Cooking up a storm
Meet the irish couple who are the rising stars of London's restaurant scene
He is one of the hottest chefs in London, the up-and-coming star of a hugely competitive culinary scene that demands rare levels of talent, innovation and determination. Robin Gill has just been named the UK's Chef of The Year by The Good Food Guide, an award that puts him right up there with the very biggest names in the business. But in his native Ireland, he remains very much under the radar.
Robin and his wife Sarah run three of the most talked about restaurants in London. This August, they added Paradise Garage in Bethnal Green to a burgeoning chain that began with The Dairy in Clapham and continued with the much-lauded Manor. And it all began in a run-down Irish pub in one of the less glamorous corners of South West London, where a sudden flash of inspiration interrupted a post-work, early-hours pint.
Robin (35) and Sarah (34) first met when they were in their early 20s and he was doing a short stint working in a restaurant in Dun Laoghaire, where they both grew up. "It was a really fun place to work, and I knew a lot of people there," Robin says. " I got invited to the staff Christmas party and Sarah was working there, so we met, and we've been together ever since."
Robin's early career saw him go straight from school to working in restaurants in Dublin and then progressing through the "stage" system, where young chefs with lots of promise intern in the top kitchens. It's a tough, often unforgiving system. Soon after they met, Sarah went over to Italy to join Robin while he was on a stage at the two-Michelin star Ristorante Don Alfonso on the Amalfi Coast. Then it was back to London in 2004, for two years at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons where he worked under Raymond Blanc.
"It is an amazing way to learn the business and to develop your skills, you are working under the best," says Robin. "But there is a big element of having to prove yourself. It's long hours, hard work, a fair bit of pressure." Sarah had also joined the front of house team at Le Manoir. And then the French-born super-chef asked them both to head up his latest venture, a five-star dining and hospitality private members club at the Emirates Stadium, home to Premier League football team Arsenal. "It was called the Diamond Club and it was the first time anybody had tried to do fine dining at a football club," says Sarah. "Robin was the head chef for two years. At first I was only supposed to go in and train the staff, but I ended up working there myself for seven years."
It was a big break for Robin, working for the high-rollers who paid £80,000 just to join and an annual membership fee of £30,000 to dine on match days. But he didn't find it the most rewarding experience of his career. "I wanted to be out of there after the first week," he says. "But I had made a commitment, so I ended up there for two years, mostly out of loyalty to Raymond."
The couple, who married in Florence in 2011, both knew that what they really wanted was to set up their own restaurant. That is easier said than done in London, where sky-high rents, operating costs and tough competition make it a huge challenge. "You are not Gordon Ramsay, you are not Jason Atherton. When you are a nobody, the only venue you are going to be offered is the last piece of crap on the market," explains Robin. Following a short but very lucrative stint as the personal chef to a Middle Eastern head of state, by 2012 Robin had gotten some savings together alongside offers of backing from some of the well-heeled clientele who had sampled his cooking at Arsenal.
But they didn't have a venue. And that's where what was possibly the worst Irish pub in London came in. "We were living in Clapham, and this used to be a pretty shabby old Irish pub. A real late-night den, an absolute dive," says Robin. "It only opened a couple of nights a week but stayed open until 6am so I could come for a couple of drinks after finishing up in town. We had been looking for a place to start for nearly three years and getting nowhere. I was really starting to wonder if we could find a place at all. Then I was in here one night and the guy who owned it was telling me that he was thinking of selling up the lease and moving on."
It was a bit of a light-bulb moment for Robin and Sarah. They scraped together the cash to get the lease and then started calling in favours from friends. "We didn't have an interior decorator. We couldn't afford one," says Sarah. "A friend of ours, an Irish guy, did all of the artwork. We tore down walls, got friends in to help strip wallpaper and sand floors, we were still waiting for paint to dry about an hour before we opened that first night."
That was in early 2013, and soon they started getting hugely positive reviews in Time Out, in The Guardian and pretty much from everybody in the know. "It was very stressful, because we just started getting reviewed, and we hadn't had the time or the money to do a proper opening, we didn't even know how these reviewers were hearing about us," says Sarah. "And it's London, so a good or bad review from a big magazine or paper, well, it can make or break you."
The Gills, however, were very much made. Since then, the Dairy and the Manor - which opened in Clapham in November 2014 - have become destination dining spots, with people flying in to London just to sample Robin's fantastic cooking.
It has been a meteoric rise for the couple. When we meet, it's clear they make a dynamic team. Robin has his skills and creativity in the kitchen while Sarah, who studied marketing before getting into the restaurant trade, brings a lot to the table in terms of hard work, organisation and vision. Both of them are very focused on the business of the restaurant trade in London.
Their son, Ziggy, is almost a year old and has virtually grown up in the restaurant. Sarah can be seen in the Dairy on busy Saturdays, handing out menus to the lunchtime crowd with one hand while holding Ziggy on her hip with the other. "It's been a bit mad. And we are trying to cut back on the hours, it's very important with our son being so young. So we'll take a break after Christmas, and head off for a month," says Sarah.
"We work together most days and it can be a bit high-pressure, running three restaurants. You could end up just working flat-out, every hour God sends. That would not be the life we want. We're both conscious of getting that balance right, of being able to step back and take a break when we can."
Robin is already looking at offers for a newspaper column, his first cook-book, possible TV work. But when he talks about the fisherman in Cornwall who texts him at 4am to say what kind and quantity of fish he will be sending up that morning, or the guy who grows his veg, it's clear to see that his main focus is still on the food.
And London is taking notice. Apart from the stellar reviews, crowds of customers and awards, Robin is now hosting a semi-legendary late-night dining club for his fellow chefs from the city's best eateries, a once-a-month bacchanalian bash known as the Bloodshot Supper Club.
The restaurant crowd only sit down for their starters at 1am and it goes on all night. It's almost as if this Irish chef is preserving one small bit of the spirit of The Worst Irish Bar in London.