A new RTÉ series takes viewers behind the scenes at Ireland’s finest eateries – including Restaurant Chestnut, a Michelin award-winner within six months of opening. Vickie Maye meets the chef behind it, Rob Krawczyk
The restaurant had only been open for little more a week when the man sitting in the corner table by the kitchen asked to speak to the chef. He made his introductions.
The Michelin reviewer had already arrived.
It had taken Rob Krawczyk and his partner Elaine Fleming 18 months to find the perfect location — in the end, they chose an old pub in Ballydehob, minutes from where Rob had grown up. They converted it into the small and intimate Restaurant Chestnut, with seats for just 18 people.
A year and a half of seeking out the perfect location — and within a couple of weeks, a Michelin star reviewer was wandering around Rob’s kitchen.
“What could I do?” he laughs. “It was afterwards, and there’s not much you can do after.”
As for the almost overnight review, he has no idea how they heard about his tiny restaurant in the depths of West Cork.
“They hear who they want to hear about,” says Rob.
When the invite to the awards arrived, they still had no idea if they’d won. And then their names were announced, alongside two other Cork restaurants: Ichigo Ichie on Fenns Quay and The Mews in Baltimore. (Today Rob says visitors, both national and international, come for a food tour of the county, taking in all three restaurants in one trip). Six months and one day after they opened, Rob and Elaine were about to hang a Michelin star on the wall.
“Obviously it was something in my head, but we didn’t come down here to get a star. We just wanted to open a good restaurant,” says Rob.
And they have succeeded. The wait list is constant, though it starts anew every two months online to give everyone a chance to secure a table.
When our restaurant reviewer ate there on the opening night, he didn’t intend to write a piece in Weekend, wanting to give the venue time to find its feet. Instead, he was so blown away he felt compelled to write about it. Today that framed review takes pride of place in Chestnut’s hallway, right next to the Michelin plaque.
I made a 6 part tv series about chefs and restaurants in Ireland. It’s called ‘Beyond the Menu’ and starts tomorrow night at 7.30pm @RTEOne. Hope you can tune in and use the hashtag #beyondthemenu pic.twitter.com/k3bwEj9GJj— Mark Moriarty (@MarkMoriarty1) September 8, 2019
That star is the focus of episode three of a new RTÉ series, Beyond the Menu. A food show with a difference, this beautiful half-hour of television is hosted by chef Mark Moriarty, the 27-year-old winner of the San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year. He visited six of the country’s finest chefs, spending three days with them to really get inside their restaurants — and their heads. He looks at what inspires them, how they cope with the pressures of the industry, how they have made it to the top of their fields. Mark touches too on their personal lives, exploring how chefs manage home life with such long demanding hours — often, like Rob and Elaine, couples open restaurants together.
But that whirlwind Michelin star was a big focal point for Mark, and the show really explores what it’s like for a restaurant for achieve so much so soon — and the pressures that exist to retain that status.
Rob didn’t hesitate when the call came from RTÉ explaining the concept behind this new show — especially when he heard that Mark was the driving force.
“I knew Mark, he’s an amazing chef, and I’d never cooked with him before,” says Rob. The days were long, but he enjoyed being in front of the camera.
The show follows Rob as he visits local suppliers in West Cork. All of the food on the menu is sourced as close to home as possible — though Ireland is small, laughs Rob, so everything is local, really. His father Frank, already a name in the food world (this is in the blood, admits Rob), works with him a couple of days a week. He sources, forages, ferments and cures. “He isn’t doing it because it’s cool now,” adds Rob. “His parents are Polish, so he grew up with it.”
Rob runs a small team — two of them in the kitchen, three, including Elaine, front of house. They open Wednesday to Sunday and the days are long — 9am starts to closing. And if he needs to be off, Chestnut just doesn’t open.
But quality of life is crucial, too. The days of 90-hour working weeks in kitchens are over, he says. Chestnut opens 10 months a year, closing after Christmas for 10 weeks. Rob is determined to strike a balance — though it is only now he admits he can see a window where he won’t work seven a days a week. He had a business to establish, so long work hours at the start were a given.
Taking me on a tour of his restaurant, explaining the lengths they went to to source the right furniture, why they decided against artwork on the walls, Rob shows me the table where the Michelin reviewer had sat. “It was an honour,” he says simply, of the award that has transformed his restaurant — and his life.
Beyond The Menu, Monday, RTÉ One, 7.30pm