Chef Nelly Robinson is of the famed Sydney restaurant, nel, and began his culinary adventures at the age of 15 in England’s Michelin-starred restaurant Northcote Manor. The Lancashire-born chef’s restaurant boasts an experimental, fun and seasonal menu which changes every ten weeks and is injected with Nelly’s own fun-loving personality.
How did your love for cooking begin?
My dad kicked me out of the house at the age of 14 and told me I had to get a job. I knew a local two Michelin star restaurant down the road in Lancashire called Northcote Manor, and did a pot washing job there. One day the executive chef at the time said he wanted to get me into the kitchen and I chose it purely down to seeing the passion in the chefs running around, getting the buzz, prepping and seeing whole fishes and beautiful pieces of meat. I started my apprenticeship at 15 and never looked back.
What drives your food?
The cooking style we try to bring to nel. is fun. We’re very creative and have a story behind each menu that we do, so we’re doing fun, creative food on a plate that just makes people smile. I think a lot of it comes from personality. I’m a fun, loving chap. I’m very relaxed and love life and I want the restaurant to be very similar to the way I am in real life.
What is the story behind the Once Upon a Time menu?
It is about everybody from 70 to 80-year-olds, all the way down to 14,15 and 16-year-olds. We’ve all watched and grown up with Disney films. We all know the Lady and the Tramp for its kiss scene and so we created a dish around that. It’s quite a unique and clever way of doing menus because people can bring their emotions to the restaurant as well as enjoy the food. The menu was very successful here and it was like I was serving 96 children instead of 96 adults, it was really beautiful to see.
How did you come up with the ideas for the individual dishes?
I sat in the office and watched all 34 original films. We either had to use a character or a scene from a Disney film, like our Cinderella dish, Bippity Boppity Boo. It’s all about the pumpkin and that scene is quite iconic for young girls who see her getting taken to the ball. For that dish, one of our suppliers produced a smaller pumpkin which we serve inside a big pumpkin with smoke that comes out.
What do you hope your guests take away from this unique dining experience?
I want my guests to become a child for the night and sit back and relax, smile and really take the memories and movies and really enjoy themselves, and they’ll absolutely adore it.
How has your cooking evolved over the years?
The cooking has evolved massively, because I’ve been very fortunate to have learned from amazing chefs around the world, learning their techniques and culinary expertise. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked as well as since I’ve opened nel., because you’ve got to stamp your own personality onto that food. With that, you create your own style of cooking which is very fun, inventive.
Your favourite ingredients to work with?
I love spice, chilli, curry powder, turmeric, and then day-to-day I love things like garlic, salt and shallots. In Australia, I love finger limes as they’re quite a unique, stunning ingredient. It’s like fruit caviar that basically pops in your mouth and tastes like lime. I also love pine—you can smoke it and put it through ice cream, present on it, use it in butter, sauces, so I love it.
What has been your most challenging dish to create?
I think the hardest dish we had to make was actually Under the Sea, because when you make bubbles they tend to pop straight away. It took us about 2-3 weeks to get the bubbles right, to stabilise them.
What inspires your cooking?
I get out and about—walking the dog, seeing things, going to other restaurants, seeing flavour matchings, reading books. We’ve done pork doughnuts for the new nel. South Wales menu which people here are going mental for and that came from me having one at the supermarket. I looked down at it, and I thought, ‘Why can’t we make this out of pork?’.
What makes a dish memorable?
Any dish around the world needs to be memorable in its flavour. You can present a dish well and bring it out of a rabbit hat and put smoke everywhere, but if it hasn’t been cooked right it won’t matter if it’s come out on a gold bar, it’s still not good enough.
As long as it tastes delicious, that’s the most memorable thing of all.
6th-9th November. Priced at RM480+, The Brasserie, Level 2, St. Regis KL. Tel: 0327276666.
Chef Nelly’s Top Five
Under the Sea
It depicts a scene from the Little Mermaid and Sebastian the crab himself is in the bottom of this dish, which looks like you’re under the sea. We make edible bubbles out of tomato water, bubble it up with a fish tank with oxygen in the water. We build macadamia puree with crab and sea succulents, then put these bubbles on the top so it’s completely covered.