Dining at the degustation-only restaurant, nel., is a unique, fun and surprising experience—and Nelly Robinson plans on keeping it that way. By Kerryn Ramsey
Nelly Robinson’s career path was set at the age of 14 when he began working as a kitchen hand in the Michelin-starred Northcote Manor in Lancashire, UK. At 15, he was working full-time in the kitchen to complete his apprenticeship. He then spent years travelling around the UK and beyond, working in renowned restaurants while carefully honing his craft. In 2010, he arrived in Australia and in 2016, at age 29, opened the 40-seat nel. in Sydney’s Surry Hills.
What inspired your move to Australia?
After working in England, Europe and Asia, I was fascinated by the produce available in Australia. Things like pepper berries and quandong were completely unknown to me. In our game, you never stop learning and I embraced the new experiences that Australia offered. Mind you, I only had 37 pounds when I arrived so I was destined to stay here and work for a while. I met Danielle [Robinson’s then girlfriend, now wife] which gave me an excellent reason to stay on this side of the world.
Did you have a clear vision of nel. from the beginning?
I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve in regard to dishes, atmosphere and the dining experience but when I tried to explain it to the staff, they looked at me like I was mad. It took about 18 months to evolve nel. into what I always believed it should be.
What are the challenges of completely changing the degustation menu every 10 weeks?
While the produce is really good in Australia, we struggle to keep consistency. There are factors such as droughts, floods and fires, but there’s also the problem of appropriateness—I don’t know why we try to grow carrots in hot climates. When I meet with producers, farmers and fishermen, I have to ensure they can supply quality produce for the next 10 weeks.
I’m constantly thinking of new items to add to the menu and running those concepts past my wife. We’ll organise the structure of the menu then have a sit-down and discussion with the staff. Changing the menu so frequently is challenging but it inspires us to keep pushing ourselves.
Is there a danger in offering such an inventive, playful menu?
Most people are surprised when they first eat at nel. They often expect it to be fine dining, which it’s not. Each guest is taken on a journey, where there’s a story with each dish. It can’t be explained in pictures—you have to physically sit down and experience it for yourself. A small proportion of people who have been here just don’t get it. Everyone else loves the chance to be taken on a journey, often back to their childhood. After the meal, when people are walking back up the stairs, we want them to go, “Jesus! What an experience!” And we want them to tell 10 of their friends.
How do you retain staff?
It’s definitely easier to retain kitchen staff than front of house. I think working in the kitchen is still seen as a career. I’m very willing to take on younger staff and train them. Gavin Ganda, for example, was a college student at 21 and now, at 26, he’s worked his way up to sous chef. I could see the passion in him from the start.
It’s difficult to find front-of-house staff under the age of 26 who want to stay for any length of time. In the past four years, it’s been a constant struggle to keep those positions filled.
That being said, we’ve also had some amazing staff who have embraced our vision. Callum Burks, our former head chef, was here for four years, and Fabian Mucke, my new head chef, has been here for 18 months. They’re both intrinsic to the success of nel.
Do you manage a healthy work-life balance?
After five years of business, I’ve found that by naming the restaurant, nel., people expect Nel to be there. While that can be a negative, it’s also a positive in that people want to meet you, which I’m always happy to do. [Though]having recently married Danielle, I’m determined to spend time with her.
What does the future hold for nel.?
We just signed a new lease so we’re staying in Sydney for at least three more years. I have a passion for making sure Sydney’s dining scene is vibrant and lively. As restaurateurs, we have to offer something different so people still go out and dine. I’m planning a food festival in October and November featuring five Michelin-starred chefs from around the world. We’re also going to have a ticketed event where people can meet the chefs and have a drink with them.
Over the next couple of years, we’ll continue to help Sydney’s dining scene, have fun, smile and see what the future holds after that.