Thursday 13 December 2018

Small things are not so big any more

In advance of his appearance at Taste of Dublin, acclaimed chef Robin Gill talks about death, fatherhood, kitchen bullying and having big shoes to fill

'As soon as I got into the environment of the kitchen, I loved it. It's a performance every single night,' says Robin Gill. Photo: Mark Condren
'As soon as I got into the environment of the kitchen, I loved it. It's a performance every single night,' says Robin Gill. Photo: Mark Condren
Robin and his wife Sarah

Emily Hourican

Talking about his new, as yet, secret venture in central London, chef Robin Gill (38) is a funny mix of jittery and resolved. "I can't announce it just yet, but I can say it's a big thing, an ambitious thing, and I'm very excited, and nervous."

The 'thing' - whatever it is - will bring to four the number of restaurants Gill currently operates. There's The Dairy in Clapham, first and still probably the best-known, a restaurant that has wowed critics and won a clutch of awards; then there's Counter Culture and Sorella, both also in Clapham. There was Paradise Garage in Hackney, which was sold about eight months ago. "We went into the wrong part of London and got scalded," Gill explains. "We had an amazing first year-and-a-half, but then there was a load of building going on, im front of the business. It was disruptive. We were a little bit nervous after that, then with the whole Brexit thing, we were like, 'let's just hold on to our horses…' But then another opportunity came up that was too good."

Did he ever consider saying no, and sticking with what he had? "Yes, definitely," he says. "But the team that I have with me in the restaurants, people can only grow so far. When other opportunities come my way, I look at the people around me and I think, 'maybe that person would be amazing for that role…' and it's a step up for them. If we'd stayed with the one place, I don't think we could have kept the people we have."

As a rationale, this is very telling about Gill's general modus operandi. Unlike the kind of chef who runs a kitchen like a barracks, complete with rigid hierarchy and punitive regime, Gill is collaborative, involved, and connected to those he works with.

Robin and his wife Sarah
Robin and his wife Sarah

This plays out in many ways, but perhaps the most significant is that there isn't one rule for Gill and another for those who work for him. When Ziggy, Gill's son with wife Sarah, was born nearly four years ago, his life changed - "I calmed down," he says with a smile; "before, I was burning the candle at both ends. I had all this mad energy and I was really running myself into the ground. Now, I think I'm a lot more focused. I learned how to balance my time, because I need to spend time with Ziggy, I need time for myself, time for the business."

But he didn't stop there. "I've learned to try to find a better work-life balance for all of us. That's a lot to do with being a father. Once you start thinking about a balance, you do think about everybody else. We've made a conscious effort to reduce the hours for everyone in our business. I'm trying to make a better life for myself, but then, I have to do the same for everybody else who works with us as well. I want it to be sustainable," he says. "There's no point working everybody to the bone and achieving great things then crashing."

When Gill says 'we', he means it. It's not a royal we, or a 'we' that extends to just one other person; it's a 'we' involving the whole team, that takes into account their well-being and happiness. As such, it's not very typical of restaurant culture. Perhaps deliberately so.

Gill has been very vocal in denouncing the kind of macho kitchen carry-on that so easily tips over into bullying, and has spoken up about his own horrible experiences in a kitchen early in his career. What kind of response did he get to that?

"It was overwhelming," he says. "I was getting messages through every channel you can think of, from all over the world, even from really established chefs who had a similar sort of scalding in their career. I had thousands of people getting in touch, and not just the restaurant business - from other industries too."

What did he do?

"I tried to advise as much as I could, tell them 'No one needs to take that. We're living in an age, especially in the restaurant business, where you have a choice of where you work. There's a chef shortage'." He gave practical advice too: "I'd give a list of restaurants that I know that have good reputations and that might be looking for staff."

Why did he care so much?

"The worst thing that can happen is that you get someone who is hugely talented, who could have great potential, who is put off by one nasty experience early on. It nearly happened to me, I was like 'right, am I able for this? Am I good enough?' It knocks your confidence."

And so, given his commitment to fairness and decency, it was all the more upsetting to discover that the same kind of thing was happening, secretly, under his nose.

"It happened in my own kitchen not so long ago," he says. "A few years ago. I didn't see it! In a small team. One guy was doing it in a way no one else could see. Picking on a particular person, whispering horrible things in their ear. People don't want to be a rat so they say nothing, but someone else noticed and came to me because they knew how upset I would be that this was happening in my kitchen.

"My dad had just passed away, my mum was over visiting at the time, I was right in the middle of shock and grief, and the person said 'I know it's not the right time but you need to know what's happening…'"

What did he do?

"I just lost it! I couldn't believe it. Right under my nose!" Gill dealt with that situation, but his point is, "this is still a problem, it's still there in the industry".

When Gill says that he loved school, because "I loved my friends, all the camaraderie," I'm not a bit surprised. Clearly, that kind of group dynamic is important. But equally, I'm not surprised to hear that he was "a total messer!" The youngest of four, he went to Presentation College Glasthule; "it was a good school, with great teachers, but nothing really suited me. It was very academic, and not for me. I couldn't concentrate, I was distracted all the time, and bored out of my mind. What I hate about it is that when that happens, you are put into a certain category - that you are not as smart as other kids."

Even before he sat his Leaving Cert, he had persuaded his parents to pay for him to repeat it. And indeed, when the results came back, "It was pretty bad," he laughs. "It could have been worse, but it wasn't going to get me into UCD where I wanted to go." That said, he admits that the reason he wanted to go to UCD "was because my friends were going there. There wasn't any particular subject I wanted to study, I thought I'd mess around there for another three years",

I'm getting the impression of someone who, in that old cliched phrase, was 'breaking his parents' hearts'. And yet, Gill had a moment of revelation, that, with a bit of help, set him on the right path. Halfway through repeating the Leaving, "I suddenly thought - I'm after wasting my parents' money, I can't go through another three years of doing this".

He decided it was time to grow up. "I was ready to tell my parents I wasn't redoing the Leaving, but before that I needed some form of trade, so I got one of my mates to get me an apprenticeship as an electrician. So I had that all ready to go, and then I told my parents."

And this is where things got interesting.

Gill's mother, Mavis Ascott, is a choreographer. "She had a big involvement with Riverdance. She was part of that very first production that went on at the interval of the Eurovision, and at one stage she was managing three shows that were touring worldwide."

His father, Earl, who married Mavis after his first wife, Deirdre, died, was a well-known musician and bandleader ("the greatest of the great", according to Sonny Knowles).

"He played trumpet," says Robin, "but he was a music producer too, he worked with The Wolfe Tones, with The Dubliners, had his own band, The Hoedowners, who had a few top 20 hits. He was a bit of an all-rounder, he played jazz, classical music, he worked in showbiz. He had a big career, they both did. Those were big shoes to fill."

Did he feel that? "Massively, because they were both really successful. But I think feeling that is good. If you think things are just going to come your way, I think you're screwed! You need that bit of fear."

Gill's parents listened while he told them about his plans to become an apprentice electrician, then said, "'What do you want to do that for?' And my dad suggested I be a chef. As soon as I got into the environment of the kitchen, I loved it. It's like a performance every single night, you feel part of something, there's a flow - when it's so busy but everything works like clockwork without anyone even talking to each other. Apparently it's the same in a band, where musicians will just click and everything happens."

Music, it turns out, could have been another possibility.

"It was one of those things that was just handed to me," he says, "and I messed it up. I had all the skill-set, I had good rhythm, a good ear. I played piano, little bit of guitar. It was just given to me, then I became a young teenager and started not going to my classes, I had a big fight with my dad about it."

However, even though his father wanted him to play, neither parent saw it as a career.

"They were encouraging of me learning, but discouraging of me getting into the business. They felt it had reached a certain point... My dad was a professional musician at the top of his game and he was still getting a lot of gigs, but he could see that a lot of great musicians around Ireland were not getting gigs. He could see it was changing, and that the whole showbiz thing was getting tougher. They had done well, but they could see how hard it was for the next generation."

It sounds as if Earl, who died of prostate cancer four years ago to the day Gill and I meet, was a huge influence. Did his death change Robin?

"I don't know. I don't think it has. He had a wonderful life, he always lived life to the full, and I looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps. I think about him an awful lot and when things, good or bad, happen, I chat to him. My dad was a great one for having a peaceful pint somewhere, so I might go and have a pint somewhere when I come home; go and have a Guinness, maybe in Neary's where they are putting up a plaque to him. I go and sit in his spot there and have a little think about him, a little mental chat with him. But his passing didn't change anything. It doesn't make you value life more, I think I valued it anyway."

Gill met Sarah, now his wife, at a Brasserie Na Mara staff party. Later, they both worked at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir together, and then in The Dairy.

"Our relationship got even better when we started working together," he says. "In fact, I found it hard when we had our son, because she was out of the business for quite a while and I always felt she had everything covered on the floor, and I could have everything covered in the kitchen."

He is frank about the fact that Sarah is a vital calming presence in his life. "I have moments of panic. I might have a day when I freak out - if I think I'm losing control, or I get a negative review online. She can talk me through everything, then I can step back in again. And she's a calming person in a dining room - you get problem customers, some people are just horrible, and she can always deal with them, no matter what.

"I'm not always the most self-confident. You go through stages of yes and no. Most of the time yes, but then sometimes you have moments of extreme self-doubt, lots of things happen at once, two or three things go wrong, and that's when I need to step out of it and talk to my wife."

It has been a busy five years for Gill. He has opened four restaurants, closed one, is soon to open something else. He has been a judge on Celebrity MasterChef, he has a new book, Larder, he became a father and lost his father.

But, he says, he is getting better at handling it all.

"A few years ago, if we had a bad service, I'd go home and beat myself up about it. Now, if something goes wrong, I'll know there's always a solution So small things are not big any more. It's not the end of the world."

Robin appears at this year's Taste of Dublin, inspired by NEFF, which returns to the Iveagh Gardens from June 14 to June 17. Tickets from €15, available now from tasteofdublin.ie 'Larder' is published by Bloomsbury

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