Chef Name: Nelly Robinson
Title: Executive Chef and Owner of Nel. Restaurant
People’s Choice Best Restaurant, Time Out, Sydney 2015, 2016.
#1 Best Restaurant in Australia, Dimmi, 2016.
Nominated for Chef of the Year, Gault & Millau, 2016, 2017.
#79 Best Restaurant in Australia, Financial Review (AFR) Awards, 2018.
#228 World’s Best Chef, Chef Awards, 2018.
How old were you when you started cooking professionally?
I started cooking at the tender age of 14 in a Michelin Star kitchen in the UK. Like many chefs, I started as a humble pot washer and was asked to do other jobs for the kitchen like pick spinach and make mash. From doing these other jobs, I started to see the passion and commitment of the chefs and thought I wanted a piece of that. In 2001 I started my apprenticeship at that same restaurant and then started to work my way through the ranks where my passion for the industry grew and grew.
What’s your earliest and fondest first memory of food?
My home wasn’t a foodie home as my parents weren’t, and still aren’t, massively into fine food, so I had to learn this for myself. They did always ensure that I was well fed and I have always loved food. My earliest and finest food memory was eating my first confit duck leg that was crisped up and served with a potato purée and nutmeg spinach. The flavour and the way the duck fell off the bone has never left me.
Which chefs inspire you most and why?
We are blessed with so many unique chefs in the world that cook with different techniques, styles and flavours, and I respect so many. But if I had to choose, I look up to Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park), Esben Holmboe Bang (Maaemo), Rasmus Kofoed (Geranium) and Grant Achatz (Alinea).
What are your two favourite cookbooks and why?
I love to sit in my office and browse through my books and, like so many chefs, they take over the shelves in the office. My two favourite books at the moment are Maaemo’s new book, because the photography, the dishes and the layout are just beautiful, and I also love Mauro Colagreco’s Mirazur – it’s amazing.
Which two ingredients could you not live without?
Being a Northern Englishman it would have to be potatoes. They are so versatile and delicious. Since moving to Australia it would also have to be chillies. I’m addicted to them in all forms. In the restaurant I love using truffles, especially the Australian ones. They were top quality this winter and went all over the world.
What is your favourite comfort food to cook at home?
There is nothing better than a good Indian curry with naan bread, poppadums and rice, especially when sat on the couch with a movie on. I like to research curries from different regions and teach myself how to cook them with the Nelly twist thrown in now and again.
If you could eat at any Michelin star restaurant in the world today, where would it be and why?
Maaemo by far at the minute. I am in love with Scandinavian cooking and the freshness of the cusine. I recently went to Iceland and the food was stunning. My wife’s family is Danish so I have taken much more of an interest in this part of the world.
And who would you take as your guest?
There is no question that it would be my fiancée Danielle. She is the one who supports me with the long hours in the restaurant and backs me 100% in everything I do. She’s my best friend as well. I just know we would talk and talk for hours while enjoying some amazing food and wine.
What do you look for in a good chef?
Dedication, passion and organisation is the key. Too many times I have seen chefs who are great cooks but can’t organise their kitchens and this lets them down. You also have to have the dedication to do the hours and want to learn all the time. We are so blessed that in our industry you never stop learning and getting inspired.
What advice would you give to chefs starting their career paths now?
When times get tough, pull your pants up, re-tie your apron and go again. If you’re seriously wanting this as your career, you need to be able to take criticism, realise it’s a difficult job with long hours and that reality TV is not what it’s really like. Also, be a sponge. Take in everything that the other chefs are telling you and read as many books as you can but, most of all, enjoy the ride because there are rewards every step of the way.
Chef Nelly Robinson is Chef/Owner at Nel Restaurant.