With a musician for a father and a dancer for a mother, Dublin-born Robin Gill never really thought about food at a young age. Despite regular trips to his auntie’s farm in Cork during the summers of his youth, he got halfway through an arts degree and took on an apprenticeship as an electrician before deciding to become a chef. ‘I was always cooking at home, and two of my good friends were chefs,’ he explains. ‘They suggested I do the same, and I only said yes to make them happy. But the second I got into the kitchen and experience the thrill of service I knew it was for me.’
Being based in Dublin meant Robin’s career progression was quite limited, so he decided to look further afield. ‘The dining scene in Dublin wasn’t great – there were only three or four restaurants of note at the time,’ he says. ‘My two friends moved to London to work in Michelin-starred places, so I followed them over. I had the Michelin Guide in my hand and went round to every restaurant asking for work until I finally landed a job at Marco Pierre White’s three-starred The Oak Room, which was a massive leap – I learnt all the ins and outs of classical cooking, how to be disciplined and very precise cooking techniques. The first three months were hell but a complete eye-opener.’
Eventually Robin became full trained in classical cooking thanks to his time at The Oak Room but was working long hours, six days a week. He knew how important the discipline and techniques he’d learnt were, but wanted to work at a more relaxed place which served simpler food – no Michelin stars, just good quality cooking. In 2002, he decided to go to Italy to learn the language and find a job in a relaxed trattoria, where he could learn how to make pasta by hand and other traditional skills. However, it was harder than he imagined – all the trattorias were family-run, and none of them would give him a job.
‘The only position I could get was at a two-starred place called Don Alfonso 1890 in Naples, and all of a sudden I was in the rat race again,’ says Robin. ‘But it was a very different style of cooking. At The Oak Room there were loads of elements on the dish and it wasn’t very focused on seasonality, whereas Don Alfonso had its own farm and beehives and the head chef would arrive every morning with this amazing produce. It was there I learnt how important seasonality was.’
Robin was enjoying his time at Don Alfonso, but when the opportunity came to work a stage on the butchery section at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, he jumped at the chance. He loved it so much that he decided to stay and learn as much as he could, meeting his wife there along the way. ‘It was like going to university,’ he says. ‘There was a staff of about 200 people living on-site and you did no more than six months on each section, so you got a great overall training.’
Robin progressed to junior sous chef and then left to cook at a private member’s club set up by Raymond at the Arsenal football stadium. ‘I worked there for two years but I wanted out after two weeks,’ he explains. ‘The staff were all temporary so it was almost like opening a new restaurant for every match.’ He then moved on to what he considers his first proper head chef role, working for the D&D Group at The Royal Exchange. ‘I started off doing different variations of what I’d been cooking at Le Manoir, but by my second year I started to develop my own style,’ says Robin. ‘I wanted to do a market menu; smaller dishes with fewer ingredients on the plate that have been cooked really well.’