By Colin Gannon
Growing up in the Haugh household, in an amiable, neighbourly Tallaght community in Dublin, everything was cooked from scratch. “I had no idea I would become a chef,” says Anna Haugh, who is due to open up a brand new restaurant in London this month inspired by the late Myrtle Allen.
Spurred on by her parents’ hands-on approach to cooking — who she maintains are responsible for the world’s best sandwiches — Haugh enrolled in a professional cookery course in Dublin city.
The budding chef was given the opportunity of a lifetime following her course graduation: A highly coveted job at L’ecrivain — a Michelin-starred French-Irish hybrid, run by celebrity chef and restaurateur Derry Clarke. “What an incredible kitchen to start to learn your trade,” Haugh says.
Later, Haugh emigrated to Spain, onto France, and then to UK, finding herself ensconced in London. Experiences in various countries, culinary or otherwise, taught her as much about herself as it did the world.
“We were encouraged by other chefs to travel and learn as much as we could: I thought that this is what an ambitious chef should do,” she says. “I was wasn’t wrong. It makes you a stronger person when you travel. You need to be strong, mentally at least, to succeed in a good kitchen.”
Now rooted in London, surrounded by like-minded peers who make up the most exciting London-Irish food scene ever, Haugh is “extremely fond” of the sprawling mega-city. Her boyfriend — Richard — is English, but she treasures her Irish roots. “I still and would imagine until the worms get hold of me, call myself Irish Irish.”
While in London Haugh became a protege of Gordon Ramsey, a demanding yet reasonable boss, Haugh says. She learned plenty from his trademark stubbornness and perfectionism. “If you said you were going to do something, then you better do it, and do it well,” Haugh explains. “I respect this mindset.”
On a personal level, as anyone will tell you, London can be difficult and labyrinthian. As a chef, along with the true but cliched learn-from-your-mistakes coda, Haugh holds up her dearest friendships as ways to keeping her grounded. It’s important, she says, to “take care of friendships; take care of them because then they will take care of you.”
“As a chef you are only as good as the network that support you, your friends are your first brigade,” she says. “I am blessed with friends, without them I would not be who I am or where I am.”
The recently released Murphia list — which highlights and impact and deep influence Irish people have on the food and drinks scene in London — included Haugh as a newcomer. “Highlighting talents is a great thing,” she notes.
Using her learnt cooking nous, Haugh is opening a new restaurant, fondly called Myrtle Allen after the famous Irish chef who passed away last year, in Chelsea. It’s always been a longtime goal of her’s, yet, despite putting much of her savings into the move, she’s still waiting for full self-approval in the move (“I mean, what in god’s name am I doing?”).
Chiefly, the restaurant intends to follow in the footsteps of one of Irish cooking’s luminary names, someone who brought Irish ingredient-focused culinary excellence to the fore — almost single-handedly.
“Everything to do with Mrs Allen, Darina Allen and Ballymaloe is solid quality food. Their approach to foraging is as foraging should be. They certainly were doing it before we thought it was trendy.”
But it also as a second meaning, Haugh tells the Irish World. “The Myrtle tree has berries that we are infusing in Potin, to be turned into a signature cocktail,” she says. “I like the sound of the name and I think it gives the impression of a nice restaurant.”
Haugh thought the chosen site was perfect when she first viewed it. Haugh hopes that the locals in the plush neighbourhood of Chelsea will view it was a piece of the area’s furniture: Somewhere people can walk down the street and, instantly, become regulars.
The finer details of the new restaurant — staff recruitment, supply chains, decor — all went smoothly, and Haugh speaks proudly of the Irish-sourced produce which includes beef from Ireland (mainly around the Burren region; “amazing” potatoes from Ballymakenny farm; Cais na Tire cheese from Tipperary; and smoked fish from the Burren Smokehouse.
Powers far outside of her control may also have profound ramifications on Haugh’s new business, and she is acutely aware of the dangers posed by Brexit to small businesses.
She answers brusquely to whether she is fearful about prices being driven up: “Yes, I am terrified. As we don’t really know what is going to happen all we can do is watch the budgets. If the produces gets more expensive then we have to figure out a way to afford using it.”
The restaurant itself — a modern European restaurant with a pronounced Irish influence — was the logical next step in her career. “I love the food I was trained to cook,” she says. “I’m just introducing a little more of me to it.”
What has the experience been like then? Tougher than, or just as tough, as she expected? “The experience has been amazing, it’s hard but it feels like what I should be doing,” she says. “When something feels right you should keep pushing on.”