Food Stories with Bex Toppin: ‘I never thought at seventeen I would be working in a two Michelin starred kitchen’

Robinsons Café owned by couple Bex Toppin and Will Pearce is in the centre of all the action on the famed Bishy Road. Bex is modest and unpretentious when it comes to speaking about her achievements as a chef having worked in a range of top establishments, but she clearly knows her onions when it comes to cooking high-quality locally-sourced food. After working in a number of top Michelin establishments, Bex and Will decided to open their own place in York and brought all of their knowledge with them, but without the fine dining food style. The busy little urban café attracts locals and students alike who come from across the city to relax and unwind over some delicious food and amazing coffee. I went to chat to Bex to find out more about her journey from working in some of the countries best restaurants to opening her own little café right here in York.

So Bex, where did your Food Story begin?

I first started cooking when I was fifteen and I did work experience at school. I worked in a local restaurant called The County in Aycliffe Village and after the week’s work experience, the owner offered me a Friday night/Saturday part-time job whilst I was at school. I worked there from year 9 to 11 at school, and then I had to make the decision to either do A levels or pursue a career in cooking. I chose to do it as a career, and I then started working full-time at The County, but It just so happened that after a month or so of working full-time, the owner decided to sell the business. He had previously won the Raymond Blanc ‘Roux scholar’ scholarship, so he told me to get in touch with Le Manoir au Quat’saisons and to see what they could offer me. I went to Oxford and did a two-day trial at Le Manoir and from there they offered me a job!

Oh wow, so how old were you at this point?

When I did the trial, I was sixteen and then I started working there when I was seventeen. It was a big learning curve to move away from home and to live on my own at a young age, and I had to start doing things like my own washing! I never thought that at seventeen I would be working in a two Michelin starred kitchen.

How did you find the experience working at Le Manoir whilst being so young?

I was working in a highly pressurized kitchen, but It was such a good experience because you learn to do things correctly and not to pick up any bad habits. I found the kitchen garden really helps you to respect the food you are putting onto a plate because you have seen it grown from a seed or from being planted. You may have even personally picked the ingredients that you are cooking. It helps you learn to use every part of the part of the plant, and you also have real respect for the produce that you are cooking.

And how long did you work at Le Manoir for?

I stayed there for two years and then I moved home back home to the North-East and started working at a hotel called Rockcliffe Hall with Kenny Atkinson who was the head chef at the time. I stayed there for two years and then moved to Jersey.

Where did you go and work in Jersey?

The restaurant that my partner Will and I worked at was in the process of being built when we moved over there. It was a brand-new restaurant by Sean Rankin and was called Ormer. I had a really good time working in Jersey and we managed to get a Michelin star after just four months of being open which was really great. It was a really good group of people that we worked with, and it was nice to get that Michelin accolade after just four months. 

That is an amazing achievement. How did you find being a female chef in such a male-orientated environment?

I never had any problems with it. If anything, I think it makes you even more determined to prove that you are strong and that you can keep going for as long as the guys in the kitchen can! It makes you quite stubborn too, they will be like ‘Bex, are you sure you don’t want me to lift that stock pot for you’ and you are like ‘nope I’m fine, I’ve got it’. But I don’t think I’ve been treated any differently to how a male chef would be.

Do you think that is it harder for women to break into the industry than men?

I think years and years ago yes, but not so much now. I think there has been a big emphasis on bringing women into the kitchen which I think is really good because from my experience it has mellowed the kitchen a bit more. I have noticed that when I am working in a kitchen where there are ten men and three women, the mix does calm people down, and it should be an environment for both males and females equally. 

When did you decide you wanted to open your own place?

After working in Jersey for a while, Will and I decided we wanted to open somewhere ourselves, but we had decided we didn’t want to open a restaurant.

So why did you choose to open a café over a restaurant?

I think that we wanted to try and find a balance between doing what we loved, which for me was cooking, and for Will was managing the restaurant, but without doing it in a fine dining way. We knew that we could offer something for everybody and be accessible, whilst keeping the same standards as what you would get in a fine dining restaurant. We had to come back from Jersey to look for somewhere in England, so we spent a year helping some friends out at a place called Yorebridge house whilst we were looking around. Then we found here and that was that.

 Is Robinsons a family-run business?

Yes there is myself, Will who is my partner, and Will’s mum. We started it all together. 

And what inspired the name Robinsons? 

It is Will’s middle name and it’s Will’s mum’s maiden name. The Robinson name had ended with Will’s mum and her sister, so it was our way of carrying the Robinson name on.

That’s such a nice idea. You opened your doors in 2016, how have you found the journey so far?

It has been good. It has been challenging and it’s probably the hardest job I’ve ever had because we didn’t have a business plan or anything like that when we opened. We just crossed our fingers and hoped that everything went okay! There is a lot more to running a café than a lot of people would think. It’s not just making sure the food is of a high standard, but it’s making sure the coffee is of a high standard and also making sure staff are happy. It’s been challenging, but probably the best challenge that we’ve ever had. We have learnt a lot in the past three years and we have got to the point now where things run a lot smoother because we are used to it, but we are still eager to do more and push Robinsons as far as it can go. 

What style of food do you serve at Robinsons?

We have the classic things that you would have in a café like the sausage sandwiches and the eggs benedict, but we’ve also tried to do some things that are a little bit different. I try to use skills that I’ve picked up from my Michelin starred background and bring them to here. 

What would you say you enjoy most about cooking?

I like the creativity of it, and I like being able to put something on a plate that people enjoy eating. We have found that we get a lot of locals and repeat customers who come here two or sometimes three times a week, and it’s nice to see that they enjoy the food and appreciate what we are doing. 

Who would you say that you really look up to and admire in the hospitality industry?

When I was younger it was obviously Gordon Ramsay and the celebrity chefs, but now I would say anyone who runs their own business. I take my hat off to them because since we’ve done it ourselves, you realise how difficult it is not only to make sure the door is open every day but that everything going on behind the scenes, stays behind the scenes! I admire any chef who has their own business of a high standard and takes pride in what they do every day.

What initially drew you to York?

We thought that it was great for tourists and university students so that was a big draw, and it was quite nice to come back to somewhere that was closer to home for the both of us. We didn’t know too much about York, and we certainly didn’t know how famed Bishy Road was! I think we chose a good end of York.

Yes definitely! Has the reality of running your own business lived up to the expectations you had?

I think the reality of running the café far exceeds our expectations. We were very realistic when we set out to open the café as we knew it would take a huge amount of hard work to make the café a success. Having worked so long in hospitality, I think we were prepared for the long hours and level of commitment needed to run a business. We have been so welcomed into the Bishy road community by the locals who seem to enjoy what Robinsons has to offer, so we couldn’t ask for any more.

Your favourite places to grab a bite in York?

There are loads! We go to Skosh a lot, Brew and Brownie, and the Kiosk project is also nice for a coffee. The Black Swan at Oldstead and The Star Inn at Harome are always good, and it is nice to get out of the city and see some countryside. 

And my favourite question. So, what’s next?

It would be nice to have another Robinsons eventually, but a pub would be nice too. It would be nothing too fancy, but a Yorkshire inspired country pub with just good local food. I think that would be something that I would like to do, but we will have to see what happens in the future.

Bex Toppin, 13.2.19

York Talks would like to thank Bex for sharing her inspiring Food Story, and the team at Robinsons for serving some of the best brunch in the city! If you want to find out more, visit their website or follow them on twitter @RobinsonsCafe. 

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