A Dish is Made: An Interview with Nelly Robinson

by Nelly Robinson

There’s so much detail is your cooking. It must take a lot of drive and discipline to maintain.
Correct. There's a lot of detail. I'm a driven being, I've been driven all my life. You probably saw that in the way I work. Next week, we're doing a crab dish with pimms. The detail that's going into that... We've got to set jelly three times, then put it directly on top. Anyhow, it's crazy.
It's creative. It's a creative thing. You go to other restaurants, more traditional restaurant style cooking, and you can kind of see the progression of a dish. You're thinking to yourself, "I see how you got here.” You're an Italian chef. Now you're working in a progressive Italian restaurant, and you've taken this dish and turned it into this, and I can see that." This process seems more of a stretch for your dishes. How long does it take to develop a dish?
A month. We change the menu every month.
Do you proactively plan that, or does it happen organically?
I use what's in season. I'm always on the phone. I charge my phone twice a day because I'm always on the phone to suppliers. Always on the phone with the fish guys, the veg guys, "What have you got? What can you get me that people in Sydney can't get?" We're using watermelon radish at the minute, which is a fabulous product. Certain places will be using it, I'm sure, but I don't see it on the menu anywhere else. We've got these beautiful baby radishes, and they're going on next month.

"I'm a driven being, I've been driven all my life."

So peppery, and so intense. When you've got one of them, that high quality, it makes the dish.
We're always on the phone, but we're always creating. Take lunch times; we change the menu every week. That way, lunch is a chance to get the right flavours matching for the new menu. We're often working on the new menu two months in advance.
You've got a really strict process? You would need to, I suppose.
We need to have a strict process. If you don't stick by it, you won't create, and you'll just have the same boring menu on for the next two years.
Then you're not going to be motivated, and the staff aren't going to be learning, they're not going to be motivated.
You're dangling carrots to the staff as well. You come up with dishes, we work on them, we get flavors together, we create, we present.
It's a collective process, it's collaborative?
Oh yes. Every kitchen in Sydney will be the same I’m assuming. It's not just us.
Not just the executive chef coming up with everything?
It’s not just the Neil Perry's or Martin Benz’s that do all the creating. It'll be him, the head chef, sitting down around the table. "What can we use this month?" Or I'll come into the kitchen and say, "We have to use this next month." I’ll say to Fabian, my sous chef, "You come up with an idea, I’ll come up with an idea, then let’s bring them together." Dishes are made.

We had a dish on the other month with beef cheek and oxtail. I'm an oxtail fan and a beef cheek fan coming from where I'm from.

"You need to have a strict process. If you don't stick by it, you won't create, and you'll just have the same boring menu on for the next two years."

How could you not be, though? What's there not to like?
We cook the beef cheek for 10 hours and we cook the oxtail for 10 hours, then we press the oxtail into a mold and make a toasty out of it. An oxtail toasty. People went absolutely mental for it. People are still emailing asking for it to go back on the menu. The dish is amazing, we’ll bring it back eventually. We've created more and more, like the coffee beef I’ve given you the recipe for - it's off the menu next week. We've got a lamb dish going on, the flavours of where I'm from, a hot pot. It's got deep fried oyster in there, carrot…
Deep fried oyster, there you go.
Bringing the old school back. Pickled cabbage. We're going to cook it for 15 hours, then press it together. Set it and then press it, so that's another 5-6 hours. That's nearly a day's worth of prep already. Then we cut it, fry it, and when you eat it, it just melts. The lamb actually just melts in your mouth.

"You come up with an idea, I’ll come up with an idea, then let’s bring them together." 

When's that coming up?
Next week. It's a special one.
It has to be Tuesday, so I can come on Wednesday. I leave on Thursday.
There you go, Wednesday then.
If I can get a table…

...we did get a table and it was, as expected, unforgettable. Make a reservation at nel. now.

Nelly Robinson has 5 recipes for you to try at home:
Granny's Apple Crumble
Ham Chips with Pea Puree
Kingfish with Watermelon Radish
Beetroot Crème brûlée
Coffee Beef Tri Tip

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About the Author

Nelly Robinson

Spearheading the nel. kitchen is chef Nelly Robinson, celebrated for his contemporary interpretations of modern Australian dishes. Inspired by past experiences working with acclaimed chef Nigel Howarth (Michelin-starred Northcote Manor, UK), Nelly’s robust understanding and appreciation of the... Read Full Bio

Food for Thought

Gorgonzola, Apple and Thyme Quiche
Bruschetta with Walnuts
Beetroot Tzatziki
Granny's Apple Crumble