Talking to Robin Gill, you get the sense that he could probably have been whatever he wanted to be. As the son of creative parents – a choreographer and a musician – he initially struggled to find a niche as a young man. “I dabbled in different things like acting, dancing, music. I never stuck to any of it,” he says. After Gill almost accepted a job as an electrician’s apprentice, his father suggested he try becoming a chef. He took to it. “The moment I got into a kitchen,” he says, “I thought ‘This is definitely for me.’”
Good thing, too. Because after time in the Michelin-starred kitchens of his native Dublin, with Marco Pierre White at the Oak Room in London, a stint cooking in Italy, a move back to the UK with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and then a sabbatical travelling and cooking around Europe, Gill returned to the capital to quietly open The Dairy in Clapham.
Borrowing more from the bistronomy movement of Paris and Scandinavia than the traditional, fine-dining kitchens he cut his teeth in, it was an approachable restaurant that showed a commitment to the craft of cooking, and to careful and sustainable sourcing. He followed it up with The Manor (now reborn as Sorella) down the road, and the bigger, statement-making Darby’s in Nine Elms, which has been an overnight success.
Gill wears many of his influences on his sleeve, but perhaps the one that changed his outlook the most was Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 near Sorrento, in south-west Italy.
“It was so seasonal, so farm-to-table,” he says. “It was real back to basics, and that had a huge impact on the way I cook. So I call my style of cooking now ‘ten steps back’, where we’ve got direct relationships and communication with farmers. It’s about knowing what’s coming around, what’s coming out of the soil and the sea, and buying it in whole. It’s ten steps back, as the planning starts long before you place an order.”
These dishes show the career of a man with the clarity of vision and focus to suggest he’d be a success at most things. It’s just lucky for Londoners that he decided to be a chef.
Chicken liver parfait
This was one of the first things I learned when I was on the larder section in the Oak Room. The recipe back then was something like 50% foie gras, a lot of butter, chicken livers, the best of armagnacs, ports, madeira, a madeira jelly, and then finish it with a whole load of truffle with toasted Poilâne bread. It’s sheer indulgence, and it was such a challenging recipe. It was one of those dishes that brought tears and joy in equal quantities, but there’s a real skill to doing it properly. It ended up being one of the first things that we put on in The Dairy and now we’re known for it, and it’s a great skill set for young chefs to learn as well.
My nickname at the Oak Room was either Irish or Potato, which I bet you couldn’t get away with now. Potato is one of my favourite ingredients, and I learned how to prepare this perfect mashed potato. Joël Robuchon was the cook with the most amount of Michelin stars in the world, and Robert Reed, who was my head chef at the Oak Room, taught me how to prepare this dish. It’s 300% butter – you get the best potatoes, you boil them till they’re just cooked, and then you have to pass them through a very fine tamis sieve. Then you add room-temperature butter, a tiny bit of milk, butter, and you continuously whisk until you create a whipped cream consistency that’s quite heavy in salt. It’s just the most luxurious thing you’ll ever taste.
Bread, charcuterie and pickles
When I worked at Frantzén, they had a 20-course tasting menu that began when they showed your bread course proving in front of you. Later, they brought back the freshly baked bread with loads of condiments. It was there I realised that breadmaking is an old craft with real skill to it, but it’s been ruined. I had a similar thought when I was at Asador Etxebarri, about the chorizo and charcuterie. This focus on craft is what we wanted to bring to The Dairy. When we launched, I wanted to have baking, charcuterie, preservation and butter churning. Now, that bread course with the pickles and meats really sums up what we do.
Truffled Baron Bigod
This is another dish from the Oak Room, a brie de meaux stuffed with truffled mascarpone served with a Poilâne bread. You sandwich the two cheeses together and the cheese takes on the flavour of the truffle. When we launched The Dairy we inherited two beehives on the roof, so we had our own phenomenal honey. We make the sourdough fig and walnut bread, too. The cheese is Baron Bigod because we try to support smaller producers. Then we finish it with a generous shaving of a fresh truffle. We took it off the menu for a couple of weeks and there were almost pickets outside the restaurant, so we had to put it back on.
Sweetcorn, polenta, duck hearts
When we launched The Dairy we did it very quietly, no marketing or PR. Then big chefs started to eat in the restaurant. We hadn’t realised that people were talking about it. And then Alain Ducasse came to eat, but he only had an hour and a half, so we had to shorten the menu. He actually cancelled his meetings because he was having such a lovely time. The sweetcorn with polenta was one of the dishes that I had on. We confit the duck hearts in duck fat and barbecue them so they’re pink in the centre. Ducasse said that it was one of his favourites. It was a real career moment.