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©Paul Winch-Furness

Robin Gill: The Man Behind The Dairy

Fresh from our Food & Culture Awards, Robin Gill talks to Chantal Borciani about his Clapham empire and his next venture

When Robin Gill’s first restaurant, Clapham Common’s The Dairy, was being lauded by everyone from Marina O’Loughlin to Claude Bosi, it would have been easy to lose focus. But following the success of his much-celebrated field to fork menu in the heart of Clapham, Robin grew his business on his doorstep, opening sister restaurant Sorella further down Clapham High Street, and Counter Culture, described as ‘The Dairy’s naughty little brother’ just next door to his first-born establishment.

“People instantly got behind The Dairy. South London has always had its few baseline fine dining restaurants but there was nothing that was really accessible at that level and for that price. And I think people loved that produce was at the heart of everything we did – we were growing our own herbs on the rooftop and it was all about the craft, home-made charcuterie, and whole butchery.”

“Clapham has a real sense of community. I call it my home away from home because I was brought up in a village by the coast in Ireland where everybody knew everybody and Clapham has that feel about it. I live in the area and we’ve built up such a fantastic network here.”

A neighbourhood restaurant, with good people and excellent produce; Robin crafts food from the heart and is still charmingly humble for someone with a now sizeable restaurant business empire and reputation.

“I think what was quite nice was that we didn’t have a media company or PR for The Dairy, people just came in to the restaurant and were pleasantly surprised by the experience and soon there was a bit of buzz about us.”

“We started to get quite a few high profile chefs coming in like Tom Aikens and Claude Bosi – I think because their sous chefs had come to The Dairy and had gone back to their kitchen raving about us.”

Yet Robin almost missed one of the biggest names to walk through the door. “I had headed out of the restaurant one day to a nursery to buy some new plants for our rooftop herb and veg garden. My wife, Sarah, suddenly messages me saying “Get the f*** back here, Gordon Ramsay has just walked in!” I raced back to Clapham and the guys were in a bit of a panic but I just told them, just do everything as normal.

“Gordon saw all our bags of top soil and the plants and so after lunch we invited him up on the roof, and he was actually speechless.”

According to the grapevine, Gordon’s reviews were glowing. “I knew some guys who worked in his company and apparently he was going around telling everyone to get down to The Dairy. So that was a real pinch yourself moment, because when you’re in the kitchen working six days a week, trying to grow a business you don’t notice people are talking about you, and then something like that happens.”

This year, Robin opened Darby’s in Nine Elms near Battersea; his largest venue to date, which exudes a refined, relaxed vibe, evocative of 1950s Manhattan. Open from breakfast to dinner, produce still leads the way, with Darby’s boasting a bakery, a central oyster bar and a menu ranging from house-cured mortadella to fresh bagels, Ireland’s finest Dooncastle oysters, day boat fish, Dexter beef, meaty mains and innovative seasonal dishes.

“I wanted to take all of the things that we do in The Dairy and Sorella and really put them on show. A lot of people wouldn’t necessarily know we make our own charcuterie, our own bread, and that we work directly with farms or cook on an open fire but with Darby’s we can really showcase this.”

“I wanted to write a menu that includes those top ten things that never go out of fashion – and a menu where you just want to eat everything. We also have some of the best Guinness in London!”

One of his favourite dishes, he says, has to be the Truffled Baron Bigod; an oozy melted cheese on homemade fig and walnut sourdough, laced with farm-fresh honey. “It kind of sums up everything we do – the homemade bread, the great produce, the sheer comfort and the simplicity of it.”

Next up, Robin will oversee the dining concepts at the new Great Scotland Yard Hotel in Westminster. He partners with Alex Harper on the ambitious project, the duo having met at Raymond Blanc’s iconic Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons where they started on the same week.

“It’s really exciting. We’re doing a whiskey bar and working with small distilleries all around the British Isles and Ireland and will be buying small vintages at auction. There’s also a tea parlour, a fantastic cocktail bar and in the main restaurant, called The Yard, there’s going to be a real focus on game and butchery.

“It will also be a bit of a nod to our careers and to people that we’ve worked for in the past like Raymond Blanc. I can’t wait for everybody to experience it.”