Meet NCOTY finalist April Lily Partridge, chef at The Ledbury, London
April Lily’s career started at the age of 16 at the original Ivy in Covent Garden, part of the Caprice Holdings Group. It was an amazing foundation for her to learn the basics under the guidance of Gary Lee who really mentored her, gave her the belief she could go as far as she wanted and told her to never give up.
After five years in the Caprice Holdings Group working at The Ivy, 34 and The Club at the Ivy, she decided to step it up a gear with the blessing and encouragement of Gary and executive chef, Tim Hughes. April Lily moved to The Clove Club in Shoreditch and describes this as a real game changer as this was the moment she really understood the direction her career was going in and the style of food and cuisine she wanted to cook. Just eighteen months later, she moved to America to fulfil her dream of living in New York and worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown. This was a breath-taking moment in her career and enabled her to understand the importance of farming and agriculture and the relationship between chefs and suppliers. Doing farm chores every week, from chicken slaughter to harvesting vegetables, changed her perspective on food completely. It made her realise that until now her knowledge had been limited and there was such a lot to learn. Chef Dan Barber taught her the importance of breeding seeds and animals for flavour in a way that is both sustainable for the environment and delicious. April Lily came back to London with a whole new appreciation for food and a new vision for the chef she wanted to become. That year in New York was one of the hardest times in her career, but probably the most important. When looking for work in London, she knew the next step needed to be big and daunting, so she decided to go to the one restaurant that had always scared her, The Ledbury. She had staged there five years earlier and believed she would be “eaten alive” as she didn’t feel she was anywhere near good enough to work there. However, this time she was ready for the challenge. April Lily describes The Ledbury as the best restaurant she has ever worked at as the food is delicious, skilful, thoughtful, passionate, intense and uncompromised. Brett Graham has been the best mentor she has had, teaching her to cook and grow in a way she had always hoped to, and she is so proud to say she was a chef there. Her plan was to stay there for at least three years, but unfortunately due to COVID-19, it has shut its doors for now.
April Lily wanted to become a chef because she simply loves cooking. Being able to turn something so basic and humble, like bones and water, into an incredible sauce is something she finds amazing. She loves working with suppliers and showcasing their beautiful produce and knows how food can make people happy and emotional, so she enjoys being part of those special moments. It is a role where you can always strive towards a new goal and this keeps her on her toes and pushes her to be the best chef possible.
The fact she is now a chef is actually a bit of a joke amongst her family as growing up she was a terribly fussy eater! She admits that even a bribe to go to Disneyland from her dad would not get her to eat fruit as a child. When she was younger, she always wanted to be an artist and sees cooking as an art with the plates as her canvas.
She told us that it was impossible to mention just one person who has inspired her career. Her step-dad is a chef and he has always pushed her and given her amazing advice in the kitchen. Along with her mum, they have been her biggest support from the get-go. Her boyfriend is also an incredible chef who inspires her every single day through his natural talent and desire to succeed. They would love to open a restaurant together in the future and constantly motivate each other to achieve their goals, both alone and together. However, her biggest inspiration has been Brett Graham. He is the chef she aspires to be like as his knowledge and energy are unstoppable. She said: “Not only is he the most talented chef I have ever worked for, but he is one of the most genuine and kind people. To have people think so highly of you in both regards is my ultimate goal.”
The most memorable day in her career was when she had a trial at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. The day began with their morning meeting where over 40 cooks sat at a huge, long table for an hour, talking and listening to the farmers describe the day’s harvest and trying everything as it was passed around. Chef Dan Barber challenged everyone with questions and answers that blew her mind. Then she went into the kitchen to help create a menu using the fresh ingredients which had been picked that day. With only a matter of hours until the guests arrived, she said it was spontaneous and charming in the most delicious and hectic way. April Lily helped to plate a few dishes and got hustled in the background, feeling both nervous and excited. As the service came to an end, chef Dan sent her to the dining room to eat and she said it was the most memorable meal of her life with the most delicious vegetables she had ever eaten. This was a meal which changed her life and she walked back into the kitchen and cried. Later that day, she called her mum and told her this is where she had to work.
After years of questioning herself and her ability as a chef, April Lily felt this year she could compete for the title of National Chef of the Year and she was ready for this challenge. She wants to be a great chef one day and says that only comes from going out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself. Putting an entry together did bring some challenges, as when COVID-19 first hit, the shops were sparse on ingredients, so it was hard to develop the menu, but she just adapted and worked with it.
During lockdown, herself and her boyfriend were helping at The Notting Hill Fish Shop to get the best quality ingredients to customers like Fresh Fish, HG Walters Meat, Neal Yard Cheeses and Flourish Produce, to name a few. She said it was amazing to help the community in such a hard time and also learn a different side of the industry which she hadn’t explored before. They both loved working front line with customers. April Lily also helped HG Walters once a week during some of lockdown doing butchery.
As soon she read the brief for the second round, she knew what she was going to showcase - Pie and Mash. She is an East London girl and she remembers it being very “cockney” to go and eat this dish growing up. Her dad used to take her, his dad used to take him and so it’s a very fond food memory. She felt it would be a great way to talk about her humble beginnings and refine the dish to show how she has grown as both a cook and a person.
With 2020 being such a tough year for everyone in the industry, she feels this would be an amazing year to win NCOTY. The competition gave her a way of staying focused, despite being made redundant. She would also love to be the first woman to win the title, however, she says gender is irrelevant when it comes to cooking. It is simply about who cooks the best food on the day. To be successful she believes you need a love for food and a drive to achieve as well as a good attitude to always want to improve and take criticism constructively. She believes that chefs need a pure undeniable love for ingredients and cooking and a desire to create something delicious at all costs. Flavourful, humble and real are the three words she would use to describe her style of cooking.