Faith on the job: an interview with Annabel Partridge

Annabel Partridge, 26, is a senior sous chef working for the legendary Skye Gyngell. Claire Musters caught up with her to find out what life is like as a Christian in the busy restaurant industry and why she recently cycled across Europe

Published 14 January 2014  |  
Annabel in the kitchen

Claire: Have you always been passionate about food and cooking?
Annabel: Yes I think I have always been passionate about food…but not necessarily cooking. As a child my weekends revolved around meal times; after breakfast we would plan and cook lunch then after lunch we would plan and cook supper. However I was always known for not being adventurous and always cooking the same dish; chicken and sweetcorn soup. Luckily for my family becoming a chef means I have moved on so they get a bit more variety!

I think my passion for cooking really started at university when I lived with a bunch of boys who loved fishing and shooting. Each week they would turn up with produce, dump it on the kitchen table and get me to cook it!

Claire: How did you first get into the restaurant business?
Annabel: It is all a bit of a cliché but I 'found myself' on a beach in Australia with a best friend. Having just recommitted my life to God, we spent time praying together and both had the sense that I should work at my favourite restaurant at the time, which was Petersham Nurseries. I thought it would be in the front of house, but Nicole said she felt it would be in the kitchen. I joked with her saying that I couldn't cook, had no training and there was no way they'd give me an opportunity but amazingly doors opened.

Claire: When did you first get to work with Skye Gyngell?
Annabel: Four years ago when I turned up to Petersham Nurseries and she offered me a two-week trial in the kitchen. I had no idea what was going on and was pretty useless. We got given lists to prep in the morning and I remember my list had celeriac on it. Well, I went to the back fridge and got out my phone to Google what a celeriac looked like! On another occasion Skye came up to me and asked what I was doing with the discarded puntarelle leaves (a leaf that you don't eat as it's so bitter) – I was washing them thinking it was rocket!

After the two weeks they didn't offer me a job, which wasn't much of a surprise, but I loved it so much that I asked to work for free and by the end of the month they offered me a job. A year later I was made sous chef and then a couple of months later we got a Michelin star.

Annabel with her sister Charlotte

Claire: What has it been like training with a Michelin-starred chef?
Annabel: Skye is brilliant. She is a total genius and the way she relates to produce and food is so inspiring. For her, food is about getting the best of what's in season and putting it on a plate that shows it off in the best possible way. Often the best way to pair food is to have a look at what grows with or near each other in nature. Tomatoes, olives and basil with a peppery olive oil are a match made in heaven and are all from the same area in Tuscany. Nature is always best: when our bodies are run down and we need an extra boost of Vitamin C, oranges and lemons come into season! I definitely agree with Skye that you can't beat nature and therefore should serve what nature is giving at that moment.

Claire: Life behind the scenes in restaurants is often portrayed as cut throat, really tough and, thanks to Gordon Ramsay, full of chefs swearing at their staff! What is it like to be a Christian within that environment?
Annabel: Yes, working in a Michelin-starred restaurant kitchen is VERY stressful. Your brain is working at a thousand miles an hour, mistakes can happen very easily and shouting does happen a lot. However after service the shouting is forgotten about and the team is united, celebrating getting through another stressful day.

When I arrived at Petersham, Skye used to swear a lot, but knowing that I'm a Christian she has stopped and encourages the other chefs to stop too. If she swears by mistake now she always apologises to me after!

It is also brilliant that I can lean on God in many of the stressful moments to bring supernatural peace. On another occasion I spilled a whole pan of boiling water all over my hand. It flared up and started to blister immediately. It was just before service and I was in charge. I grabbed one of the other chefs, who is a Christian, and we went outside to pray for healing. Miraculously the blistering completely went and the pain eased considerably so I was able to go back on the pass for service.

Claire: You must work really long hours – how does that affect your ability to be part of a local expression of church?
Annabel: At the moment I am helping Skye set up a restaurant so fortunately that means working in a development kitchen, which is 9–5. However, when working in a kitchen, I will always prioritise Sunday nights as church time, so ask for that time off of the rota.

I love the fact that the time I have at the moment means I am able to get stuck into a pastorate and lead on Alpha. When the London restaurant opens it will be back to late nights and weekends.

Annabel rode across Europe to raise awareness of The A21 Campaign in ending human trafficking

Claire: How did you first get involved with The A21 Campaign?
Annabel: I first heard about the campaign when my friend Julia Immonen rowed across the Atlantic, following the old slave route, to raise awareness for the charity and the cause of human trafficking. Hearing the fact that there are 27 million slaves around the world today broke my heart and I knew that I had to do something to raise awareness and money.

Claire: I believe you helped to organise the Freedom Challenge – could you explain how that came about? It seems a million miles away from cookery!
Annabel: Freedom Challenge came about due to me cycling nine miles to work every day. I thought I can't row like Julia did, but I could cycle for freedom, and so the idea was started to cycle the modern day slave route from eastern Europe starting in Sofia, Bulgaria right through to London, England.

We had a huge amount of support from Cannondale sponsoring us bikes, Endura sponsoring us all the clothing, the Marriot letting us sleep in their hotels and many more amazing sponsors.

The team of cyclists that came together was amazing. There were ten riders, one of whom was an ex-professional (in the world No 1 Raffa team last year) and three more very experienced riders who helped us. The rest of us made up a collection of pastors, a doctor, a chef, a missionary and Nick Caine, who set up A21 Campaign. We always rode as a group so it took us a while to learn group etiquette from pointing out holes, letting the person behind know if you are slowing down or moving out and, most importantly, letting them know if you are blowing your nose lest they get a surprise face wash!

Claire: Presumably your workplace was behind what you were doing, as you were able to take the time off for training and the actual event?
Annabel: Skye and the guys I work with, along with my family, were so supportive and relentlessly patient with me, constantly turning up to events in cycle gear and having to cram bikes into cars to give me the opportunity to train. I cannot tell you how many times I woke up before the sun to jump on my bike and ride three hours to work, and then home again. My social life went out the window and cycling took over my life.

But knowing that the training was for the challenge and for the cause of human trafficking made it all worthwhile. In all the times that I wanted to give up I would bring it back to the 'one'; to the one individual whose life is trapped in darkness, who has no freedom, who is sold repeatedly to be sexually abused and who deals with it by becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. My small amount of pain was nothing to what these girls are going through and if the challenge would help save even one then it was all worthwhile.

Claire: What was your biggest challenge during the cycling challenge?
Annabel: I think I went through some of the worst days of my life, alongside the best. The physical challenge of pushing your body for five hours a day on the smallest seat known to mankind with your legs spinning constantly is going to wear you down and on one day it broke me. I think I cried solidly for three hours and, although it was in the Netherlands, which is dead flat, the wind was horrible. But it was days like that one that the team really shone. Without saying anything suddenly the team formed a dome round me and all cycled at my pace, with one guy behind giving me a gentle push if I needed it, making sure that I was totally covered from the wind and able to get through the day.

I think what added to the pain was cycling through one town where we passed over 50 brothels with girls in the windows. And then there were the empty windows. We all knew that if there was no girl in the window it meant she was in the back servicing a man. Eighty-five per cent of girls in the brothels are trafficked.

Another hard day was cycling the Grossglockner – the highest mountain pass in Austria. It was definitely the toughest mental challenge – 43 miles pretty much all uphill. During the final ascent I was going so slowly that if I had stopped pedaling the bike would have fallen over. But what helped me up was repeating to myself Philippians 4:13: 'I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.' It felt like I was defying the impossible and it was God who got me to the top. Once there the elation that I felt was incredible and we all had a dance party…but the harsh reality kicked in that although for me the pain had stopped for the girls we were cycling for the pain doesn't.

Annabel and the rest of the A21 cycle team after crossing the finishing line

God was with us during the whole trip. Both Kate and I, the two girl cyclists, had bad knees going into the challenge. Maria, our physio and masseuse, had a look at my knee and, without telling me, told the others that I was not even going to last the first day – even going up and down stairs was agony. But after the team prayed for us I got on my bike and the only thing I can put it down to was God doing a miracle as I had little, if any, knee pain for the whole 11 days. God was so faithful and good to us as not one of us got too ill to ride, and there were no bad accidents.

I realise I will never know the true ripple effect that the Freedom Challenge will have but Galatians 6 tells us to never stop doing good and that one day we will reap a harvest. I believe that this harvest will come and many girls will be saved from darkness and given a life of freedom.

Claire: You also run a pop up restaurant once a month, Supper in a Pear Tree, which combines a drawing class with your artist sister Charlotte with a three-course meal cooked by yourself. How did that idea come about, and what it is it like working with your sister?

Annabel: Two years ago, while lying on a sun bed in Italy, Charlotte and I had the initial idea. We came home, bought a tiny portable oven and mismatched plates from a charity shop. We never thought that two years on it would still be going strong, fully booked and we still use the same tiny oven and crockery!

Working with Charlotte is awesome. It's like working with a best friend. I love to debrief life with her and doing Supper in a Pear Tree means that she has to listen to a good seven-hour debrief! We also have a lot of fun together behind the scenes and she always knows how to calm me down in the kitchen. She is also my biggest fan in terms of my food so really encourages me. There are small challenges that most sisters have, such as petty arguments, but these seem to resolve themselves seconds after the words have been spoken.

Claire: Is there anything that you would still love to achieve in your career?
Annabel: I know that there's still lots more for me to achieve, seeing the London restaurant open and being Skye's sous chef there will be a challenge – but an exciting one.

Do you have other goals in your life you want to see fulfilled?
Annabel: I would love a family, and I know too that God has got other fantastic ventures for me so I wait in excited anticipation!

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