23 August 2018
As a troubled teenager, Luke Robinson joined Fifteen’s apprentice scheme — it changed his life. People underestimate the celebrity chef, he says
As Luke Robinson peers over the top of his black Polo Ralph Lauren glasses at me, after staring forlornly at a pork pie mixture threaded with sage and anchovies, I detect panic in his eyes. “I’m quite stressed,” he admits. Then he laughs. “It’s a logistical nightmare.”
The chef is usually found behind the kitchen counter at Evelyn’s Table — the intimate Soho restaurant owned by Zoë and Layo Paskin, who also run the Palomar and the Barbary — but today he’s in a development kitchen in north London, finalising a shortlist of dishes for an event for Krug to be hosted by Jools Holland aboard a Pullman train at the end of the month.
As it chugs through the English countryside from Victoria station, London, stopping for musical interludes, Robinson, 34, will be in charge of the grub. It will be “an all-day affair” and the chef says he intends to keep it “simple”, but it takes him half an hour to talk me through the dishes that are vying to make the cut, including crab tarts with caviar, and ice-cream cones filled with salmon mousse.
Lobster is pencilled in for the breakfast menu. “Eggs Drumkilbo was the Queen Mother’s favourite breakfast,” he says. “It’s very classic, but we’re jazzing it up by using quails’ eggs, and prawns and white crab as well as lobster.”
The dish was the wedding breakfast of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Philips in 1973, but it’s likely those royal chefs had an easier time preparing it. “The kitchen on the train is not big enough,” he smiles. “The chef who normally works on it just does scones and tea.”
Given that the basement restaurant in which Robinson works has room for only 15 customers, it’s surprising that space restrictions are a concern, but he has the experience to work around the problem. He was one of the first graduates of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, the restaurant-come-charity that took disadvantaged young people and trained them to cook. Not only was he a protégé of Oliver, he’s also one of Heston Blumenthal’s, having moved to the three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Bray after leaving Fifteen, and of Simon Rogan too, thanks to a stint at Roganic in London.
It’s tempting to see Robinson as a combination of all three of his mentors — he’s as obsessed with seasonal ingredients as Rogan, but much more charming. From Blumenthal there’s a hint of invention, plus those rectangular black glasses, yet he’s 6ft 3in and dapperly hirsute. From Oliver he’s learnt a love of Italy, speaking the language fluently, but he has none of Oliver’s boisterousness. Still, he’s fiercely protective of the celebrity chef when I bring up the current brouhaha in the news concerning the authenticity of Oliver’s microwavable jerk rice.
“The whole argument is ridiculous, really,” he says.
“I had a chat with him earlier about it, and I’m not going to go into what we said, but he’s ruffled a few feathers in his time and people are so quick to jump on him now.”
The same might have been said about Robinson once. He had a rocky relationship with his parents while growing up in Sheffield, and was sofa surfing with friends by the age of 15. “I was very naughty,” he says, quite uncomfortably. “I have three brothers and two sisters and I guess I was too much hard work on top of that. I don’t want to go into what exactly happened, but it was quite messed up.”
From the age of 14, he worked as a pot washer in restaurants, but Robinson had no interest in food until he was served a risotto by the cooks one day. “I was super-fussy,” he says. “I didn’t like the flavour of anything. But trying restaurant food for the first time had a huge effect.
“I still don’t eat much myself, as you can see,” he says, holding out his chef’s jacket as though he’s skin and bone underneath, “but I love cooking with what’s seasonal. I love fish that’s one day out of the sea, and strawberries from Cornwall that are so purple in colour they’re almost black. I don’t need to mess around with flavours to prove I’m a clever cook.”
When he first moved to London with his then girlfriend he struggled. “I was 18 and knocking on the doors of nice restaurants and being turned away because I hadn’t been to college. I find it quite embarrassing now,” he says, grimacing. But it was 2002 and Fifteen was just launching — his girlfriend’s father suggested he apply. “Thousands of people wanted a place, but we were whittled down to 30 and went to Wales with Jamie on a sort of team-building trip. They took me, I think, partly because I already had an interest in food, but I had also had a difficult few years. I was talking to my parents a little by then, but I couldn’t go home and I couldn’t find a job in London.”
The restaurant’s opening was televised for a Channel 4 programme, Jamie’s Kitchen and various social researchers followed the progress of the apprentices to see how they coped. “Young people who train at Fifteen have faced a familiar, depressing litany of problems,” an independent social report published in 2007, called Fifteen: Life in the present tense, stated.
Robinson saw them first-hand. “In each year there seemed to be a single mum, a young gay guy, someone from a good background who was lost, someone who’d just got out of prison — some of the people there you didn’t really want to be giving a knife,” he says, only half joking. There were also damaged kids from the care system, young offenders and drug dealers who’d been making £800 profit a week. “But it was amazing, especially if you already had an interest in cooking because it was a university of food,” Robinson says.
He thinks the magic of the place was down to Oliver. “Nobody realised at the time, but Jamie was so ahead of his time. He was teaching us the importance of knowing where your food comes from, of sustainability and seasonality 16 years ago. Now everyone talks about those things, but back then no one did — Jamie had such foresight.”
Were his parents more proud of him when he graduated? “I think so,” he says, adding that they’re on “all-right terms now”. But he didn’t move back home. Instead he went to work at the Fat Duck, which was as “mad” as you might imagine, he says.
“Heston would come in and brain-dump mad ideas he’d had. I was climbing trees for oak moss and I was once sent to Camden to buy an electric bong that we could use as a smoker. The thing that interested me most about Heston was that he didn’t have a background in food, but he made everything possible.”
The “endgame”, he says, is to have his own place. Hopefully it will be somewhere slightly less confined than the Pullman carriage for the Krug event. Robinson puffs out his cheeks in a way that suggests he doesn’t even want to think about that yet. “We’re doing most of the cooking on the platforms,” he says. “I’m going to need a bottle of champagne myself by the time the train pulls back into Victoria.”
Tracks on Tracks is on Friday, August 31, krugencounters.co.uk