Fine dining gets a bad rep for being stuffy and formal. But as the world starts to open up, and the concept of luxury starts to be redefined, diners are starting to catch on to the fact that an epicurean meal doesn’t necessarily have to be served with a white glove.
British chef Nelly Robinson certainly thinks so. As head chef and owner at Sydney’s hip nel. restaurant, Robinson has made a name for himself with his unique take on fine dining — one that’s gleaming with both childlike enthusiasm and finesse.
His “Once Upon A Time” degustation menu made headlines last year when it launched, featuring a bevy of gourmet dishes inspired by classic Disney movies. The dish that drew the most side-eye emojis and chatter? That’d be “Bambi’s Mum”, a venison dish replete with a blood-red beetroot sauce and a herb mix served in — wait for it — rifle casings.
“I always remember that scene of Bambi’s mum dying,” says Robinson wistfully. “I think everyone cried when (she) got shot… well, I know I did.”
He adds, cheerfully: “Growing up in the UK, we have amazing game meat, so I’m used to cooking it — I thought for the menu we needed a main course that firstly tastes amazing, that’s in theme with the films, and that’s a bit unexpected to get people talking.
“It was a good opportunity to showcase venison — the cheeky side of me brought the shotgun cases into it.”
Robinson’s infectious energy and humour are evident in the rest of his “Once Upon A Time” menu, which has been updated for this year. The menu starts off with savoury “Eat Me” cookies — served in a hollowed-out copy of Alice in Wonderland — and includes courses like “You Shall Go To The Ball”, a pumpkin bread served with dukka and oil, and “Melted Snowman”, an adorable abomination made of black garlic bread, yoghurt, and of course, a carrot nose.
Bambi’s mum doesn’t make an appearance this year: instead, in the eponymous “Bambi and Thumper” course, diners will be greeted by a venison carpaccio served with rabbit terrine, all surrounded by forest-foraged greens.
“I think most people love a good Disney movie, new or old, whatever age you are,” says Robinson. “I’m no exception — I just might love them a bit more than others. Plus, this menu couldn’t have come at a better time. Don’t we all need a bit of magic in our lives right now?”
Robinson’s whimsical 11-course walk down memory lane isn’t just a gimmick, either: The restaurant and the special degustation menu has received rave reviews. And despite some critics mirthfully naming him the “chef who killed Bambi’s mother”, Robinson says that whenever he serves the menu, it’s like having “96 children instead of 96 adults” in the dining room.
“The dishes are fun, and naturally that make guests giddy and smile,” quips Robinson. “We take guests on a three-hour journey through their childhood memories.”
As Robinson puts it, he believes that fine dining isn’t mutually exclusive with fun. “I feel like more modern fine dining restaurants around the world have stepped away from the traditional white table cloths, and brought more of a chill feel to fine dining,” says Robinson, 34. “I also think my generation of chefs wanted to create a different type of dining experience — and we’ve done that.”
While he adds that he still loves visiting more “traditional” fine dining restaurants — “cheese trolley and all” — Robinson believes that the world of haute cuisine is starting to open up a little more.
“In Australia, I think there are quite a few people that are intimidated by the words “fine dining”, and without our playful nature at nel. restaurant, they may never have come and tried it.”
As for what’s next for the good-humoured chef? Nel. restaurant is in the process of planning for its Christmas menu, one that Robinson mysteriously quips “is always fun to create”. He’s also conjuring up ideas for next year — and judging by Disney’s backlog of departed parental figures, he’s got plenty of material to draw from.