Robin Read: “This project is about me returning to my roots as a cook and pushing myself”

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Robin Read on his The Counter restaurant in Tunbridge Wells

Related tags Robin Read Firmdale Hotels The Counter Tunbridge Wells Chefs

After a long stint with a major London hotel group, the former Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis chef is going it alone with an ambitious restaurant in his hometown of Tunbridge Wells.

How does it feel to be doing your own thing after 16 years overseeing the food at Firmdale Hotels?

I can’t wait to get back into the kitchen. Towards the end of my time at Firmdale I felt that I was getting further and further away from the kitchen. I was in my whites, but usually on the wrong side of the pass. This project is about me returning to my roots as a cook and pushing myself. I don’t feel like a 50 year old, I feel 25. I’m so excited about what this place could be. 

How long has The Counter been in the works? 

My wife (Greta Boccia) and I have been looking for a site for the past six years but it took me leaving Firmdale (at the tail end of the pandemic in 2021) to make it happen. We started off doing tasting menus in people’s homes, which led to a month-long pop up at a little coffee shop in the village we live in (which is just outside Tunbridge Wells). We figured that if we could get people to come to that, a restaurant in the centre of town would be viable. We have funded the project ​with our own savings and some extra cash from my family. I met Greta at Firmdale when she was a restaurant supervisor there. We now have a two-year-old son so she won’t be at the restaurant all the time but she will put her stamp on it through the staff training. She will also oversee the wine list.

Why Tunbridge Wells?

I grew up here and went to catering college in Tonbridge, which is just down the road. I’ve spent the past 25 years working in London and commuted for most of it from Tunbridge Wells. My friends and family are largely here. I have dreamt of having a restaurant in my hometown since my early days as a chef. 

How has the launch gone? 

We have just opened the doors following a soft launch for friends and family and a few influencers. We’ve had great contractors but I have been very involved with the build. I spent the best part of a month painting the place so I’m pleased to finally be cooking. It’s a 200-year-old building so we’ve had a fair few surprises. We have tried to embrace the building’s original features rather than covering them up with modern elements. 

What is your food like? 

My style is quite classic; I worked for Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, and the Roux Brothers prior to Firmdale. But it will be light. I won’t be using as much butter and cream as we did back then and we will also bring in some more modern elements. I’m going to be cooking during every service. We are launching with a five, eight and 10-course menu (costing £60, £95 and £125 respectively). We are only offering the 10-course menu at the counter. We will use it to develop dishes for the next month’s menus, so it will be more experimental in style. It will sometimes feature treats like caviar and truffle, but only when they are suited to the dishes we are serving. We want the food at The Counter to be as good as it possibly can be. We have ambitions to be a lot more than the best in Tunbridge Wells. 

You spent a lot of your career at Firmdale. It must have been a good fit for you... 

Yes it was. I was originally employed as the head chef of the group’s Soho hotel. The ops director at the time wanted to fight against the stigma of the hotel restaurant. A few years later I ended up looking after all the kitchens in the group. I stayed on because there was always something new going on. We opened five new hotels in total while I was there including one in New York. We also opened a bakery and chef school. 

Who has had the biggest influence on your career and how you cook? 

Marco and Nico. But for different reasons. From Nico I learned about consistency. Chez Nico (which held three Michelin-stars) was a machine. I struggled with the level of consistency required at first. Everything needed to be exactly the same. Having an eye for detail was essential. Marco was also big on consistency but he was more flavour-driven in his approach. He was obsessed with quality produce and tasting. 

Had Marco calmed down a bit by the time you worked for him as head chef of Mirabelle?

I never cooked with him, but he was in the kitchen a fair bit. I always found him to be a gentlemen. The expectations were certainly there but he was a nice guy to work with. He wanted us to do our very best, and he made sure to put us in an environment where we could do that. He’s an amazing guy to work for, even if he was a bit scary at times. 

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