'For this to be a full-circle project - that would be the absolute dream'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

In August 2021, a group of ambitious people - a chef, a baker, an entrpreneur, a designer and a gardener - opened Birch.

Located on Theobald Estate in Hertfordshire, Birch has only been a hotel since 2006, prior to which it was a privately-owned estate, a temporary rehousing site for Londoners displaced in WWII, a school - and briefly, a horse riding facility for the Metropolitan police.

We spoke to chef Robin Gill, owner of Bermondsey Larder, Darby's and the man behind the food offering at Birch, about how the project came about and how he envisions its future as a self-sustaining haven just outside of the capital.

Valerie and The Zebra Riding Club

As well as being a members' club, where professionals can come for meet-ups or to work alone, Birch is like the ultimate staycation location - much more involved than a simple hotel getaway, the kind of place where you immerse yourself and need for nothing from the outside world - with everything from swimming to foraging and yoga on offer.

"There really is a lot to get involved in," Robin explained. "There's a great music programme, there's loads of activities from outdoor yoga to spinning classes, a pottery studio, glassblowing..."

"There's people doing talks, there's a cinema room - it depends on what you want to do, but I like the fact that there can be lots of activities, you can go on great walks around here," or come and kick back and indulge in great food, drink and music.

Valerie, named after the wife of 18th century owner Sir Henry Bruce Meux, is the all-day dining restaurant, while the fine-dining tasting menu restaurant, The Zebra Riding Club pays tribute to Mrs Meux's pet zebras. In addition, the site features an interactive bakery, where guests can take part in workshops, or opt to feast on delicious bread, pastries and cake made by the crew.

The chef fell into the project almost by chance, as he discussed plans for another project with a contact of co-founders Chris Penn (ex-managing director at The Ace Hotel) and Chris King.

"I was working on this project in Dublin which was a farm-to-table estate," he explained, "they had animals and vegetables," and he had taken on a consulting role, but finally the project went ahead without his advice.

"So I had done all the groundwork, I'd created this massive plan," and so it was Birch's for the taking.

"During a conversation with Eric, a mutual friend of Chris' and I now, I handed him this plan that I was working on in Dublin - and I didn't realise but he was already working on this project, so they just picked it up, chatted amongst themselves and asked me to get involved.

"I was like, yes, 100 percent." 

Real farm-to-fork

The vision for the food offering speaks to Robin's experience, having trained at Le Manoir for Raymond Blanc, and at Don Alfonso in southern italy."

"When you're exposed to stuff like that," he said, "it's always a dream to get to be involved with something like this." 

Even at The Dairy, in Clapham, he had tried to get as close as possible to a farm-to-table concept, acquiring produce directly at the source, despite being located in central London.

"I wanted people to have that feeling that they were in a farm house close to the sea - we were relentless with our obsession for seeking out growers, direct fishermen and women, even going to farms to buy cheese directly," he said.

The chef has been lucky enough to have the full trust of the team at Birch, and had a blank canvas as there were no restaurants on site prior to their arrival.

"We had to completely start from scratch," he said, "I wanted to build a big bakery, we had to get a brand new kitchen in, there was a lot of money spent on all of the infrastructure - they completely trusted Ben [Rand, the executive chef at Birch and ex-head chef at The Dairy] and I." 

Because Valeries is an all-day dining concept, there are limitations as to what they can and can't put on the menu there. But at the Zebra Riding Club, he said, "we get completely free reign on the menus, which is great," and between the Moroccan-style menu there the three meals a day farm-to-table menu at Valeries and the Teppanyaki menu at the Lido, they have plenty to focus their attention on. 

"I think there's masses of variation." 

Robin and the kitchen teams have a strong relationship with gardeners Tom Morphew and Anton Blackie, who run the farm at Birch. The chefs have submitted a wish list of sorts with what produce they would like them to grow on site, though due to the lockdown their original plans were scuppered somewhat. 

"We're only now starting to really build the infrastructure for the growing," but when this is done, "it's going to be led by the chefs, but expectations managed by Tom and Anton," he smiled. 

"I want them to say 'yes we can and no we can't,' for them to listen to us but to guide us as well." 

"It's very much an open dialog." 

The access to fresh produce is a dream come true for Robin. 

"There's something so romantic about it," he said, "you can just go and pick your herbs straight from there, or we're going to forage tomorrow morning because there's a lot of woodland here," with the assistance of a professional to avoid any nasty surprises. 

"Nothing beats it, it just feels really right."  

"It makes cooking a lot easier - if you've got good produce, you just have to try not to f**k it up." 

Space to grow

Though the chef is very hands on at Birch, he is lucky enough to have a team on the ground that he can trust with the day-to-day operations. 

With all of the opening and closing across all of his sites, "it was like opening brand new businesses all the time, it was really hard," he said. 

Only just in its inception, the chef is eager to push forward with the Birch project, getting the farm up and running, putting in orchards so as to become as self-sustaining as possible. 

"Even when it comes down to power, there was talk of doing some drilling down, take a leaf out of the Icelanders." 

"For this to be a full-circle project - that would be the absolute dream," he said, to create "something that lives beyond me." 

The chef is positive about his future here and about the industry as a whole, despite the difficulties he and many of his fellow operators have endured in the past two years. 

"We have to be [positive]. There's no point in burying your head in the sand." 

"We have to create a nice atmosphere - if we're happy, everyone else is going to be happy. That's probably the most challenging at the moment," he said, "because a lot of people have had really challenging years." 

"To try to keep everybody's spirits up has been quite challenging because everybody's had pressures, whether it's mentally or family or business or financial, everybody's felt it, so that's what we have to be. But at least we're open."

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 22nd October 2021

'For this to be a full-circle project - that would be the absolute dream'