ROSS LEWIS is standing under the archway at the Princes St entrance to Cork’s renowned English Market, in chef’s whites, arms folded, mugging for the camera.
He’s an old hand at this sort of thing, well able to look after himself when it comes to the media but today, publicising his groundbreaking new cookbook, the nationally renowned Michelin-starred chef who ‘cooked for the queen’ seems uptight, distracted. But, then again, it’s always different back in his hometown.
Lewis follows the photographer’s directions but the smile appears forced, rarely reaching eyes apparently more concerned with scanning the street for approaching passersby. But the volley, when it arrives, comes from the other direction, a gaggle of local middle-aged women delivering ribald whistles and shouts of, ‘Yer lookin’ byooootiful altogether, boy!’.
Startled for just a second, Lewis dissolves into raucous laughter, roaring along at their good-natured hooting. The smile finally reaches his eyes and the photographer gets the shot he’s looking for (our cover photo) — local-boy-made-good, back where it all first started.
Afterwards, seated upstairs in The Farmgate restaurant, he makes short work of six fresh oysters and a bowl of Irish stew. “My favourite restaurant in Ireland,” he beams contentedly.
“If I was taking people on an Irish culinary tour, I’d bring them here to eat. I love the Market dearly, I love the atmosphere and I just love being in here.”
Lewis, 48, grew up in the suburb of Bishopstown with parents Gethin and Maggie and siblings Sallyanne and Guy. His father was a chemical engineer and the young Ross appeared set to follow him into the world of science but a summer in New York as a bar/restaurant manager in the famed Dorrian’s introduced him to the restaurant world.
“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.”
After a frustrating year as a commis chef turning veg each day in Odin’s in London, he finally got his chance on the starter section.
“It challenged me. After two or three months, I was thinking, ‘THIS is my career’. I’m good at replicating detail and that’s what you have to have 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!’”
Eventually, Lewis, along with business partner and legendary front of house maestro Martin Corbett, opened Chapter One in a venue adjoining the Writer’s Museum on Dublin’s northside in February 1993.
The first night saw Lewis in the kitchen with just three other staff including a commis chef named Marcus on garnishes and vegetables.
“He was half deaf from polio as a young fella and I distinctly remember the first order. I said, ‘Right, Marcus, four veg away for table six, two minutes,’ and he said, ‘You what, chef?’ and he looked at his watch and said, ‘It’s quarter to eight’. I thought, ‘I’m doomed!’ At the end of the night, one of the diners, TV presenter Mary Kennedy came into the kitchen and gave me a kiss. She was the first celeb I ever met and there I was, 26. I said, ‘Fuckin’ hell, I could get used to this’.”
Lewis doubts whether they’d have survived in such an off-beat location without the coffee shop and the banqueting room feeding a steady supply of visiting tourists.
“My mother came up 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.”
By October, they were down £70k, an awful lot of money at the time and everyone was getting 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 lunch, 110 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. I was so wrecked, everything was sucked out of me. That was a turning point for us.”
By 1996, things really began to take off.
“The pre-theatre crowd really made Chapter One,” says Lewis.
The celebrities soon followed. Sited near the Gate Theatre and the Hugh Lane Gallery, there were regular visits from actors and artists. One night he cooked a post-concert dinner for Barbara Streisand and her dog. Some, such as Al Pacino and the Killers, paid the compliment of returning but Lewis isn’t overly starstruck.
“The restaurant that gets that kind of thing is usually the one that is being talked about, but they might go somewhere else now, you get your run. And they can be very unreliable. Alicia Keys was booked in to go on the chef’s table. That’s one to one with me so I was really psyched up to meet her. She’s due at 8, no sign, give her 10 minutes. 20 minutes, no sign. After 30 minutes, we rang the hotel. ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘she went bowling in Tallaght instead’.”
The state banquet in Dublin Castle, on May 18, 2011, for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit introduced Lewis to the Irish public at large. After months of negotiating bureaucratic hurdles and attempting to source produce for his envisioned all-Irish dinner (no easy task, so early in the growing season), Lewis and his team eventually served cured salmon with Burren smoked salmon cream, rib of Slaney Valley beef, ox cheek and tongue and carrageen-set Glenillen West Cork cream with Meath strawberries.
“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.”
The next morning, as he rustled up breakfast at home, Mary McAleese’s advisor called him. “She said, ‘The President is standing beside me and wants to speak to you, and I was there [mimes shock], stirring my tea, ‘Mary how are ya? I mean, President, how are ya?’ I have never been praised like it in my life. She went on about how it engaged and articulated a story about Irish food. And it’s all back to the producers — people want that link to the food comes from.”
Lewis has just produced his first cookbook and until the queen’s banquet, he was probably some way down the pecking order with the general public. But in the industry, many view him as Ireland’s most important chef.
Though some of his Irish peers may give him a run for his money technically or creatively, no one has brought quite this combination of expertise and flair so determinedly to bear on native Irish produce, and he has an uncanny knack of unearthing new producers before his peers.
When recent decades come to be seen as the birthing pangs of a genuine modern Irish cuisine, that cuisine will be shot through with Lewis’s culinary DNA.
The book itself, Chapter One, An Irish Food Story, is a sumptuous production, as much a celebration of the producers and their produce as the cooking. With stunning images from photographer Barry McCall, it is more culinary art tome than anything fated to wind up as a food-splattered old faithful. Though Lewis has tried to bridge the gap with the domestic cook, this is still Michelin-starred food, difficult to replicate at home, but there is a deep well of inspiration to be drawn on for cooks of all calibre. Neither is his commitment to Irish produce, most especially Cork producers, a passing fad.
“I went to Pres and walked through the market every day to Roches Stores to get the bus home to Bishopstown. It was very evident that Cork was a market town, fish stalls, loads of meat. There was a lot of offal, tripe and drisheen. Turkeys would be hanging up at Christmas. So, I was very aware without being able to articulate it at that stage.
“My mother is a very good cook and when they wanted to keep me occupied as a young fella they either gave me 20 six-inch nails and a plank of wood or a rolling pin. Both my parents came from agricultural backgrounds. Every summer, we’d go to my mother’s family’s farm in Wales. Her brothers were butchers, would kill animals, there was the half an acre allotted to fruit and veg. I saw that farm to fork thing happening.
“I would have always tried to use local producers, but it’s taken me 20 years to evolve to this level. I now have the volume, there’s other restaurants can’t order enough to sustain it. I have been in the thick of the great Irish food debate for 23 years, primarily through [chefs’ organisation] Eurotoques which goes back to Myrtle Allen, and through my commitment to Irish produce and I have never seen a brighter time than this, it is so heartening.
Other European Michelin-starred chefs may not be familiar with our restaurant scene but to a man or woman, they would all say that Ireland has great, great produce.”
Chapter One — An Irish Food Story (Gill & MacMillan) €39.99
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