Chef and restaurateur Robin Gill has enjoyed critical and commercial success ever since he opened the Dairy in London’s Clapham five years ago, but after it became clear that his next venture, the Manor, was too similar to his original restaurant, he came up with a plan to make a radical change. Neil Gerrard reports
A little piece of Italy’s Amalfi coast washed up in the slightly unlikely surroundings of London commuter neighbourhood Clapham earlier this year, when chef and restaurateur Robin Gill launched Sorella. Meaning ‘sister’ in Italian, Sorella is an apt name for the 48-cover restaurant, which is a sibling to Gill’s first restaurant, the nearby Dairy, and Counter Culture, which adjoins the Dairy and opened three years later in 2016.
While Sorella is a new restaurant, its location is by no means new to Gill. The Dairy’s sister occupies what used to be the site of the Manor, a Scandinavian-themed restaurant that launched in 2014 – a year after the Dairy opened.
Chef Dean Parker, who is a partner in the business, is at the helm of Sorella. With the aim of bringing “something different” to the Clapham neighbourhood, the restaurant is inspired by Gill’s early career, when he worked at the two-Michelin-starred Don Alfonso 1890 hotel restaurant on the Amalfi coast in Italy. It combines an ingredient-led approach (using produce from a farm in West Sussex, run by Indie Ecology, where Gill and his team have a plot) with an Italian attitude to cooking and eating.
“Don Alfonso’s owner-chef had a farm, so he would spend most of his time there,” recalls Gill as he explains the inspiration behind the idea for Sorella. “He would start at 4am, work at the farm, and then drive up to the restaurant at 7am with a van full of incredible ingredients.
“In my first month there I was questioning why it had two stars. I thought it was too simple. It took me a while to understand that it wasn’t simple, you just didn’t need to mess with it. It’s a style of cooking where the work is all in the farm and treating it with respect. That had a huge effect on me.”
Gill met his wife Sarah while they were both working at Don Alfonso 1890, and when the couple opened the Manor in 2014 on Clapham Manor Street, close to the Dairy on the edge of Clapham Common, it was a roaring success. He says they were able to pay back the debt incurred in opening the Manor within a year. Despite that success, though, the Dairy and the Manor were not a perfect match.
“The Manor always did well,” says Gill, “but we felt we needed a change. It was too similar to what was going on in the Dairy. When you were trying to describe the two restaurants, there wasn’t a point of difference.”
Had the two venues been further away from each other than just a couple of streets, that’s perhaps not something that would have bothered him quite so much, but given their close proximity, it was a different story.
“Customers were saying, shall we go to the Dairy or the Manor, and they would find it difficult to decide,” Gill explains.
Meanwhile, the ambitious chef from County Dublin was also considering his next opening. “Because of my experience in Italy, I really wanted to do an Italian restaurant,” he says. “We were going to go central and we had a site last year, but we pulled out of it. We just got scared. We weren’t confident in the market and the rent was really hard. But the idea of an Italian restaurant never left us.”
Opening an Italian restaurant on the site of the Manor killed two birds with one stone: Gill got to realise his ambition for an Italian restaurant while also creating something strikingly different to the Dairy.
“I took Dean over to where I used to work on the Amalfi coast and we were like, right, let’s do it,” he says of the decision.
The conversion cost “very little money”, although the budget was sufficient for Gill to right the things he felt he’d got wrong the first time round.
“Physically, it’s a lot slicker,” he says. “We had these dumbwaiters behind the bar and we didn’t know what to do with them. They were just ugly, so we graffitied them and did the same with the toilets. We turned what was shit into a bit of a joke, but it made the restaurant feel a little immature. So we invested in the bar and the toilets, smartened them up and invested in the kitchen. When it came to the branding, we got rid of anything that was extremely Manor.”
The menu is now more relaxed. Whereas the Manor attracted foodies who wanted the full tasting menu experience, if not in the numbers seen in the Dairy, Sorella makes it easier for diners to drop in and enjoy charcuterie, a few snacks and a vermouth, so guests are turning up more regularly.
Gill admits he was worried about how a group of regulars who loved the Manor as it was – he calls them “the Manorites” – would take the change.
Initially they came in “pissed off”, he says, but would then leave happy. “They have been coming back more and they get it. We have a real, clear difference, and Sorella is more of a local, neighbourhood place, but it still has all the integrity of what we do in the Dairy and what we did in the Manor.
“We have a farm now so all the stuff that comes from there we use here. We get deliveries once or twice a week in the winter, and in the spring and summer it’s three days a week.”
The reception for Sorella since its launch has been “off the charts”, he says, adding: “At a time when restaurants are struggling, which is a problem that is talked about industry-wide, we are breathing a sigh of relief right now because it appears to be working.”
From the menu
Fried Nocellara olives £3
Prosciutto and squash arancini £4
Pork and fennel salumi £6.50
Black pepper coppa £7.50
Cacklebean egg yolk, peas and Tropea onion £7
Linguine with Devon mussels and bottarga £12
Tagliatelle with pork and ‘nduja ragù £12.50
Lady Hamilton cod, squid ink and chard £17
Aged Dexter beef, braised shin ragù and sweetheart cabbage £26
“Let’s just get out before we get really burned here”
The restaurant world was taken by surprise when Gill announced in October last year that he was closing the hugely popular Paradise Garage in London’s Bethnal Green.
The restaurant traded well beyond expectations for the first 18 months following its opening in July 2015 (a month before, Gill had been named The Good Food Guide Chef of the Year). It picked up very favourable reviews and won a Michelin bib gourmand. But after that early flush of success, life at Paradise Garage proved more difficult than expected.
At the time of the closure, Gill blamed the construction of a Holiday Inn Express opposite the restaurant for affecting trade, but he now reveals that other factors were also at play.
“I think it was partly the area, but I think we were a little bit too cocky and confident as well,” he admits. “I had always wanted to do something in east London because it was cool and I thought our food would be well received there. It was actually my first choice of area before we opened our first site.”
However, when the dream became a reality, Gill found that the local demographic wasn’t quite what he expected. “We thought the area was going to get better and better, but personally I think Bethnal Green is still not there. We had a great first year and a half trading and we thought we had smashed it.”
The subsequent slide was compounded by the construction work for the hotel, which put off visitors to the area.
“People just stopped coming. I think that what we were trying for the area wasn’t quite right. I didn’t want to start changing the concept completely, and I didn’t want to keep throwing money at it.
“We were trying to do different things, waiting for new things to happen. We were saying to ourselves ‘in six months’ time it is going to get better’, and it just wasn’t. We had a great team there but it wasn’t busy enough, and I decided I didn’t want to do it any more. We did all the right things, but it didn’t come off. There were other opportunities coming along, and I thought, let’s just get out before we get really burned here.”
Drums, piano and cordon bleu
Music’s loss is the restaurant world’s gain. Born to a choreographer mother and a musician father, the young Robin Gill had started learning the drums and piano but in his own words, he “fucked it up”. His father was well known as a musician in Dublin and his warnings that a career in music would be challenging and reward only those at the top of their game put his son off.
He dropped out of school and secured an apprenticeship as an electrician. The call of restaurants, in which his brother and sister also worked, proved too strong to resist, though. He started working in a local brasserie and loved the hard work. The many nationalities working in the kitchen also opened his eyes to the opportunities for travel.
He left Dublin when he was 19, following two chef friends to London, and landed a job at Marco Pierre White’s Oak Room (under Robert Reid) and has never looked back. Following the same friends over to Italy, he ended up at Don Alfonso 1890 before eventually securing a stage at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, which led to two years working for Raymond Blanc. He later took over as head chef of the Diamond Club at Arsenal FC, again working for Blanc, before taking his first official head chef role at D&D London’s Sauterelle at the Royal Exchange.
A well-paid stint as a private chef working for a Middle Eastern head of state allowed Gill to take a six-month sabbatical, during which he did stages in France, at Noma in Copenhagen and at Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Country. It was Scandinavia that opened his eyes to the possibilities of combining extremely high-quality food with a laid-back, stripped back feel, with a good playlist and no uniforms. It was from that experience that the Dairy was born.
After openings in 2013 (the Dairy), 2014 (the Manor), 2015 (Paradise Garage), 2016 (Counter Culture), and 2018 (Sorella – as well as a book called Larder: From Pantry to Plate), Gill is now working on a project in central London, believed to be a new hotel, although he is keeping the details a closely guarded secret.