With nearly 40 years working in the business it is safe to say that Ross Lewis, the recipient of the 2021 Michelin Great Britain & Ireland Mentor Chef Award – supported by Blancpain – has seen it all. A big champion of local and small producers, Ross is famous for his quest to reflect Ireland in everything he does and for the number of outstanding chefs he has trained himself.
From Bishopstown, Cork, and born in 1964, Lewis grew up spending his summers on a dairy farm that belonged to his grandpar- ents. The exposure to the agricultural way of life was a big influence on him. “It wasn’t only the farm produce that left its mark on me,” explains Ross, “but also the farming itself, the agriculture and the microcosm of food culture that existed in the farm. Very little came from shops at the time. I grew up in the middle of all that. At that age, they used to give me either a rolling pin and some pastry to keep me occupied or a block of wood, six-inch nails and a hammer. So I was either going to be a carpenter or a chef.”
He studied Dairy Science at University College Cork, where he learnt the appliance of science and technology into the world of food, something that became more obvious to him during the era of molecular gastronomy when he did a two week stage in El Bulli, just before it was awarded its third Michelin star. Soon after finishing his studies, he went to the U.S. where he worked in kitchens and front of house in a very popular bar-restaurant in Manhattan. It was there, among the kaleidoscope of guests from a myriad of backgrounds that he learnt people’s skills and discovered how much he liked the dynamism of that world.
I was only there for nine months but I was really inspired by the structure of the organisation, their discipline and professionalism…– Ross Lewis
Unfortunately, his “illegal alien” status meant he had to cut his stay short and return to Ireland, where he realised he wanted to become a chef and so he was on the move again, this time to London, where he got a job first at Peter Langan’s Odin’s, afterwards at the Dolphin Brasserie as junior manager and later at the restaurant of the Beau Rivage Hotel in Geneva, Le Chat Botté. In these establishments Ross learnt not only to cook like a pro but also about structure, organisation, financials… He was particularly impressed by what he saw at the Beau Rivage, “I was only there for nine months but I was really inspired by the structure of the organisation, their discipline and professionalism. The hotel is privately owned and one of the most prestigious in the world, opulent and glamorous set against an extraordinary background.” He was so dazzled by it that he promised himself he’d go back as a guest. “Finally last September I took my wife there for our 20th wedding anniversary.”
In terms of individuals, Ross feels very strongly about Myrtle Allen, founder of the Irish branch of Euro-toques, a pan-European organisation that represents European chefs committing themselves to defending tradition and upholding the quality and taste of food products, as well as the development and promotion of exchanging experiences and ideas. “I met Myrtle when I came back to Ireland in 1990. I subsequently joined Eurotoques and ended up becoming Commissioner General of the Irish chapter for several years. She was a trailblazer, very influential and all about supporting the landscape, the agriculture and small food producers. She was encouraging people to forage sixty years before it became popular.”
Other chefs that made a fundamental mark on him are Ferran Adrià’s (El Bulli), who fascinated him with his insane creativity and Olivier Roellinger (Les Maisons de Bricourt), who piqued his interest in the world of spic- es. “Watching Adrià work was like watching the conductor of a philharmonic orchestra,” he recalls, “and Olivier had an incredible intuition about what spices magnify flavours, like using mace to intensify coffee and whiskey.” With all this experience and his passion for local and high quality produce, it was time for Ross to fly solo. In 1993, he took over the basement of the former home of John Jameson, the whiskey maker in Parnell Square, and with partner Martin Corbett (now retired), he set up Chapter One.
He always knew he wanted a restaurant of international standards. Of those days he remembers, “It was very difficult. For starters we were on a forgotten area of Dublin and I had the challenge of finding a team whose cooking standards and goals were aligned with mine. The first aim was to simply survive so we worked like hell. Sometimes we thought we may survive only three more weeks but through sheer effort, determination and grit we made it.” At that time, a Michelin star was the last thing in his mind, “We just wanted financial success so we could breathe and keep improving our own standards.” Thanks to his relentless focus on customer care and a commitment to creating dishes that reflect the best of Irish food and producers, Chapter One’s reputation grew consistently together with the number of loyal customers. International recognition in the form of a Michelin star came in 2007, the first of many more accolades for restaurant and chef, including the Restaurant Association of Ireland’s award for Best Restaurant in Ireland, which they have won eight times; and a leadership award from Chef Network Ireland in 2019, to mention but a few.
– Ross Lewis
I always tell my team that the clock in the kitchen will never be stolen as everyone is always watching it…
His reputation was sealed when in 2011, he was the head chef for the State Banquet during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland. Ross reckons that one of the main contributors to the success of Chapter One is the team he’s managed to build. “Now that we are financially secure, I can spend more time supporting my staff and passing on my knowledge to others,” shares Ross, “also I try to listen more as one of the most common human needs is to be heard and understood. When you do that, money is not the primary driver and helps hugely with staff retention.” His mentoring model is based in three principles: to respect, to teach and to challenge. Over the last few years, Ross has developed an intensive training programme for those working at Chapter One with a wide variety of modules to help improve the skills of everyone from the kitchen to front of house.
“I think we all have to give back. I don’t think anybody’s career is complete until they do so,” says Ross with conviction. This work as a mentor has recently been recognised by Michelin. The Bible of the gastronomy world granted him the 2021 Michelin Great Britain & Ireland Mentor Chef Award. Chefs he has mentored include Keelan Higgs of Variety Jones and Damien Grey of Liath, both in Dublin; Garret Byrne of Campagne in Kilkenny and Ahmet Dede of Dede in Baltimore. All of them are Michelin starred establishments. His eagerness to share and to raise aware- ness about the amazing food Ireland has to offer is reflected in his book, Chapter One: An Irish Food Story (Gill Books), published in 2015. “I wanted to reflect the food landscape of Ireland and my style of cooking: simple classical food with a small amount of indulgence,” explains Ross, “high quality ingredients cooked intelligently.”
His efforts to reflect Ireland’s diversity extends to craftspeople and artists. For example, the ongoing Project Art, which gives emerging Irish artists the chance to show their work at Chapter One. He is also a supporter of the Food on the Edge conference, which since 2015 has been bringing together leading chefs and food producers from all over the world to explore the future of food. As the restaurant model has changed over the years to less lunches and more dinners, so has Ross changed service at his restaurant, moving towards a more relaxed schedule to free up some time, “The pace of a restaurant can be crazy,” he explains, “actually, I always tell my team that the clock in the kitchen will never be stolen as everyone is always watching it.”
The restaurant business indeed is one that seems to be run by the clock, no wonder that we find an increasing amount of alignments with watch brands, like in the case of Blancpain, which have been involved with Michelin for years and supported Ross’s most recent award. Outside the restaurant though, Ross feels very differently and admits, “I am always late.” The restaurant trade has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19. Many across the length and breadth of the country have had to close down and the survivors are struggling, praying they’ll be able to bounce back once they can open their doors again. Ross reckons that “the ability to survive this situation depends very much on the background of the business. Chapter One is a mature business, and hopefully that will help us to ride out this wave.” Although there are some government sup- ports for staff, Ross is particularly worried that the biggest casualty for the trade will be skilled workforce. “A lot of people are obviously tempted to find jobs in other sectors.”
– Ross Lewis.
Now that we are financially secure, I can spend more time supporting my staff and passing on my knowledge to others…
On the other hand, he is optimistic about the recovery. “The time we were open in summer and in December,” he shares, “we were fully booked and saw a massive appreciation from our customers. It was very rewarding and encouraging and I think we’ll see that again the moment we reopen. After the obvious initial disruption, I believe there will be a very positive few years ahead in Dublin.” Ross is also confident that the strength of the Irish economy together with potential relocation of companies due to Brexit will have a domino effect that will reach the restaurant trade. In his case, he plans to concentrate on excellence as he believes that “top cuisine will, in the future, be dominated by fewer players at a higher price point because of the more specialised workforce required, the higher quality ingre- dients, etc. In fact, Oliver Roellinger was the first person to say this to me 20 years ago.” For my part, I can’t wait to be able to travel again and pay Ross a visit at Chapter One. A great excuse to visit Dublin for the first time.