As part of our occasional series of interviews with top chefs examining the turning points that led them on their path to success, Robin Gill tells Kerstin Kühn about his journey to running a group of successful London restaurants
It sounds clichéd, but the first turning point in my career was the moment I stepped into the kitchen. I fell into this job by accident because I didn't really know what else to do. I never applied myself in school and had a very
I hadn't been cooking in Dublin for very long when some of my chef friends moved to London, where they landed jobs at places like Chez Nico and Le Gavroche. I didn't want to be left behind, so I got on a plane and moved to London too. I read the Michelin Guide on the tube and went to every single starred restaurant to apply for a job. I got a position at the Oak Room with then head chef Robert Reid.
That was another turning point and a huge learning curve for me. It was very hard work and a bit of a shock to the system at first. I had no skills - I didn't even know how to turn a potato - so it was very difficult for me at the
beginning. It was a massive change at such a young age, but after a few months, I started to find my groove and the kitchen became almost like a family.
I enjoyed London and loved my time at the Oak Room, but eventually I got to a point where I wanted a bit of my life back. I'd always wanted to learn another language and experience another culture, so I decided to move
to Italy, where I got a job at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant called Don Alfonso 1890 onthe Amalfi Coast.
This was a game changer! Don Alfonso was more of a farmer than a chef - he grew all his own produce and that's what we cooked with. I had never seen farm-to-table cooking before then. Even at the Oak Room, where the produce was amazing, there was a van going to Paris twice a week and you had no idea where anything came from. Here it was all about product and less about technique and I really fell in love with the idea of learning more and more about ingredients. I realised then that I had to stay in Michelin-starred restaurants.
Then a chef from Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons came to do a stage at Don Alfonso and I ended up looking after him. To pay back the hospitality, he offered me a full-board stage at Le Manoir. I knew this was
huge. My two weeks there turned into four years. It was almost like a combination of Don Alfonso and the Oak Room: there was incredible produce but the cooking was more refined and involved much more technique.
What I learned, more than anything, was teamwork and discipline. After working through all the different sections, I got the opportunity to open a private members' club with Raymond Blanc at the Arsenal football stadium. It was my first head chef role and it brought me back to London, which was great as I got to see what was going on and how exciting it all was. Through this job, I started doing private cheffing gigs for clients and I got lots of investment offers to open my own restaurant. It really got me thinking outside of the box: suddenly it wasn't just about cooking and learning recipes anymore, but about business, looking at leases and properties in different
areas in London. It was the start of a whole new world for me, another fork in the road.
After four years of working with D&D London (as chef de cuisine at Sauterelle at the Royal Exchange), a friend called and offered me a three-month gig working for a head of state. It was a full-time job and lots of hours, but I raised an awful lot of cash; and with that I went on a six-month sabbatical. I staged at Noma and Restaurant Frantzén, travelled through Spain and ate my way around all the top restaurants in the UK. It was basically a
six-month study trip and I came back feeling totally refreshed and with a completely new outlook on restaurants. I knew what I wanted to do next.
I wanted to open a neighbourhood place that was completely unpretentious, where people could come for any occasion and have a full tasting menu or just a glass of wine and some charcuterie. I wanted a basic approach
to dining that was all about produce. I wanted to create a little farmhouse in the middle of London. And that's what became the Dairy. At the beginning I didn't really know what I was doing, but I threw myself into it and it very quickly took off.
About 18 months after opening the Dairy, we launched the Manor, also in Clapham. Then Paradise Garage in Bethnal Green, 10 months later, and finally Counter Culture in April. It's all happened in the space of about three years, which is just crazy. All the restaurants are different: the Dairy is very small and cosy - wine-driven and with a great atmosphere - while the Manor is much bigger and Scandinavian-inspired with a great cocktail list, and Paradise Garage is a seasonal British restaurant where the bar, kitchen and dining room are all part of the same thing.
And Counter Culture is our most recent project, which is my version of a San SebastiÁ¡n pintxos bar. We were lucky: we hit it just at the right time when the whole casual fine-dining trend started. But more than anything, it's thanks to my amazing team and their driving force that we were able to grow so quickly.
1997-98 Commis chef, La Stampa, Dublin
1998-99 Commis chef, Brasserie Na Mara, Dublin
1999-2001 Demi chef, chef de partie, the Oak Room, London (three Michelin stars)
2001-2003 Chef de partie, Don Alfonso 1890, Amalfi Napoli, Italy (two Michelin stars)
2004-2008 Junior sous chef, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons (two Michelin stars)
2008-2012 Chef de cuisine, Sauterelle, the Royal Exchange, London
2012-2013 Sabbatical, including stages and visits across the UK, Europe and Scandinavia
March 2013 Opened the Dairy, Clapham
November 2014 Opened the Manor, Clapham
July 2015 Opened Paradise Garage, Bethnal Green
August 2015Good Food Guide Chef of the Year
April 2016 Opened Counter Culture, Clapham
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