Chantelle Nicholson’s love affair with food began with summers spent at her aunt and uncle’s orchard in New Zealand. ‘I remember tasting my first cherry and biting into juicy peaches straight off the tree,’ she reminisces. ‘My aunt would spend four days preserving fruit, so that when we returned in winter we could gorge on jars of apricots and greengages. It was heaven.’ While studying law at the nearby Otago University, Nicholson pursued her culinary passion part time in a café and restaurant. She followed her legal career to Wellington, but the itch to cook remained.
In 2004, she entered a Gordon Ramsay cooking competition on a whim and made it to the finals where she met Josh Emett, then head chef of Marcus Wareing’s Savoy Grill in London. Emett offered her a job, she accepted on the spot and packed her bags.
‘I didn’t sleep a wink before my first day at The Savoy and turned up wearing completely inappropriate red sneakers with my hair in pigtails,’ laughs Nicholson. Her first month was exhausting. ‘I went from seven-hour law days to eighteen hours in the kitchen, yet I loved every second. There were so many new techniques to learn; so many exciting ingredients that weren’t available in New Zealand.’
Two years later, Wareing asked Nicholson to join his team at Pétrus. Gunning for its second Michelin star, it was a pressurised and gruelling environment. ‘Pétrus was a fiercely male kitchen,’ recounts Nicholson. ‘It was dominated by strong egos that thrived off putting people down. There were so many gifted young cooks and I could see they were becoming discouraged.’
Nicholson voiced her frustrations to Wareing and it was this honesty that marked the start of a strong working relationship. Before long, she was assisting beyond the kitchen with cookbooks and the operational side of the restaurants, as well the daunting task of opening The Gilbert Scott as general manager in 2011. She credits this experience as her most valuable learning curve.
I worked flat out for one year without taking a single day off. It was so rewarding to build a restaurant from scratch
‘I worked flat out for one year without taking a single day off. It was so rewarding to build a restaurant from scratch.’ In 2014, a glimpse of a vacant building in Seven Dials led Nicholson to enquire after the site that is now Tredwells, the largest of Wareing’s three restaurants. As Tredwells’ chef patron and operations director of Wareing’s restaurant empire, Nicholson is a busy woman, yet she remains determined to stay hands-on in the kitchen. ‘You need to observe your team to be able to nurture them,’ she maintains. ‘If a chef is at their best capacity during an eight-hour shift, then I will never force them to work thirteen hours.’ With her first solo cookbook almost complete and numerous charity projects on the go, Nicholson is continually looking ahead.
‘I recently judged a chef competition for 12 to 16-year-olds that had an astounding 18,000 entries. But then if you look at the London scene in general, there is a chef shortage. We need to understand why this drop off is happening and to promote the message to the young that this industry offers a fantastically rewarding career path.’
Surely there is no more inspiring an example than Nicholson herself? She smiles. ‘Honestly, I adore every single aspect of my job. And I believe that anyone who is truly passionate can make a success of it too.’