Interview: Robin Gray, of Robin’s Herbs
Meet Robin Gray, former chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant, now chief herb-grower on Arran
Robin Gray doesn’t have a website. He doesn’t need one. In fact, as he explains, checking on it would only take him away from his work. There is no sense of hard sell about him and a quick google confirm this: he’s hard to find. Buyers come to me, he tells us. He’d love more of the island chefs who order leaves, vegetables and fruit from him to pay him a visit. You see, as well as being a chef’s gardener, he is also a chef. His mellow temperament deceives, and knowing that he used to work in Raymond Blanc’s two Michelin starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons forces you to look again at the man with the warm smile and grey hat, pulled down as insurance against the cold February air.
For years, Gray grew herbs and leaves illicitly on a small, south-facing patch overlooking the sea on the Isle of Arran. He tried to contact the owner, but the plot wasn’t for sale. However, through an introduction by a friend, he met the owner - as luck would have it - just as he was thinking about selling. If you’ve ever eaten in The Ubiquitous Chip, Café Gandolfi or Stravaigan in Glasgow - or Auchrannie and the Drift Inn on Arran itself – you can thank fate for this fortuitous turn of events. Visit his polytunnel on the outskirts of Whiting Bay and it quickly becomes clear why some of Glasgow top restaurants choose Gray as their supplier of leaves.
Inside the tunnel – a protection against the Scottish weather and local rabbits – there is a pleasing sense of chaos and order. Plants grow randomly from holes in sacking, stretching towards the sea in carefully delineated rows. Lowered walkways mean that Gray and any co-workers can walk up and down the different plant beds; without this adjustment, more work was created as the compacted soil had to be turned over every year. Coat hangers mysteriously hang from the struts that run along the top beside, less puzzlingly, various sets of work gloves.
The sea is visible through a small square window at the far end and the smell of seaweed, spume and wet sand permeates. Some chefs swear the proximity of his plant bed to the sea makes his leaves taste salty, but he is quick to dismiss this. Despite his affable appearance, there is an air of unassuming logic about him. To accelerate the first crops of the year, he has installed heated beds; rather than attempt to describe the taste of a certain plant, he will bend and pick some for you to try. He is keen to trial new seed variations and you get the sense that this willingness to try new things, and his continuous energy to try and better what he does, is one of the reasons he is where he is today.
One of the main difficulties he faces is due to the west coast climate. However, the shakily drawn coastline of Arran throws up an advantage to offset this. Preparations for the next year begin when September storms bring up ‘wreck’ seaweed on the same stretch of beach visible from his polytunnel. Gray gathers this and mixes it with manure to make compost. This is then turned into the soil and one of the reasons his small windswept sweep of land is so productive.
The isolation of being on an island creates challenges but, with its heightened sense of community, also offers solutions. The main problem is the cost individual businesses face shipping products off the island. The answer: pool their resources and ship many products in one van. ‘Taste of Arran pick up, pack and take to restaurants,’ says Gray, mentioning the website he uses to distribute leaves and other products. ‘Clubbing together,’ as Gray calls, it is both an acquired and instinctive solution.
Gray also has plans to be involved in a new community project that islanders are trying to get off the ground. They have secured 18 acres of land for a community garden and he has offered to help by giving advice on one of the things he does best: ‘doing up the beds.