Robin Gill, Chef Proprietor, The Dairy

The Staff Canteen

Robin Gill started to train as an electrician before realising he wanted to be in the kitchen. He has trained in several top restaurants, including Don Alfonso 1890 and Le Manoir before deciding to open his own restaurant, The Dairy, in 2013.

Since then Robin and his team have received a number of accolades including this year being in the top 50 of the Good Food Guide 2016 and being being given the Editor's Award for Chef of the Year. He has also opened two other restaurants The Manor and Paradise Garage and The Delicatessen next to The Dairy.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Robin about using offal, his fascination with fermenting and teaching young chefs old techniques to protect the future of the industry.

Bar (2) lo wres

Why did you want to be a chef?

I come from a showbiz background - my father was a musician and my mother was a choreographer and director; so I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. I didn’t do well at school as I was a bit of a dreamer and I just wanted to get into a trade. I was always cooking at home and my aunty had a farm in West Cork, where they cured their own meats, they had pigs and an organic vegetable farm.

So, I’ve always been involved in food but I chickened out of going to college and started training to be an electrician. But I realised I had no interest in that at all and as soon as I stepped into a kitchen I was completely hooked. You got the bug? Yes, definitely – I went into a really stressful, big covers brasserie in Dublin. It was just this incredible, exhilarating service that I was drawn too.

What have the highlights been in your journey from stepping into the industry to opening the dairy?

I spent a good ten years learning my trade, taking a dip in my salary and going in to great restaurants as a CDP or even a demi. My time spent at the Oak Room with Marco Pierre White was a real eye opener. I thought I would never go back into Michelin because I didn’t want to do those sorts of hours but when I stepped out of it I had a sense of guilt. I ended up going to Don Alfonso 1890 a two star in Italy which had its own farm. That was my first experience of real seasonality and farm to table. It had a real impact on me, much more than I realised at the time.Girolles, sea aster, fermented nettles and hay (5) low res

From there I went to Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir, it had a similar ethos and amazing training. I did every single section there and left as a sous chef. It was a really good grounding as a chef but I still didn’t know where I wanted to go with it and what I wanted to do. I wanted a good work life and family life balance – I didn’t want to be in the kitchen all the time. I decided I didn’t want to do fine dining as such, I wanted to do excellent quality cooking but in a much more relaxed environment.

I took six months off and did a lot of travelling around Scandinavia, Spain and France and on that journey I really nailed the type of cooking I wanted to do. Then I opened The Dairy and its a little bit of everything I’ve experienced – it has its own rooftop, we have beehives, a little delicatessen and it has a real farm to table feel to the place.

It sounds like you had a plan for The Dairy before you opened it?

Yes, I knew exactly what kind of cooking I wanted to do and I wanted to take a real back to basics approach. I wanted less on the plate and more about the fundamental things like our oil, our butter, our breads, our own salamis and cured meats. I really wanted to learn that and all the pickling and curing. The Dairy was a late night bar I had wanted to do a pop up in, the building came up for sale and I scrambled around borrowing money off friends and family so I could buy it and that’s how it happened.

You’ve had some great recognition this year, including Chef of the Year in the Good Food Guide. It must feel like everything is paying off?

I wasn’t expecting any of it at all – our hopes were to be busy and do well, that was our only dream so, getting recognition from such big publications was completely unexpected. Credit to the team I have as it’s a real melting pot of ideas and there is not one dish on the menu which is entirely mine or theirs, it’s a big collaboration on everything. I almost feel guilty getting those rewards as it’s a real team effort. Chicken oyster, crispy skin, kefir, lettuce (4) low res

So the menu at The Dairy is down to the whole team not just yourself?

I wrote the first couple of menus but then I went to my team and said ‘this is what I want to do, how should we approach it?’ And it has continued like that, it’s always ingredients led and there are three or four people involved in the development of the dishes.

What was the first dish you created for The Dairy?

There’s only one dish which is still on the menu to this day and that’s the salted caramel, cacao, malted barley ice cream but some of the other dishes come back in different forms. We do an amazing smoked cod dish, with cod’s roe, beets and sorrel in bread crumbs. But the dishes have evolved, every year when these ingredients come back around we try to take on what we’ve learnt over the last year.

Your dishes often feature ingredients which are not mainstream, do you enjoy experimenting with under rated produce?

One hundred percent! We try to use offal of all kinds, we use fish offal so monk fish liver, cod roe – we use every part of the fish apart from the gills. We use the cheeks, the heads, everything. We’ve got duck heart, pigs blood on the menu all the time and we get whole venison in and serve the loin as one piece before we make an incredible faggot with duck liver, venison trim and pigs blood with fermented apple. So, we try to use everything, we still want to keep our prices low and I honestly believe that a lot of our offal and game are actually full of flavour. We’ve learned how to use it and deal with it.beehives low res We do try to be a little bit unusual but we we’re not restricted completely to British ingredients. We use a lot of Japanese products and spices from all over the world – if we come across something new we will use it.

You use a lot of offal, what feedback to you get from diners?

I think we are quite lucky, we are quite established now and we’ve built up a nice clientele. I think people just trust us and we don’t use parts just for the sake of it, we use it because we thinks it’s tasty and we want to use the whole animal. People generally receive it very well and we attract people who are out for a foodie experience. It’s much more widely accepted and it’s become fashionable. You are still going to get some people who are not into it but we don’t have the entire menu like that, there are always other options.

You have a roof garden and beehives, do you find it inspires a lot of your dishes when you go up there?

Yes, we try to use as many herbs as possible from up there but we couldn’t do a lot of veg up there because it wouldn’t make sense, we just can’t grow them as well. Herbs though, they grow incredibly well like nasturtium. We always have about ten different varieties of mint, fennel, rocket, courgettes – every year we try to improve on what we’ve done the year before. We want it to be more sustainable and just grow it better really. dish1 low res

Talking about the ingredients you like to use, are there any which are a favourite of yours?

Any type of citrus and I’ve become obsessed with seaweed. Not just random seaweed just for the sake of it, one of the incredible ingredients I use is fermented dulse – it’s phenomenal with mushrooms or cauliflower. It has an amazing salty, umami, cheesy flavour, I used to use an aged parmesan to season things but now I’ve started using different seaweeds fermented instead. We get it from some of our fish suppliers, we get shit loads of it in, ferment the whole lot and then it’s like a larder – it’s not going to go off. We are into drying things out like mushroom, we have a game sausage at the moment and we use dried mushroom and fermented apple to season it. I find it all really interesting and it’s a lot more unique than vinegars and lemon juices.

Do you enjoy creating new flavours and that experimental side which preserving offers?

It’s a completely different world – the possibilities are endless. It’s such an old craft and that’s why I find it so interesting. People have been fermenting for hundreds of thousands of years but nobody really knows that much about it. I find it fascinating that it can change in so many different ways because it’s a live thing and it adds so much more and elevates a dish. We have our own cellar full of random vegetables and seaweeds all bubbling away or a random vinegar on the go – it’s just really exciting.

You’ve been fortunate to experience being on a farm and working in kitchens with that ethos, is your enthusiasm for fermenting and experimenting with ingredients something you like to pass on to your young chefs?JTP-Paradise Garage-9989 low res

Definitely – nothing against that whole Spanish movement but I was never into all those foams, crazy chemicals and gels. I’m a very natural cook and I don’t like playing around with things too much. I’m so glad things have moved on from that and I’ve noticed there’s not many real, traditional kitchens training chefs anymore. Like Le Manoir or Hibiscus – although Claude Bosi is quite modern but his techniques and skills are very traditional. I just think it’s often missed, there are a lot of great modern restaurants out there that those old skills get forgotten in.

That’s why we do things like the faggots and the mincing and a lot of butchery, to get a mix of old and real skilled jobs. It’s a bit of nod to Raymond Blanc and all those incredible cooks and we are working on bringing back some of those old dishes which require old techniques. The young chefs here are really excited by it and my hope is to keep them here as long as possible so they can learn all these different things and move through the ranks.

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.

The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th November 2015

Robin Gill, Chef Proprietor, The Dairy