After hitting rock bottom, chef Dom Robinson decided to reinvent himself and his business. He tells Andy Lynes how he shut down the Blackbird and gave up his Michelin star to create the restaurant of his dreams
On 1 October 2018, almost a year to the day from opening the Blackbird in the hamlet of Bagnor just outside Newbury, Dom Robinson stepped onto the stage at the BFI Imax in London and was handed a pristine white chef's jacket, still in its cellophane wrapping, by a beaming Gordon Ramsay. The occasion was the launch ceremony for the Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland 2019 and the jacket signified the award of a star, the first of Robinson's career. It was, he says, the fulfilment of a 20-year ambition.
Then, in June 2021, Robinson suddenly announced the closure of the Blackbird and a plan to relaunch the pub in the autumn as a fine dining restaurant to be called Renaissant (meaning ‘of or relating to the Renaissance'), acknowledging this would mean losing the precious star he'd worked so hard to achieve.
It would have been a bold step under any circumstances, but to cast aside the safety net of an accolade that has been proven to boost the profile and revenue of many restaurants seemed positively rash in the midst of a global pandemic. But Robinson had his reasons. He'd successfully navigated multiple lockdowns from a business point of view by first offering a takeaway menu that included curry and fish and chips, and then launching the outdoor only Paloma Pizza in the pub's garden. From a personal point of view, however, Robinson, who now admits to a longstanding struggle with addictions, was not doing so well.
He points to a lack of real accountability and routine during lockdown as a reason for his downward spiral. "I was drinking all day, just to take away the horrible shakes and anxiety. I remember that I walked upstairs in the middle of one afternoon and the next thing I knew, I woke up in a dark pub and the lads from the village helping me at the time had done all the takeaway on their own, with me collapsed upstairs.
When you wake up every morning and you say, ‘I'm not going to drink today' and half an hour later you're stood behind the bar drinking and popping Valium, you know you've got a problem
"They'd just cleaned down and left the pub. And that was it, I thought, I can't do this any more. I rang a mate of mine and stayed with him for a couple of days. We closed the takeaway for a while, and he helped me get into rehab."
A fresh start
Robinson has been sober ever since and is working through a 12-step recovery programme, attending meetings three or four times a week and is now even a sponsor to other addicts. It's a problem that the chef says is rife within hospitality.
"I've seen it my entire career. Every time I put something on my social media, or I do an interview about addiction or alcoholism, someone new reaches out to me and says that they're struggling with substances. If just one person realises that there's so much help and support out there and they reach out to me and I can point them in the right direction, or just a phone call, then my job is done for the day. I didn't know there was help right until the very end because addiction is a very lonely place; it's a disease that wants you to be isolated."
As well as spurring Robinson on to help others, reaching the rock bottom of his addiction has also ultimately proved to have been beneficial, not just to his personal and family life, but also to his career, bringing a new focus and clarity to his professional goals. "I thought to myself, if I reopened the Blackbird as a gastropub, I'm going to be working my arse off and I'm not going to be happy doing that.
"I was always slightly conflicted about trying to do what I wanted to do in a pub, but I tried to people-please and be all things to everyone. So, I wanted to make a statement and actually back myself, because I always had imposter syndrome. Even when we won the star, I thought I wasn't good enough to have it. I thought, if I can't cook the food that I want to cook on my terms, in a restaurant, then there really is no point in doing it. I might as well just go and get a good, well-paid job and have an easier life."
The transformation of the Blackbird from dining pub to fine dining restaurant has been done on a relative shoestring, with a budget that Robinson estimates to be about £12,000. The pub's shabby-chic feel, with its bright colour scheme, ramshackle collection of vintage chairs and crockery and a plethora of knick-knacks ("I had a fucking harmonium in here," laughs Robinson) has been replaced by something rather more elegant.
Blush pink and cream walls, hung with a considered collection of artworks are contrasted by dark grey-blue wainscotting and a new wooden floor. There are 26 comfortable upholstered chairs, white tablecloths and a service bar denuded of beer pumps.
"My wife is a graphic designer and illustrator, but she's also an extremely handy amateur carpenter, so she's built a whole new backbar, she's put in shelves she made from vintage scaffolding planks, she's mounted all the artwork and did the dried flower arrangements and the fresh plants. I put a couple of curtain rails up and a few bits and bobs, but not a lot.
Everything else was done by professionals so that it doesn't look like I've just cowboyed it as I always do. My ego tells me I can do all these things when in reality I can't."
The new interior provides an appropriately upmarket backdrop for the new luxurious, five-course £85 ‘Hommage' tasting menu – as does the restaurant itself: a handsome red-brick and half-timbered building set on a country lane. Seeing the building on Google Street View while working as an executive chef for a restaurant group in Dubai was enough to convince Robinson to put an offer on the place.
"I use recipes and inspiration from every single chef I've worked for, and also the chefs that I looked up to, through their books and their recipes and their interviews, who moulded the way that I cook. I wanted to pay tribute to all of that here," says Robinson. His CV includes roles such as head chef at restaurant Tom Aikens in London's Chelsea, as well as stints with Adam Byatt at Thyme (in both incarnations in Clapham and Covent Garden), Anthony Demetre at Putney Bridge and Max Fischer at Fischer's Baslow Hall in Derbyshire (see panel).
Dishes currently on the menu include a version of Tom Aikens's roast foie gras with smoked bacon, coco beans and Sauternes, as well as chocolate negus ‘Nico Ladenis' with quince and honey.
"I've written a book, Born To Cook, and a lot of it came from the process of getting all the recipes down. It's an important part of my recovery to be completely open and honest about it, which I have been from the start. I wanted to strip it back and do the recipes that I started doing when I first started cooking and what made me fall in love with this.
When we did get the star, I wasn't whole inside. It didn't fix me. That was kind of the start of my downward spiral
"I'm still not foraging, I'm still not fermenting, I'm still not putting green oil on everything. In my opinion, classical French cuisine is the ultimate expression of gastronomy. It's what floats my boat and I'm happy and comfortable saying that now."
Although Robinson claims he didn't give a second thought to closing Blackbird and losing his star, the positive feedback from customers about Renasissant has proved to him that he has made the right decision. However, he equally doesn't deny that he would like to regain the accolade.
"My viewpoint hasn't changed on Michelin. It's the be-all and end-all. It's the only guide that matters – it always will be. But I'm an addict, so I always use things to change the way I feel, whether it be drugs, alcohol, relationships or cooking. Getting the star, that was the final thing that I thought, well, this is going to fix me, I'll be whole inside. But in reality, when we did get the star, I wasn't whole inside. It didn't fix me. That was kind of the start of my downward spiral. What do I do now? If I can get two Michelin stars maybe that will fix me. I was honest with Michelin about that.
"Now I know that I'd love to get the star back and it's a real achievement, but I know this time, if and when that does happen, if the food is good enough for them, I know I'll be in a much different place to actually appreciate it. And then, if the food is not up to the standards of what they want, then at least I will know I tried and in a way that will make me happy."
Layering flavour: raviolo of Kennet crayfish, sauce Nantua
"The crayfish are from the River Kennet, which is literally a couple of miles down the road from the restaurant. I use every part of the crayfish in the dish, so there is zero wastage. I blanch the crayfish and chop the claws and fold them through a salmon and scallop mousse mix and then lay a whole crayfish on the top to make the raviolo filling.
"For the sauce, I roast the heads with mirepoix, brandy, Pernod, Noilly Pratt, white wine, cayenne pepper and tomato purée and use it to make a crayfish butter.
"With the claw and the body shells, I use those to make a crayfish stock with aromats and plenty of tomatoes and carrots to get a nice, deep colour on it. I strain that off and then I cook a whole load more raw carrot in that so you get even more flavour from the carrots, and I use those as garnish through the sauce, along with some tomato concasse.
"I use the crayfish butter to make a roux and then I use the crayfish stock to make the crayfish velouté, and then I finished it with cream and more crayfish butter. I blanch the ravioli for 30 seconds and reheat them in some of the liquor and glaze them with some cold-pressed rapeseed oil, which gives it a nice flavour."
What the mentors say
"Dominic is a very talented chef, that's for sure. Coming to me was probably a bit of finishing school for him – he had his eyes set on doing his own thing eventually – you could definitely tell that. He was very hungry to learn and he was structured in the way that he went about things. He was always very organised as a head chef and very methodical. It was a demanding and tough kitchen and it wasn't for the faint-hearted because of the workload. Services were intense, so having Dom there made it that bit easier for me. He's definitely got his own style now and that's always good to see. He's definitely struck out on his own."
"He was born to be a chef. He was one of the most self-motivated people I've had in the kitchen. He was somebody who wanted to do it and actually enjoyed it as well and didn't worry about how long he was working. He was full of buzz and came in the kitchen thinking, yes, Max, what are we doing today? He was determined. If he was in the shit, he'd work through it and come out the other side. I knew he was going to make it, that he was going to be good."
"Dom is a great guy and is still someone I know really well and I still speak to him quite a lot. He rings me on the odd occasion for advice and I'm always happy to give it because he is a lovely guy. He worked for me at Thyme in the very beginning and he was just lovely to have around, I loved having him in the kitchen. He just full of energy, he knew how to work properly. I always saw that he was driven and that he had a way about him that was going to go on and be successful. He's not had the easiest road and I think he likes to make life difficult for himself because that's where he thrives and is at his best."
"You can see why he's gone on to do great things. He's a fantastic cook and he's proved that. Dom is one of the last generation of chefs to have come through that school of solid French cooking. He was an integral part of the team at Putney Bridge; he was young but you could see straight away he was just a sponge he would absorb everything. It wasn't easy for him, he worked on the garnish and had me breathing down his neck, but he was bulletproof, he would just bring it on, he was up for it. We said at the time that he was going to make it, he's going to go far, and he has done. He's been through the mill in a personal sense, but thankfully he's come out of it. To see someone who goes on to get their own star, you have to applaud that, it's a massive achievement."
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