Chef Robin Gill is the founder of Clapham restaurants The Diary and The Manor. He has recently opened The Delicatessen next door to The Dairy and is soon to open a new restaurant in Bethnal Green. Sudi Pigott meets Robin and front-of-house wife Sarah in Clapham Old Town to find out more
Robin Gill is beaming with pride as he shows off all the delectables in his new Deli (in a former phone shop) next door to The Dairy; from jars of rhubarb pickle and Turkish cabbage kimchi to exquisite vegetables, ham hock terrine, biscotti and Guinness soda bread. It’s more like an urban farm-shop than a conventional, bijou foodie sanctuary as almost everything is made in-house in their new production kitchen, under the roof garden where many of the ingredients grow. Just as in the restaurants, there’s a great soundtrack playing in the deli — Robin takes his music seriously.
Robin’s enthusiasm for every ingredient is so joyfully contagious, it makes me want to hug him. Robin and Sarah have a lot to be happy about. They’re really the golden couple on the London restaurant scene right now whom everyone is prepared to cross the capital for. Not bad considering they opened their first modern bistro The Dairy, which catapulted their names into the limelight on St Patrick’s Day 2013 on an absolute shoestring and with no publicity budget whatsoever.
Is Robin surprised at their success and the string of accolades and rave reviews they’ve received? He shrugs. ‘I think The Dairy and The Manor are how people want to eat now. We don’t want anything too fancy and self-consciously cheffy. It’s all about the produce and seasonality which makes for dishes so fresh (think combinations like celery, pea and mint) that they simply explode in the mouth with flavour.’
It’s not as if all the accolades have come overnight. Robin and Sarah have grafted hard and notched up some amazing experiences. Robin first worked as an electrician before taking his first cheffing job in a restaurant in Dublin without going to catering college. He followed friends to London with a tube map and the Michelin guide and found himself working at Marco Pierre White’s three-star The Oak Room, which was truly ‘jumping in at the deep end’. Again, inspired by a mate, he found himself at another starred restaurant, Don Alfonso on the Amalfi coast. He managed to persuade Sarah, whom he’d met at a party in Dublin, to give up plans to go to New York and join him in Italy. Very different, all the produce came from the family farm. ‘It really opened my eyes to how cooking should be all about the ingredients and simplicity,’ remembers Robin.
On their return to the UK, both Robin and Sarah worked at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons for four years, reinforcing the importance of being inspired by the gardens in the kitchen. Robin and Sarah both helped Raymond Blanc, ‘his energy and passion is awesome,’ open the Emirates fine dining club restaurant at Arsenal stadium, which gave them crucial experience of setting up a kitchen from scratch. A stint at Sauterelle in the City introduced Robin to Richie and Dean, his head chefs at The Dairy and The Manor respectively. ‘I was developing my own style, but needed to spread my wings,’ recalls Robin. He and Sarah blew all their savings travelling around Europe to gain new inspiration including notching up a short stint at Noma in Copenhagen, the world’s number one restaurant.
Back in London, Robin first tried to get a place in Brixton Village which ‘we love as it is so bursting with energy.’ Eventually, he struck a deal with the Irish owner of what was then a ‘scuzzy dive’ in Clapham Old Town. Friends and family lent them money and helped do the place up over five months and they opened without even a practice run.
‘It works so well with Sarah as she understands the pressures of the restaurant business and is calmer than me. Nothing fazes her whereas I am much more excitable and can spiral out of control,’ he admits. ‘We complement each other and make a good balance,’ agrees Sarah who works front of house. ‘Robin is a perfectionist and a mad genius in his creativity, no two days are ever the same!’
Fast forward to the present and Robin, true to form, insists on taking me up on the roof terrace to inspect the incredible range of herbs and vegetables growing there (from sweet cicely and sheep’s head sorrel to courgettes and squash) and see the four bee hives plus the smokery — really little more than domestic barbecue size presently — for their sea trout terrine. We also delve into the basement below the deli to see Robin’s latest passion at play: making his own charcuterie from pork and fennel salami to pancetta and coppa. Tasters are served alongside the fantastic bread in little hessian sacks (endearingly made by Robin’s Mum) and the much talked about bone marrow whipped, house churned butter presented on a pebble which accompany every meal.
Robin and Sarah and their ten-month-old son Ziggy live in Brixton and may seem to always be in the restaurant, yet they certainly use their local culinary hotspots too. For home cooking, they shop at Moen’s, The Ginger Pig and Moxon’s all the time. Among recent discoveries are Brixton’s latest cocktail bar The Shrub & Shutter, says Robin: ‘Chris and Dave are incredibly skilful and put as much effort into their cocktails as we do with our food yet it feels like being in someone’s home.’ New Brixton opening Naughty Piglets is their latest restaurant discovery for its modern bistro food. Edgy, lively music venues like The Effra are favourite Sunday late afternoon spots perhaps after a ‘great Sunday roast’ at The Rookery. Mien Tay on Lavender Hill is singled out by Sarah for their authentic Vietnamese dishes. Perhaps surprisingly, it is Trinity that Sarah reveals as somewhere they’ve eaten ‘countless times. We’ve been going for eight years and really like the familiarity of the staff and the quality of the ingredients. It’s not competition, just evidence we’re in a fantastic area for good eating.’