Emily Brightman: serving up

Murano's head chef talks to Brummell about honing her skills in the kitchen with Angela Hartnett and eating at Michelin-starred restaurants for homework

Food and Drink 28 Aug 2019

Emily Brightman, head chef of Murano
Brightman brings finesse to rustic Italian cuisine at Murano

I love cooking; it never feels like a chore to me. I started at around aged eight cooking in the kitchen with my mum. We’d always sit together and enjoy homely meals and they were always seasonal. In winter we might have shepherd’s pie or stroganoff, and in the summer we’d eat pasta and ratatouille. We lived next to a boating station and it had a little restaurant. As soon as I was old enough I asked for a job. I started as a kitchen porter washing the dishes.

Shortly after that, I was trying to find work and went to a lot of places for trials, but I could not get a job. I don’t know if that was down to being a female or not. I remember there was one place I went to and the guy actually turned around to me and said: ‘We would only employ women as pastry chefs.’ At the time I didn’t know how the industry worked, so I just said ‘OK’ and left. When I look back now, I’m glad I didn’t get the job. If I saw that guy again I would say, ‘thank you, but you were wrong’.

I think it’s great now that there are more female chefs, but I just do me. As stupid as that sounds, I just cook and if I get the job, I get it, if I don’t, I don’t. To be honest, I want to just be given a job based on my cooking skills and my ability, not because someone says, ‘we need more girls in this kitchen’. One thing that has changed in the industry is the hours. I remember working from 6.30am until midnight – it was a long day. When I started out, working in a restaurant was seen as a bottom-of-the-pile job, but I think people now appreciate what goes into it, which is important. Everyone goes out to eat, if all chefs fell through from being overworked, who’s going to cook for them? You’ve got to look after your staff – it doesn’t work without them at the end of the day.

Everywhere I’ve worked, from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay to Pétrus Restaurant in Knightsbridge, I’ve been lucky enough to work classically, which I think is quite important for Murano as well. It’s been good for me as it’s important as a chef to learn how to cook properly and it’s a skill we shouldn’t lose. A lot of chefs nowadays are just looking for that perfect shot for Instagram and when I see them I think, ‘It looks good but does it taste any good?’ There is a lot of unique food that looks good and tastes great at the same time and that is when a chef is excelling. If you’re going to create a lot of hype on social media you definitely need to portray it when guests come into the restaurant. It should be amazing.

I was appointed head chef at Murano after two years – I started as junior sous chef in 2017 – and I’d say it’s pretty easy for me to add my own personality to the dishes on the menu. I’ll create a dish and Angela will taste it. Some dishes she is completely happy with all the time, other dishes she’ll add her own flair too – it is her name above the door, so it needs to have an element of Angela in there.

There’s a lot of finesse in my training, so I’ll try and add that to the dishes I create.

I recently created a barbecue quail dish for our summer menu. I just love barbecue. I’ve got a Japanese barbecue and it creates such a great flavour, it’s delicious. There’s sweetcorn in there and foie gras, and even if you eat it inside it still has that amazing flavour that evokes al-fresco dining. I’ll push a dish as much as possible to where Angela will still be happy with it being a Murano dish. I like to think I can push Angela as much as she pushes me – it’s a collaboration. It’s about moving the restaurant forward while still keeping it rustic and all about the flavour.

To be a chef you have to work hard – even on your days off. Reading cookbooks and eating out to see what other restaurants are doing is a massive part of growing as a chef. I eat out a lot. I’ll go to a Michelin-starred restaurant once a month – Core is my current favourite. There’s also this great Turkish place in Ladbroke Grove called Fez Mangal – it’s so consistent and delicious. I’m cooking a lot of risotto and rustic Italian dishes when I’m at work, so when I eat out I tend to head for Asian food, New Fortune Cookie in Queensway is great.

It’s so easy to let good advice wash over you, but it’s so important to absorb advice from your mentor. Working for Gordon Ramsay, Clare Smyth and now Angela has been amazing for my career. There are so many chefs who have inspired me in their own way. Gordon was a huge part of why I wanted to go into cooking in the first place. I remember watching him on Boiling Point in the late 1990s – that made me want to go and work there.

My ultimate goal is to open my own restaurant, but there’s a lot to think about first. At the moment I’m happy working alongside Angela. I feel very lucky to be in the industry, I’m very happy and I wouldn’t do anything else. If I couldn’t cook, I don’t know what I’d do. I hope it never happens.