Nelly Robinson, Chef Owner, nel.

The Staff Canteen

Nelly Robinson is the chef and owner of nel. in Sydney, Australia. He opened the restaurant in 2015 after falling in love with the site and seeing its potential as an unused room under a hotel.

He started his career as a KP at the age of 14 at Northcote. At 15, Nelly became a full-time apprentice, trained by chef patron, Nigel Haworth.

Nelly was nominated for Chef of the Year Gault & Millau 2017 Award following his previous nomination in the 2016 awards after he received an impressive 16.5/20 from the judges. This year, he returned to Northcote for Obsession 18 with chef Kirk Haworth where they cooked their own menu for one night.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Nelly about opening a restaurant in Australia, retraining as a chef to work with different ingredients and why he hopes the Michelin Guide is on its way to Oz.

Lamb Korma ColeBennetts low res

beef tri tip with watercress,

horseradish + onion

What made you want to leave the UK?

I love all the different cuisines Australia offers. I’d worked at a few places in the industry in the UK and I was bored; I just wanted to spread my wings. Kirk (Haworth) and I listed three cities on a piece of paper being New York, Melbourne and Sydney; possibly because they were all English speaking. We chose Sydney because of the beaches…well, if I’m honest, at the time we were both young and single and we thought of the women, beaches, and good food – you can’t go wrong!

Why did you decide the time was right to open a restaurant in Australia rather than work for someone else?

I thought it was time to get my own identity and food. I was only 29 when we opened, and Sydney had amazing restaurants, but there was a big niche in the market to do something different. There is nobody in Sydney who does food like us. There are a lot of degustation restaurants but there is nobody doing “quirky” food. I put my personality into my dishes and use my own memories. Even now, there is amazing food all over Sydney, but we are still very unique in what we produce.

Talk us through the menu.

We do themed menus which help us guide people through the food. For example, our recent British menu did well because there are a lot of Brits in Australia. One of the dishes is Jammy Dodgers which we’ve done with smiley faces instead of a heart. It takes people back to when they used to open a pack of Jammy Dodgers and nail them all!

Smiley Faces ColeBennett low res
Smiley Faces

How did you find the restaurant site and has the concept changed since you first opened?

I looked at one site which was a three-tier site but to be honest, I only had a small budget to work with and it was too big for a restaurant. The site we have now is small, boutique and underground. It was supposed to be a bar but the laws in Sydney changed while I was looking for a site and you’re not allowed to go out for an alcoholic drink after 1.30am unless you’re in a venue already.

They’ve called it the Lock Out Law and the bar originally at our site pulled out.  The week we opened I had two dollars left in my account, so if no one came, we would have been buggered.

In terms of the concept, we opened with a philosophy of food memories and creating different degustation every seven weeks. We’ve been able to expand along the journey through better staff, new vessels and cutlery, and I’ve also been designing my own crockery.

We are always adding to the venue; last week we bought new artwork which we have been waiting for three years

Info bar

Top five restaurant meals
Eleven Madison Park, New York City: amazing dining room with the best hospitality. Great food by a great chef who I respect and look up to. I can't wait to go back.

Moor Hall, Ormskirk: newly opened restaurant. This was a great experience and food was top notch. Amazing venue with great service.

Fera at Claridge’s, London: this dining room blew me away, and how can it not, it’s set in Claridge’s. The food was spectacular; I love Simon’s concepts.

Gaggan, Bangkok: everything was fun; very similar to how we do our food at nel. It has a playful look and is delicious. The wine match is also amazing.

Cassia, Auckland: this is curry on steroids but with balance and great produce. The food is some of the best I’ve had ever and I love the setting.

Five most influential chefs in career

Daniel Humm (EMP): I’ve learnt a lot from Daniel in the way he conducts himself and how he has grown his restaurant. He’s a very well respected chef.

Nigel Haworth (Northcote): my mentor and my good friend. Nigel is a great chef that has taught me a lot in the kitchen and in life. His values, standards and passion have followed me into my kitchen. He’s a great man.

Mark Birchall (Moor Hall): my old sous chef at Northcote. What a cook - he has really progressed over the years while I’ve loved following his career. Mark is also a good friend in the industry I’m very proud of what he has achieved.

Steve Williams (Stanley House): Steve has taught me so much outside of the kitchen - he taught me what it was to become a head chef and how to process invoices and percentage on food costs. He also taught me how to organise my kitchens and this has been valuable now that I own my own restaurant.

Bjorn Frantzen (Frantzen): Bjorn is a chef that I have followed for many years. His style of food is exceptional and I have learnt from afar how you open your own place and have your own name on the door. He’s taught a lot while I’ve been watching his story.

Top 5 comfort foods

Milk chocolate digestives. I open a packet and it’s gone.

McDonalds. My go-to late night after work when nothing else is open. A quick meal never goes a miss there.

A good curry. My go-to dinner at home after a long week. I can put it in the pot and cook slowly for four hours while I watch a film and have a nap.

Wispa chocolate bar. Addictive chocolate that I love with a cup of tea.

Ham and cheese toasty. My go-to at the end of a very hard week. There is always supplies in my fridge for a good ham and cheese toasty.

Are there ingredients and techniques you use day to day which you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to use if your restaurant was in the UK?

The world has changed, and I think different ingredients are more readily available now. Ten years ago, ingredients such as finger limes, which are native to Australia, wouldn’t have been seen on a British menu. At nel., we use mulberries and lemonade fruit, and example of the many items you can get here that you wouldn’t be able to get in the UK.

I think the biggest difference in ingredients is the fish because of the two different oceans. I can’t get turbot, halibut, sea bass or monkfish which you see on most UK menus. Here, we have amazing kingfish, barramundi, tuna and beautiful red snapper from New Zealand.

Fish & Chips ColeBennetts low res
Fish & Chips

You never stop learning as a chef and there is always something new to use. For example, we are using an ingredient called strawberry gum for our consommés, which is a dried plant that tastes like strawberry.

There’s a lot of different produce here and being in Australia, I had to re-teach myself. It is very Asian-influenced, and I had to learn to understand that.

And has this changed your food style?

The use of different ingredients has definitely changed my food style; you cook for your customers. For me, coming from the north of England, I used to eat a lot of heavy foods, so my philosophy had to change. I don’t cook with butter now; we do everything with olive oil, pumpkin oil and fresh vinegars. It’s always easy to copy other chefs, but you must get your own identity if you want to succeed.

Do you have a favourite dish you eat yourself in Australia?

Fresh fish! A sashimi platter beautifully married with a great sauce is what I eat over here. But I won’t lie, I still eat sausages and mash and things like that.

nel. low res

What are your goals for yourself and the restaurant?

I want to make sure we are still open and successful. We’ve just turned three and a lot of other independent restaurants around us have closed because they haven’t found an identity, which I think is really important to succeed.

Most of all, I want to make sure all customers coming though the door get a experience they remember.

We want to keep growing as a restaurant to not only be successful but also to grow the brand. When we first opened, I said that if every week I can pay my staff and my suppliers, then I don’t care about the rest.

What has been your biggest learning curve opening a restaurant in Australia?

Coming to Australia, I’ve needed to grow up. I’ve had to take responsibility of a business and 20 members of staff - it’s like having a child. But the other learning curve has been pre-empting quiet periods and bringing in business to cover this. I’ve almost become a salesman.

Nelly Robinson 2 low res
Nelly Robinson

Who has had the biggest influence on your career to date?

Everyone I’ve worked with over the years has been an influence. However, in terms of friendship and guidance from a young age, Nigel (Haworth) and Craig (Bancroft) would have to be the most influential. I was at Northcote from the age of 14, and they supported me and gave me a chance in the industry. I can only ever be thankful to those guys for giving me a chance.

You were part of Obsession 18 at Northcote – what was that like?

It was the biggest honour of my career because I was there for the first Obsession as a pot washer, so to be there cooking my own food was very special. Not going to lie, I had a tear in my eye.

You took part in the Taste of Abu Dhabi World’s Best Dish competition, tell us more about that?

We were chosen to do a dish alongside chefs from 11 different countries. Taste host a number of festivals in different countries and they pick dishes from each one, but they also come to your restaurant. They then pick the best dishes from around the world and send each dish to Abu Dhabi as a final, which they did with us. It was a huge experience and an honour to be chosen.

Melon %2B rockmelon with balsamic low res
Melon, rockmelon with balsamic

What are your thoughts on the Michelin Guide as you don’t have one in Australia?

We need follow what they did in Singapore and introduce Michelin to Australia. I think they’re on their way, which will definitely spice things up. It’s become very stale in Australia with the same reviewers for years.

That’s another life goal of mine - to have a Michelin star. I’ve grown up in the industry knowing about Michelin and respecting its rules on how to run a restaurant, and I’ve implemented that at nel. We’re really focused on service from the way people are presented to the bathrooms. It’s not because of the Hat system, it’s because we know that Michelin will one day come to Australia and we want to be ready for them.

To get a star will be the proudest moment in my career and I will strive every day to get it. I hope that our restaurant matches their standards.

More images from nel.

14 hr beef shortrib%2C black garlic puree and pine mushrooms low res
14 hr beef shortrib, black garlic puree and pine mushrooms

Bubble & Squeak ColeBennett low res
Bubble & Squeak

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Leek, potato, mustard ice cream, buckwheat

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Sausage Roll

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Trifle and Rice Pudding

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Editor 30th March 2018

Nelly Robinson, Chef Owner, nel.