Dee Laffan caught up with chef Robin Gill at Ballymaloe Litfest last month to chat about his work, the future and if a restaurant in Ireland is on the cards.
Irish chef Robin Gill has achieved a lot throughout his career, and now with four acclaimed London restaurants under his belt, it’s clear he has nailed the recipe for success. “My team is really important; they’re the backbone,” explained Robin, as we sat chatting in a cosy corner of Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, County Cork. Robin was over to take part in the 2017 Ballymaloe Food and Drink Literacy Festival.
“Everyone in the kitchen has an opinion. I remember as a young chef that I used to get so bored doing the same dishes over and over again. I wasn’t able to change the dishes because I was just a chef de partie. I understand that if you’re a one or two-star starred restaurant you can’t have junior guys changing the menus, but you end up not having the same passion for it. At The Dairy, I had two guys that I had worked with for many years and who I really valued. One day while writing a menu I asked them, ‘how are we going to do this?’ We collaborated on the very first menu and that started a new culture. From then on we had the three of us working in the same kitchen, brainstorming constantly. It always starts with the ingredients, talking about what’s in season or what’s coming in from a certain farm. Once we have that we say ‘right, what will we do with it?’ There are always three people driving that process and tasting it. Once we’re happy, we get the staff to taste it and then it goes on the menu. The menu develops more quickly because of it, it changes constantly, improves and progresses. You also have people who are more involved in the restaurant. People who have put their stamp on the plate and are proud of it. They’re not just doing my food, they are doing their food and that’s the difference,” he explains.
“I didn’t set out to have everyone as part of the restaurant, but a restaurant can’t run with just one person running it. That’s just a fact. I am not a glory hunter. I get embarrassed when people thank me personally and say ‘you and your staff are great’ or ‘your staff are great, well done to you’ – I literally cringe! I don’t even like the words ‘your staff’ – it’s like I own them or something. I don’t own them. I’m very fortunate that they’ve helped us achieve what we’ve achieved and that’s the way I see it. It almost seems a bit cunning, but it’s not, it’s just practical. It makes sense to me. Every decision I make, I run by everyone and see what they think. Or they might suggest something and then we go through it together.”
The Dairy was Robin’s first restaurant, followed by The Manor, Paradise Garage and Counter Culture to complete the portfolio of four. In addition he has recently signed a contract to run the restaurant, tearoom and two whiskey bars in The Great Scotland Yard Hotel, which is under construction and due to open just off Trafalgar Square in 2018. While each of the four restaurants have their own unique character, there is a balance and familiarity across all menus that can be traced back to Robin’s clear food ethos and which is the foundation of all that he does.
“With The Dairy, I took six months off work on a sabbatical and did stages in lots of places in Scandinavia, France, and Spain. I ate everywhere I’ve always wanted to eat and went all over the UK visiting suppliers,” he recalls. “In Scandinavia and in Paris I noticed that there was this modern bistro movement, where the food is incredible, but where the atmosphere is the opposite to a fine dining restaurant. In fact, it’s like Coppinger Row in Dublin. My friend Ed is the head chef there and I remember going and having great food. The music is absolutely banging, cocktails are flowing and the place is buzzing every single night, you feel like you’re having a party when you go there. That was a big influence on me and that’s what I wanted for The Dairy.”
“On the food side, all my restaurants share the same ethos. It’s a back to basics approach, which is especially true in The Dairy. I try to create the closest thing to a farmhouse experience in the city, so everything is made from scratch. The produce is the most important thing; we’ve worked very hard over a number of years to find the best suppliers we can. We’re always searching. We make all our own charcuterie and bread; we have our own beehives and honey, we grow our own vegetables, and all our fish is supplied by a third generation fisherman with a family-owned business down in Cornwall. I’m confident in saying that we get the best ingredients; there are only a handful of restaurants in London that can get their hands on the same ingredients and that’s down to hard work from the whole team. I’m very lucky with the crew that I work with; Richie,the head chef in The Dairy; Dean the head chef in The Manor, and Simon who is head chef in Paradise Garage. I’ve worked with them for years, since before The Dairy opened”
Future plans and dreams
As Robin’s business is set up with such an amazing team, it allows him the time needed to hop on a plane home to Ireland to visit family and friends or, to take part in a food festival. With such strong connections to Ireland, and as a massive advocate for Irish ingredients, rumours are always rife about if and when he’ll open a restaurant at home.
“I’d love to open a restaurant in Ireland. There would be two approaches to think about,” he explains. “I’d love to do something in Dublin city, somewhere around Camden Street, where it’s a little more local and away from the main tourist areas. Probably something small like Counter Culture. That would work well and it would be fun with music and a small team. But, I guess, the real dream would be to have something somewhere like Enniskerry, County Wicklow, something like a mini Ballymaloe. That would be the absolute dream. Especially after coming to cook at Litfest and seeing the produce here in Ballymaloe. You’re literally pulling potatoes out of the ground in the morning to cook for lunch. It would have to have rooms, that would be important because you would want it to be a destination that people would come to – Ireland’s version of Blue Hill at Stone Barns [New York], that would be my dream. For now it’s definitely only a dream, but never say never. You don’t know what could happen!”
With Robin’s food ethos and success to date, no doubt any venture he opened in Ireland would follow suit. The Dairy was awarded a Bib Gourmand and perhaps the lure of a Michelin star might keep him busy back in the UK. “I was chasing the Michelin before I opened The Dairy,” Robin admits. “I wanted to have a Bib Gourmand, which is basically an award for great food at a good price. I wanted to be seen as good value for money and we achieved that. We’d been very fortunate to have some serious chefs from all around the world eat with us – Dan Barber, Claude Bosi, Michel Roux Jr, Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Monica Galetti – all of these people had eaten in the restaurant and said that they couldn’t understand why we didn’t have a star. Then, the Michelin awards came around. We had made a lot of improvements to the kitchen,the team had grown, and all of these respected chefs had said we deserved one, and we thought we would get one. Then when we didn’t get it, we were shocked!”
“Now, we don’t think about it. I can see the positives obviously, but also the negatives too. If we got a star I’d be thinking about what dish they ate and does that mean we have to keep that on all the time? I don’t want to be a restaurant that is anchored like that, or for our clientele to change because we have a star. It might make us more fearful,” he explained.
“And I wouldn’t like it if people came in with certain expectations, especially at The Dairy. If The Manor got one, it’d be well deserved,it has more space and it’s not as loud and doesn’t have all the hustle and bustle, it’s fine. But in The Dairy, the music is pumping and if people walked in because we had a star and expected white tablecloths they would be disappointed! I like that people walk in through the door of The Dairy and are not sure what to expect, but are pleasantly surprised. I don’t want it to change. I’d rather have a full restaurant with shabby toilets, than a star with a half empty restaurant and huge expectations.”
“But I wouldn’t say no to one either!” he bursts out laughing.