Ross Lewis: Life after Chapter One

"When you get older and look at the runway in front of you, it’s a lot shorter than the one behind."
Ross Lewis: Life after Chapter One

Ross Lewis. Photograph Moya Nolan

In a world of Covid, climate change and Trump, and whatever else you fancy from the smorgasbord of catastrophe, chaos and calamity, the internal machinations of Irish hospitality rarely trouble the general public.

But when the story broke in May, that chef Ross Lewis had cooked his last service after 29 years at the helm in the kitchen of his internationally renowned Michelin starred Chapter One restaurant, the shock was palpable.

Furthermore, he would be handing the wheel to Mickael Viljanen who, just two days previously, had announced his departure as head chef of Michelin two-starred The Greenhouse restaurant, also in Dublin. Viljanen would be a partner in a new operation, rechristened, Chapter One by Mickael Viljanen.

Even though Lewis remains as partner/mentor to enable the transition, this is very much Viljanen’s baby, with the potential to become Ireland’s first three Michelin star restaurant.

The Irish food world was quite stunned and the story spilled over onto the main news pages of several national papers. Lewis, after all, was the man who cooked for the Queen of England.

Lewis’s storied career has unfolded in tandem with the evolution of the modern Irish fine dining sector, from being a minority sport back in the early 90s to now, the biggest game in town and an often superb offering from many more establishments than just the 21 Michelin starred restaurants now on the island of Ireland, three of them two-starred..

It is a career that saw him take an offbeat venue on Dublin’s Northside and turn it into an internationally acclaimed ambassador for all that is special about contemporary Irish dining, a consistently superb rendition of finest local, seasonal Irish produce delivered with consummate skill, imagination and empathy, allied to the crucial trump card, the warmth of the uniquely Irish welcome. This was best reflected when Lewis was chosen to cook the State Banquet for Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland.

Last year, the Michelin Guide awarded Lewis their inaugural Chef Mentor Award for Britain and Ireland, a highly prestigious acknowledgment of a stellar career and his status and reputation in the hospitality industry, at home and abroad.

For many, hospitality professionals and the Irish dining public, his departure felt as if the curtain was falling on an era and, for all the excitement at the potential of this new venture with Viljanen, more than a few broken hearts belatedly realised they had already eaten for the last time in their beloved Chapter One.

This is not, however, an elegy for a seasoned culinary warrior hanging up his knives for good. For all his talk of recalibrating the professional and personal parts in his life, Lewis is struggling to find time to even talk, putting in daily shifts in the kitchen of his other restaurant, Osteria Lucio, a deceptively casual take on Italian fine dining, born of a collaboration with his friend and fellow Michelin-starred chef, Luciano ‘Lucio’ Tona.

 Ross Lewis. Photograph Moya Nolan
Ross Lewis. Photograph Moya Nolan

“There's a big hole in staff levels,” says Lewis. “We’re down to two chefs right now, a Hungarian and a Brazilian, and not a word of Italian between them. We’ve been fine doing meal kits during lockdown but setting up for service is a different matter.

“I’ll be focussing my attention on raising the standards at Lucio’s over the coming few months.”

But if he is still so immersed in the game, why on earth step back from Chapter One?

“It’s always been a strength of mine to look at where the business is heading and where we need to move for the next standard. Restaurants of Chapter One’s standard have to keep moving on and up and, I think, in terms of fine dining, there’ll be fewer full-on fine dining restaurants — in every city around the world. The lower and middle range will cover 99% of the sector and fine dining will be increasingly expensive so there will be fewer of them and fewer people able to afford them.

“It takes a lot of energy to make those moves and I’ve been there 29 years, and I felt the energy required was not my energy. In this industry, you get good people around you and build a team. You get four, five, six, seven years and the team breaks down and you start all over again. Young chefs get experience, they become in demand and they move on. It’s the constantly evolving nature of any restaurant and the obsessive energy it takes to maintain the standard and keep rebuilding is ferocious and that energy is not infinite. I had decided some time ago that was the case and had begun to look at where I was. Then Covid came along and gave me even more time to reflect.

“I was getting on and running two restaurants from one kitchen is a lot of pressure. I wanted to relieve some of the pressure. When you get older and look at the runway in front of you, it’s a lot shorter than the one behind. I’ve sacrificed a lot of time at the ‘altar’ in terms of personal and family life and whilst I’ve needed to do it to get ahead in my career and didn’t mind doing what I had to do, I wanted more free time to do other things.

“With that in mind and after 29 years, I wanted to get out on top. I didn’t want to become imprisoned by the thing I’d created. I’m stepping out of the kitchen in Chapter One, but I’m a chef and always will be a chef, far from finished. But it is a big change for me and it took courage because, ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,’ but … Chapter One’s an incredible place, it’s been an incredible journey and to be part of the Irish food family has been very exciting but there’s a limit to how much time you can devote to this kind of pressure.”

Ross Lewis, photographed with his mother Margaret.
Ross Lewis, photographed with his mother Margaret.

Lewis grew up in Cork city with parents Gethin and Maggie and siblings Sallyanne and Guy. His father was a chemical engineer who wouldn’t have been at all disappointed had Ross followed him into the world of science.

“The big Irish thing of academia takes over, when you go to a school where 93% of people go to third level, anything less seems to equate to failure so I went off to third level to study dairy science.”

A J1 summer in New York changed all. Working as a bar/restaurant manager in the famed Irish-American Dorrian’s Red Hand, Lewis fell down the rabbit hole into the restaurant world.

“Dorian’s on 84th and 2nd, where you found all these great creatures of Manhattan, and my boss, a wild character, would sit around and say things like, ‘I’m gonna tell you something about money, any asshole can make it, but it takes a smart man to keep it’. I decided I wanted to own a restaurant so I really needed to learn how to cook, I intended to do three or four years and then come out and put on a suit and go out front.”

Picking up a job through an old school pal, in an upmarket London restaurant, Peter Langan’s Odin’s. “I walked into the big kitchen and I felt I belonged there. I was 21 at the time, I just thought, I love that energy, that great sense of family and camaraderie.”

It took a full year for him to really get into the swing of it but when he did, he was hooked for life.

“It challenged me. After a while, I was thinking, THIS is my career. I’m good at replicating detail and you need that to be a chef, the palate comes in time. As [Corkman] Billy Mackesy, who is a great chef, said to me, ‘I tell ya boy, it’s like playing squash, the more ya hit the ball against the wall, the better ya get’.”

In February, 1993, Lewis opened his own restaurant, Chapter One, on Parnell Square, on the ‘wrong side’ of Dublin.

“When we opened, my mother came up from Cork especially to do pastries for the coffee shop upstairs. She was staying in my bedsit with me and she got into the car with me one morning after a couple of weeks and said, ‘Ross, take me to the station’ and I said, ‘Mum we need you, we need the pastries for the coffee shop,’ and she said, ‘Ross. Take. Me. To. The. Station’. And there you had it, my first walkout.”

In such an off-beat location, Chapter One’s initial survival depended on the coffee shop and the banqueting room feeding tourists.

“We’d take Americans off buses, serve them chicken à la king and a glass of wine for nine punts, anything at all to stay afloat, it was what we had to do.”

By December, they were down £70k, a huge sum in 1993 and everyone was very nervous.

“Then, on December 6, 70 people walked through the door for lunch, up from our usual handful. I was up the walls. We had a 110 for lunch, 110 for dinner for the next 18 days. I walked out on Christmas Eve, came down to Cork, walked into the Long Valley, ordered a pint, looked at it, turned around and walked right out, went home and slept for two days. Everything was sucked out of me. That was a turning point.”

"This year will be fine, a bounce back and then roll into Christmas, but it’s going to be very tough from next January, when the subsidies are taken away"
"This year will be fine, a bounce back and then roll into Christmas, but it’s going to be very tough from next January, when the subsidies are taken away"

By 1996-’97, Chapter One really began to take off and 10 years later, in 2007, memories of chicken à la king were forever vanquished when it earned its Michelin star. Overnight, Chapter One moved to another plane entirely.

“The reaction was very fulsome at a local level and all of sudden you had a certain type of food tourist from abroad seeking to dine at that level. It turbocharges your business, absolutely no question about that, and it’s ongoing as long as you have that star. There’s not a single day I’ve regretted it. I like it because it’s a standard and I’m a standard driven person, and, as I got older, things become even clearer — the last five to seven years was our finest incarnation.”

The State Banquet in Dublin Castle, on May 18, 2011, for the Queen of England’s visit to Ireland introduced Lewis to the Irish public at large. “When it finished, I expected to be euphoric but we were so physically and emotionally drained, we leaned against the wall, didn’t speak. We went out for a few pints but it was low key.”

Lewis has witnessed profound change in the industry over the course of his career.

“When I started in Dublin, there were about 10 decent restaurants in the country. Standards have risen enormously and the internet has had a huge influence. Chefs no longer need to travel around the world when they can look up technical content online and it gives a connectivity with other chefs and restaurants around the world.

“When I started, you’d be knocking on the back door of a two star in France and being put on a waiting list of 60 for a stage to get experience. Now, you can look it up on the internet and anyone with a bit of experience can apply online to 10 decent restaurants and get offers from them all. And there’s been such huge exposure to a variety of different foods and cutting edge cooking. It’s an unbelievable business.

“Covid has been a huge step back, a real dent to the skill set of the industry, with so many experienced people leaving for good and that’s going to leave an awful legacy for a while but the business can dial up and down very easily, based on a transient workforce and it will rise again, there’s nothing surer.

“This year will be fine, a bounce back and then roll into Christmas, but it’s going to be very tough from next January, when the subsidies are taken away, Irish tourists leaving the country, fewer foreign tourists arriving and the commercial centres still not completely back. But it will survive.

“The Irish customer is the best in the world and there’s been so much support and incredible dedication from those around me. For me it’s been an incredible journey. I am so grateful for being able to complete that part of it. And that’s it, over and out.”

Favourite Clients

Queen Elizabeth II and President Mary McAleese: "It was one of the great honours to be asked to do that dinner, a bit like getting a cap for Ireland, they can’t take it away from me."

Al Pacino: "Larger than life, looked like a fellow that wanted to live forever."

Mary Kennedy: "One of the first celebrity guests and my first ever celebrity."

"There were a load more people over the years, Danny De Vito, was funny, came into the kitchen and took the piss out of the people, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Gary Seinfeld. All the great customers of Chapter One."

Five favourite dishes

  • Pig’s Tail Stuffed With Lobster, with lime mustard fruits, basil and fresh apple.
  • Goat’s Cheese Tapioca with Green Asparagus and Black Truffle, a savoury risotto, with whole pearl grain tapioca.
  • Braised Oxtail with Ravioli of Dick Willems Coolea Gouda with a vegetable minestrone. The diced root veg, the richness of the oxtail complemented by the liquid centre of the ravioli.
  • Poached West Coast Lobster with concentrated lemon butter, with mango, ginger and chilli with violin courgettes and pickled red dulse.
  • The Hot Chocolate Mousse. We’ve sold two or three hundred thousand in various forms but my favourite was flavours of Guinness, lots of temperatures and textures.

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