Who’s hiding behind Robert? Tell us your story?
I’ve been cooking in restaurants since I was 16. I started out diving in Adelaide, Australia. When I was 19, I moved to London to pursue my dream of working in Michelin starred restaurants. There, I spent eight years cooking for different chefs up to a 2-star level. Then the opportunity came to move to Paris. I’ve been in France for over four years.
I started in the restaurant business when I was in England where, alongside my rugby club, I worked in a partner restaurant. I then opened my first bar in Madrid, then a restaurant in Paris (both sold since) and finally I opened the bar Martin, which for me was the beginning of an awareness of the need to source our products developing the shortest possible supply chains.
My job is making films. First documentaries, and now fiction. They all plough the same furrow of rural life, products from the land, wine, farming. Because I grew up on a farm, surrounded by the fields, the animals and my vegetable garden. My father and my grandparents were farmers in Poitou. So I quite naturally found myself drawn to the restaurant business. I discovered a stimulating environment and exceptional professionals by associating myself first with Loïc at the Martin, and then Audrey Jarry and Jean-Charles Buffet, the proprietors of Au Passage et Buffet.
What do you eat there, and what do you drink?
Natural wines! At the risk of being unpopular, I don’t think organic wine is very interesting. We must go further with natural wines. This is what Elise Doan, our sommelier, thinks. To understand natural wines you have to understand the wine growers. Given the climatic and fungal concerns they have had in recent years, we can understand their caution. But organic is still just a step in my eyes. The next step is Demeter, or biodynamic agriculture. And then another step further is natural wine. It is no longer necessarily difficult to understand. Winegrowers have experienced so much in the last 10 to 15 years that they now have mastery of their vines. The secret lies in the control of the vinification and manufacturing processes. But it took time to relearn the traditional skills and expertise. As proof of the quality of their work, natural wines can now be kept: the oldest wine we have drunk was eight years old, it was delicious.
There is no label for natural wines. The closest label would be the “S.A.I.N.S. Wines (Without Addition of Inputs or Sulphites)” label. But what we must understand is that, paradoxically, we are still in the early years of this product. The important thing, in the end, is, as with food, the taste of what you have in the glass. The problem is that now the winemaker only makes wine. Previously, there was the farm with the cows, the vegetable garden, cereals. They were diversified, so they could live even if, one year, the grape harvest was a catastrophe. Now we have single-product operations. This hyper-specialisation is quite unique in agriculture! And it can be the cause of excess production.
How do you choose the producers you work with?
We don’t like to highlight labels. At Martin, we like it to be the plate and the product that speaks, as well as the customer feedback. Our garden in the country does not have organic certification (because we have never applied for it), but we work in the most natural way possible. What is important is that the relationship between producer-restaurateur and, more broadly, producer-consumer which is at the heart of things. Good food is the result of a journey, of personal development. The meeting with the Passage team personally opened my eyes to natural wines and products: the most important thing is not the price but what comes out of it. I’ll give you a simple example: the carrot from Metro. It’s a week or two old, the tops are decaying, the skin is withered, and so one can only use the heart. We had the carrot collected from our Burgundian market on Monday, we serve it on Tuesday, and we use everything, the tops the skin and the heart of it. And it has real flavour! So instead of using two for a portion, we will use half that. We gain so much in flavour. That is why “farm-to-fork” is a good solution.
Can you tell us about the gardens in the Pays de Loire?
I grew up on a farm with intensive techniques, where chemistry offered solutions for ever greater production. That was the model and we had no choice. My father was a victim of this system, which I have since denounced through my films but also through my restaurants. It showed me another way and helped me to return to the land with my head held high: respecting what it gives us and respecting those who work with it. After two trial seasons, we started producing our own vegetables on the banks of the Loire, near Sancerre. This approach has allowed us to re-root ourselves a little more firmly in the soil. We sow and plant more than 90 varieties of untreated natural organic seeds selected by the chefs at Martin and Robert. We don’t use pesticides at all. It is essential for us to be able to trace our vegetables from the field to the plate. The quality and freshness are unbeatable. The first harvests have begun!
Why the name, Robert?
I have always had a passion for food (eating and cooking it), and for work and a sense of family. Those things that I am sure of, they were given to me by my mother and father. Robert is my father’s first name and it is an absolute pleasure to name my first restaurant after him.
Who was responsible for the interior design?
We wanted to create a place where you feel good, with a good energy. The open kitchen is the central element of the restaurant. We designed it with Athanor, a French manufacturer of custom-made stoves. Peter’s cooking involves a lot of work with fresh produce and we wanted to show it all. It’s like a show. And it is reassuring to be able to see everything. That’s why we created the “Chef’s table”, a counter where four people can eat with a view of the kitchen, and in direct interaction with the chefs. Peter had some quite specific ideas about the decoration So did we. Marie Pommepuy, our decorator, helped us to realise them. We have favoured wood, steel and natural materials, always with comfort in mind. The decoration is chic but not overdone, so as not to be yet another restaurant where there is more going on in the decoration than on the plate.
We have also been out treasure hunting. Northern Europe has long been a benchmark for interior design. The Scandinavians, for example, are accustomed to changing their furniture regularly. So we went to an antique dealer in Brussels to get chairs. To match them up comfortably, we opted for Danish chairs, with rush seats, from the 70s and 80s. They are period!
In a few words, how would you describe Robert?
Robert is a fairly classic restaurant that fits perfectly into the 11th arrondissement of Paris It is a restaurant where people come to eat, drink and enjoy the simple act of sharing a meal with friends and/or family. It was my dream to have a restaurant one day. Robert is that dream come true!
A gastro bistro, with an atmosphere created by enthusiasts (staff, producers, winegrowers…) and an ethical approach. One to discover!
Photography & Text: Eve Campestrini – Translation: TextMaster @thesocialitefamily