Richard Robinson doesn't subscribe to culinary snobbery. The Sydney chef, whose career trajectory includes stints at Momofuko Seiobo and Sean’s, believes that playfulness and technique elevates the diner's experience.
“I’ve always felt that the best dining experiences are the ones when you laugh out loud at the table and feel like a kid again,” he says. “It should be about having a good time.”
Studio Neon has become the perfect canvas for Robinson’s mission. The sun-washed space, which covers the top floor of a nondescript Waterloo building, was established two years ago by Robinson’s former colleague Aaron Teece, a private chef equally intent on imbuing fine-dining traditions with creative possibility.
“I had been a private chef for years in Europe and was working in a lot of restaurants in Sydney. Finally, I thought I would look for a space to start a catering company,” says Teece, who’s cooked for Kate Moss and the Queen. “I came across the space and started to play. We slowly built it and it started to take shape.”
Studio Neon is fitted with a commercial kitchen, where Robinson has been preparing a batch of cheddar-cheese ice cream. The space swaps symbols of fine dining for wrought-iron chandeliers, worn-in chesterfields and a long table around which is a mishmash of vintage chairs. This is also the setting for Unearthed, a monthly dinner series at which guests are treated to eight-courses of experimental cooking and seasonal produce. Oversized candles, paint-splattered floors and a wall made entirely out of speakers nods to the space’s role as a photography studio and venue for offbeat weddings and corporate events.
However, it’s Unearthed, a ticketed, private dining event that blends culinary ambition with an intimacy and irreverence that’s difficult to find inside the rarefied world of fine dining, that’s allowed Teece and Robinson to forge a deeper connection with ingredients. A passion that’s eluded them in traditional kitchens.
“We do three-to-four dinners within the season and everything is completely seasonal and local,” says Robinson. “We try and get out to regional New South Wales as much as possible and although we started out sourcing producers in Mudgee and Orange, we’ve also found them in places such as Ballina and Noosa Heads.”
Robinson also believes that the buzz around words such as local and organic has created cottage industries that have seen farmers lose out on profits. Addressing this is part of his long-term goal.
“All of the farmers we meet with are ready to supply to the city, but it’s logistically difficult,” he explains. “People believe that organic food is expensive but we’re constantly trying to think of a way around it.”
For Teece, hype around movements such as foraging is less important than the ways in which focusing on provenance can make for a nuanced and responsive approach to cooking.
“I’m still learning about how quickly things can change – you can pick up fresh fennel one week and the next it’s completely gone,” says Teece, who’s also collaborated with Kinfolk magazine and The Art Hunter as part of Studio Neon’s off-site catering business, Neon Events. “Today, you can buy tomatoes year round but they should only have a six-to-eight-week lifespan. Studio Neon has given us a chance to get out of the kitchen, meet farmers and understand how things are grown.”
They’ve also discovered that dreaming up dishes that minimise waste can help them break creative ground and push their abilities to new limits.
“Unearthed dinners are very progressive and theatrical,” says Robinson, who’s committed to using Studio Neon as a “guestaurant”, where young chefs can experiment and find new platforms for their work. “At our first event, we served a dish called Tuna Trash. With that we were trying to change the narrative that tuna isn’t sustainable. We visited a fish supply, used a knife to scrape out the meat that the supplier was about to throw, made a tartare and a tea out of the bones, before serving it in a tin. We were using a product that would usually go to waste but everyone loved it because it was fun.”
Teece and Robinson, who’ve recently welcomed a third partner, Philip Pratt, to the studio, are committed to eliminating the negative aspects of fine dining while preserving the creativity and attention to detail.
“Eating out shouldn’t just be about going out to dinner. It should be an experience,” he says.
The next Unearthed dinner is being held at Studio Neon on July 19. See the website for details and to book.