The Urban Farmer – An Interview with Chef Robin Gill
It’s an overcast Wednesday and I’m on the rooftop of John Lewis on Oxford Street where I’m due to meet chef Robin Gill. The roof has been transformed into a beautifully preened garden for The Gardening Society: a pop-up restaurant where he is kicking off his one month residency. With two days to go before opening, we take one of the outdoor tables amongst the flowers and herbs with the London skyline as a backdrop. This is no ordinary restaurant and no ordinary chef.
Apron still on, Robin sits down fresh from the kitchen and full of energy. “I just fell into it” he reflects on his early career. Not something you expect (Michel Roux Jr boasts Robin’s restaurant The Dairy as one of his favourites). It’s clear he is not one to sit in triumph, and seems nervous in the lead up to the opening of his latest venture. Despite the serenity of the rooftop garden, there is a sense of anticipation in the air as final deliveries arrive, photographers snap the surroundings and various PR people swarm around getting everything ready. This nervous edge fuels the steely determination of the chef who now has four restaurants to his name: The Dairy, The Manor, Paradise Garage and Counter Culture. An impressive feat for somebody who ‘fell into’ cooking.
I visited The Dairy for the first time a couple of weeks ago. In London, restaurants can blend into one unless something really special presents itself: this was really special. I knew this when our gorgeously warm sourdough arrived in a little woven bag along with a stone smeared with smoked bone marrow butter. It was beautifully presented, and what’s more, the quality was stellar. His buzzing energy and enthusiasm makes it clear he is a chef who is not afraid to experiment.
Robin recalls how he loved school, “I was always messing and I had a lot of friends”. He toyed with being an electrician for a while but says adamantly “the moment I stepped into the kitchen it was like an extension of school: in the classroom you’re behind the scenes, and in the kitchen you’re behind the scenes”. At the time though, he was just pleased to tell his parents he found something. He travelled to London armed with a tube map and a Michelin guide, where he knocked on kitchen doors handing in cover letters. The pavement pounding paid off and he found himself working in Marco Pierre White’s The Oak Room. He learned a huge amount here but admits the lifestyle was ‘nuts’.
With a desire to learn new things and a travelling bug that wouldn’t go away, he upped sticks and went to Italy where he worked in a restaurant with its own farm. This stint was massively inspiring for the young chef as The Dairy famously boasts its own rooftop kitchen garden and beehives. On his return to London, he worked at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saison and continued his on-the-job classical training. His time spent working in these very different restaurants lay the foundation for the style he cooks in today: seasonal food executed with finesse in unpretentious surroundings.
I’m interested to know what Robin makes of the Dublin food scene. “I’m gonna piss a lot of people off, but the best thing that happened in Dublin was actually the recession.” I’m intrigued. “It brought a lot of creativity back to the city and it meant that people who were creative had an opportunity to get into it.” For him, the Celtic Tiger years represented a dark time in dining which was dominated by “people with huge amounts of money who had no taste”. White leather couches and helipads come to mind. “That killed creativity and real craftsmanship”, something he feels has firmly returned to the capital. He sees more opportunities now that weren’t there when he was starting out as “people are more experimental in their eating”. He reflects that his style of cooking wouldn’t have been welcomed then as “everyone wanted well done beef”.
I ask him what he thinks is our best resource in Ireland. “Seafood. Dairy too… and meat”. He admires the work that JP McMahon does to showcase Irish food and the wave of restaurants across the country which follow that ethos, noting Mews in Cork and Harry’s Shack in Derry. They are doing something really exciting and all without the traffic that a capital city brings. For him, such enterprising should be nurtured.
As we come to the end of our meeting, an industrious brunette asks Robin if he’d like to check on the dishes before they’re photographed. He would, but he hesitates, pointing out that his fellow chefs can do it. This mutual respect for each other’s work within the industry is something that seems very important to him. He set up Bloodshot last year, a late night supper club for food industry workers where they can enjoy great food by a guest chef each month. Collaboration and camaraderie: he is a chef’s chef.
What next for him? “I’ve tried to leave London several times” he recalls with a tinge of humour. Though he admits “it’s such a high paced city that if you can do well, you can do extremely well”, and extremely well he is doing. All for the guy who ‘fell into’ the kitchen: and lucky for us he did.
You can catch Robin at Taste of Dublin in the Iveagh Gardens June 16th-19th.
Sarah is among many Irish people living in London, where she delights in exploring its exciting food scene. She is passionate about food markets, spending her weekends trawling around Borough market grazing, chatting and stocking up on all things edible.
She dedicates a blog to her adventures in the markets, from her local farmers market to those she happens upon on her travels. Writing for TheTaste allows her to share tales from the food front line with fellow eager eaters.