Christopher Woodward, Garden Museum Director
George Ryle our Head Chef is leaving the Garden Café after five and a half years, returning to his native Yorkshire with his family – where he plans to set up a restaurant of his own. We’ll keep George’s fans and friends updated of his plans.
In 2017 we had built our new restaurant, an extension of glass and bronze. But with two months to re-opening we had no one to cook in our gleaming new kitchen. We hadn’t found the right franchise to fit with our ethos the financial realities which come with such an intimate (read, small) scale. So – unlike the great majority of Museums, who outsource their catering – we decided to run the restaurant ourselves. But who would be the chef?
We were told of two talented young friends who wanted to work together for the first time, Harry Kaufman and George Ryle. Harry and George cooked a lunch in the garden of our Trustee, Nicola Shulman. She and I can still remember the exploding frisson of a dish of asparagus with foraged wild garlic. Harry and George became the Garden Café. (‘Also, I think they would contribute to a cheery atmosphere in the museum generally’ observed Nicola after that tasting, perceptively; if you hear laughter from the kitchen as you’re paying your bill, that’s George and his team).
Two months after opening Jay Rayner wrote in The Observer a review of which every chef dreams, describing the surprise of grapes with skate wing and a gooseberry fool: ‘This is the restaurant London never knew it needed’. And suddenly you could not get a table. (Another early reviewer commented that not having salt and pepper on the tables was ‘a sign of confidence in the cooking’. In truth, we didn’t have enough money, then, to go out and buy the pots).
In 2018 Leading Culture Destinations judged the Garden Café the best restaurant in any cultural venue in the world, up against galleries in Singapore and Los Angeles; last year, in Time Out, the best outdoor dining space in London. Harry left two years ago, to set up The Clarence Tavern in Stoke Newington – and now George is off to Yorkshire. He will be missed, as George is not only one of the best chefs in London but one of the nicest people anyone will ever work with. (During this summer’s ‘Secret Garden’ exhibition they came up with a special pasta dish for kids. The adults wanted it too).
It is a huge achievement to have conjured a destination restaurant out of a corner of a garden, in a part of London not on the culinary map. And why does the Café fit so well with the Garden Museum? I pondered this when George wrote the cookbook. Yes, we pick herbs but the menu is not, in truth, from the garden. The relationship is deeper: it is about authenticity and process. George respects ingredients like a gardener respects plants. And, also, has the rigour of process that you observe in the best gardeners. George’s recipe for pork crackling is as meticulous and patient as the build up to a moon launch. But it is the best pork crackling I’ve ever tasted. And each morning the team bakes its own bread, rolls pasta, and peels the skin off broad beans, with the same expertise and patient materiality as gardeners.
For a Museum to run its own restaurant is five times as much work as out-sourcing it. But it is worth it five times over when you get the right team – and such a happy clientele. Next week we’ll introduce you to our new Head Chef but this week we salute George and wish him, Vanessa, and their beautiful toddler Marcello well in their new life in Yorkshire.