relentless routine, she slips into an upstairs seat for our rare interview. “That [most recent] review was quite a game-changer because not only has it made us busier, it was also an endorsement that I am doing something right,” she begins. “You need someone you respect to tell you you’re making something of quality. It’s like an art critic judging an exhibition of your work.”
In fact, the visual side of food is paramount to Healey, whose dyslexia did not hinder her from gaining a degree in Fine Art Photography at the Glasgow School of Art six years ago after leaving Notre Dame High School in the city’s West End with Highers in English and Food Technology.
“I was always photographing food,” she says. “I did a series of pictures of my grandmother and her church friends every Sunday for six months, recording what they ate in the church hall. They had proper lunches at the Church of Scotland in Dalmuir for just £2. I called my collection The Luncheon Club. That’s when I realised I should probably cook.”
As a student she and her friends ran a 12-foot diner, catering events and exhibition openings. She went on to work as a manager at the Peckhams deli in Glasgow’s West End, where she learned about cheese and charcuterie; at the late, lamented Heart Buchanan deli, where she worked with founder Fi Buchanan in private dining; and at Mhairi Taylor’s Delizique deli, also in the West End.
“I loved it all but felt I needed to step up, so one Monday morning I sent a letter with my CV to Yotam Ottolenghi,” she recalls. By the Thursday that same week, she was in London.
She did two full trials – the “most difficult experience of my life” – and at the end of day two, Sami Tamimi [Ottolenghi’s business partner and co-author] called her to the upstairs office and offered her a place at the Nottinghill branch, starting in two weeks’ time. “He said I was a bit slow but they could see I had the knowledge and skills and were prepared to invest in me.” She went on to work at busier branches, learning to move at great speed to serve the constant queues of customers.
Healey is one of a slowly-growing band of female chefs. Why aren’t there more? “It’s a mostly male environment which can be hugely intimidating,” she says. “When I went to work with Ottolenghi the Pastry and Savoury sections were equal size teams. Pastry was all women, Savoury all men. I worked in Savoury. You have to fight your corner, work extra hard to show you’re capable. I used to get all the crap jobs, like chopping aubergines for hours on end, or roasting vegetables. But my knife skills improved tremendously!”
It was a transformative experience. “I learned I was good at cooking,” she says. “At monthly chefs’ meetings, we’d bring dishes we thought could go on the menu. I’d take six, and they’d always pick some of them.” Her green bean salad with deep-fried shredded kale, hazelnuts, confit orange and zest, and a Japanese salad with kohlrabi, chillies , pineapple and sesame seed were two of the dishes Ottolenghi put on his menu – and even tweeted about.
“Through that I gained confidence, and learned how to work really quickly and organise myself well,” she says. “I realised cooking doesn’t have to have lots of technique to be delicious.”
Ottolenghi’s food is exactly what she loves – fresh, vibrant, seasonal – so how does hers differ?
“My food is inspired by the colours of ingredients,” she replies. “Colour is as important as anything else and is often the starting point for me.
“My cooking takes huge care and time. It looks very simple on the plate but it’s not. The complexity is in the flavour rather than in what you see.
“I cook beautiful dishes. My food is not played with. I don’t do puffs, gels, foams, ices and water baths. To me, that kind of cooking is very male, and more about showing off the chef rather than what’s delicious to eat.”
She especially enjoys working with her hands, though her dyslexia means when doing pastry she has to concentrate and follow recipes, which is “quite challenging”. “All the best chefs began in Pastry, as it requires precision and skill,” she says, “but I love cooking savoury food best.”
Her current brigade is 5:2 women to men. “Working with women chefs is so refreshing. We work well together, and so hard, and nobody’s trying to take charge or be at the top. There’s a complete lack of ego. I’ve never experienced that before.
“Though on a busy Friday or Saturday evening, customers will go to the boys to thank them for their meal, assuming they are the ones in charge.” (continues ...)
An interesting aspect of Healey’s menu – and what perhaps makes it stand out from rivals in the crowded Finnieston strip - is that it’s gluten-free with virtually no starch or carbs, and very little dairy. Neither does she do chips or offer bread (though it can be ordered); the menu is heavy on plants. The wine she describes as “cloudy and weird”. And yet she is serving around 600 diners a week, including three sittings at weekends.
The irony is not lost on her. “Glaswegians are eating veg and gluten-free food without realising it,” she smiles. “People trust us that it will be nice. That’s just so wonderful.”
Now she has plans to open a natural wine bar on Glasgow’s South Side. It will be called Mama Tarwah (a play on ‘terroir’) and will serve “simple, delicious” snacks inspired by La Bavette in Paris. “It will serve very simple food, inspired by La Bavette in Paris, with small plates such as butter beans with lemon zest and salt to eat with a glass of wine,” she says.
And with that, she scans her busy kitchen from on high, offers her apologies and makes a dash back to the place which is, after all, her true comfort zone.
(* This exclusive interview was first published in The Herald Luxury Magazine, July 5, 2018.)