Dom Robinson, Chef Owner, The Blackbird

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th June 2018

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Dom Robinson is the chef owner of The Blackbird in Bagnor, near Newbury.

While at college he worked at Fischer's in Baslow Hall before moving to London at the age of 20 to work at Putney Bridge with Anthony Demetre. He says he was burnt out after a year and a half in the capital so he went travelling for two years and then returned to the kitchen working for Adam Byatt at Thyme in Clapham. He moved on to work with Tom Aikens as his head chef and then he had a complete change and worked in gastro pubs before he moved to Dubai.

He now owns The Blackbird which he took over in August last year, he runs it with a small team including his wife and hopes to achieve a Michelin star.

The Staff Canteen caught up with Dom to find out about his ‘classical’ menu, why he hates tasting menus and his thoughts on the worrying no-show trend.

Talk to us about The Blackbird.

tarte a l'orange low res
tarte a l'orange

Anything that could go wrong did go wrong! It was a bit of an eyeopener to be honest. But we’ve had some great reviews and Michelin came in and tweeted about us which was really nice. There are high points everyday just as there are low points in owning your own restaurant. It’s hard work but it’s equally rewarding.

What is the food style?

I’ve come full circle, I did fine dining for three quarters of my career and then I’ve done gastro pubs in London, I was executive chef in Dubai – so to find out what food I really wanted to cook I’ve gone back to the beginning. I’m using classical techniques and doing classical food – people may call it retro and slag me off for making béchamel but equally I slag them off for their fermenting and foraging.

I’ve done all the gels and dots and swipes and a thousand micro herbs – I look back on it and think I wasn’t putting those extra things on the plate for a reason. Now I put three or four things on the plate and I concentrate on the flavour.

When I was writing the menu for this place I was thinking everyone knows about using all these chemicals and water baths but in 10 to 15 years’ time who will be teaching young chefs how to braise or make a simple béchamel? They won’t know how to use these basic techniques. The thought of losing all the old techniques and recipes worried me quite a bit so I decided to strip everything back – I’m using recipes I used when I was 18 years old at Fischers!

Which dish on the menu best reflects your style?

Duck a l'orange – we marinade the duck, it has a classic fondant potato with a nice orange sauce and some Cointreau and Grand Marnier. People may think it’s old fashioned but that’s where cooking came from, all these old-fashioned dishes. They have to get carried on or they will be forgotten about.

Rising stars 

I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer. To be honest I'm in my own bubble at the moment and not really paying attention to what other people are doing. I want my restaurant to be a star of the future. There are a few people who I'm close to who are doing great things though. 

Giles Langford of the Sun Inn near Pangbourne. We worked together for years. Amazing chef and one of the best cooks I've ever seen. 

Jon Parry of the Mash Inn, Bucks. Jon has a scientific knowledge of fermenting and foraging and his ethos has the right reasons behind it. He's not just jumping on the bandwagon.  

Guilty pleasures  

Haha I have loads. 

Haribo, Fray Bentos pies, chips, battered sausage and mushy peas, cans of Kronenburg the list goes on! 

Top 5 restaurants 

Ravi, Al satwa, Dubai, UAE. It's a Pakistani grill 

 Sushi bar Tokiya on battersea rise, London 

The bull and last in kentish Town, London 

Birdland in Tokyo.  

Fischer's Baslow Hall 

Favourite cookbook (s) 

White heat. Mpw 

Recipes from an English masterchef. John Burton Race.

Nico. Nico Ladenis 

 La Tante claire. Pierre Koffmann 

What do you think about tasting menus?

I hate tasting menus. I used to work in Michelin-starred restaurants which had tasting menus and Friday nights were always the most popular for them and I used to be so bored. I can’t imagine what it is like to just do tasting menu. If I eat out and that’s the option then of course I’ll have it but my personal preference especially in terms of cooking is not tasting menu. I don’t want to cook 50 portions of the same thing every day – I like starter, mains dessert. I’m a dinosaur so I just can’t get my head around modern tasting menus.

A hot topic at the minute is no-shows, does this affect you?

For three consecutive Sunday’s we’ve had a table of six no-show – it only seems to be a problem on a Sunday and I just don’t know where this trend is coming from.

We are going start calling all tables on a Saturday to confirm and if that doesn’t work we will have to start taking credit card details. I don’t know why people do it but not turning up is really bad and it has a real knock on effect for a small place like ours.

The Blackbird interior bar low res
The Blackbird

It didn’t happen when people didn’t know who we were – now we’ve had a few reviews and some nice press, it happens! It’s a very worrying trend.

Why did you want to be a chef?

I always knew I wanted to be a chef from the age of 10, I used to watch cooking programmes like the original MasterChef with Lloyd Grossman and then Gary Rhodes and then I spoke to my careers adviser at school and went to college to study catering.

The whole process of cooking fascinates me from A to Z to be honest. Something as simple as a carrot and the number of things you can do with it and all produce – I just love it.

I don’t know what it is that keeps me in the kitchen because it’s hard work and long hours and I don’t see my family as much as I’d like but I love it, I always have and I suppose it’s a passion.

You worked at Fischer's in Baslow Hall – was Max Fischer a big inspiration?

Yes, he’s number one, he’s the best. His work ethic and the way he cooked were unbelievable.

beef tartare low res
beef tartare

Your first head chef job was with Tom Aikens – how was that?

It was a really full-on kitchen to say the least! And it was quite a full-on way to start my head chef career but it was good and I’m still in touch with Tom – I learned a lot from him.

Having worked in a number of Michelin-starred restaurants what are your thoughts on accolades and do you need them?

Yes, and any chef worth their salt if they say they don’t care about Michelin stars they are either lying or don’t have the confidence or ability to get one. People say fine dining is dead but I don’t agree – it is about Michelin stars, it is about AA Rosettes and white table cloths and perfection in service. You wouldn’t be working these hours if none of that mattered. These guides are about much more than just stars or rosettes and they actually encourage the industry.

Having been a part of the industry for such a long time, what if anything do you dislike about it?

I hate the online review keyboard warriors. All chefs suffer at the hands of these people who write what they want on any site and it’s unregulated. It’s complete lies and as a restaurant it’s damaging and can affect peoples livelihood. If I could, I would just ban websites like TripAdvisor completely.

What do you think about the chef shortage?

I have a small team so it’s not a problem for me but I think the industry has brought it on itself. I think the industry has been glamorised so much that people think it’s going to be really easy, you’ll go into a kitchen and then you’ll end up on TV. What they don’t realise is all the chefs they see on TV have worked their arses off to get there. I don’t think that is conveyed to young people.

wheaten bread low res
wheaten bread

When I started I didn’t care how many hours I was going to work, I’d take a pay cut to go and work somewhere and that doesn’t happen now. Because there is a chef shortage people are now overcompensating and offering higher salaries, less hours and it’s not sustainable.

What advice would you give young chefs?

I’d say don’t worry about the hours you’re going to work or the money, worry about the experience you are going to get. You may want an easy job now where you are working 40 hours but one day when you want your own restaurant and your own Michelin star you’ll be working more than 40 hours a week to get it.

What are your goals for you and the business in the next five years?

I’d love a star, it has always been a goal of mine since I started at 16 and I’ve always had that vision. But also, to get the restaurant to a really high standard, extend the brigade and evolve the food – in ten to fifteen years’ time I’d like to be at a two star level. 

More images from The Blackbird:

The Blackbird Exterior low res
The Blackbird

The Blackbird interior low res
The Blackbird interior 

 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th June 2018

Dom Robinson, Chef Owner, The Blackbird

IN ASSOCIATION WITH