An Unfinished Masterpiece – Ross Lewis on Continuing to Perfect the Story of Chapter One
In anatomical terms, the Chef’s Table at Chapter One feels like the beating heart of the restaurant. Its natural elements from the dramatic, highly glazed volcanic rock table itself to the large striking bog oak bowl that sits in its centre, all lend to that feeling that it is rooted deeply into the landscape of the Michelin starred restaurant
A few steps away from this inner sanctum is the kitchen, and though too at the centre of the restaurant this is an entirely different animal. More a machine than a beast of any sort, natural elements are replaced by stainless steel counter tops, shiny low hanging pendant lamps, and various metal vessels and top of the range appliances that are manned by a team of chefs dressed meticulously in crisp chef’s whites.
Memorised by the skilled, disciplined rhythm of their work I barely notice one of them emerge from the engine room. Ross Lewis himself, chef patron at Chapter One, settles into the chocolate brown leather banquette beside me, and not long into our conversation he raises the subject of another natural divide in a restaurant.
“Cooking, running a kitchen, and running a business are three different things,” the chef says, in his signature considered and philosophical fashion.
“Cheffing is a dichotomy, the creative endeavour is probably 5% of your energy, the other 95% is putting the creativity into the machine and punching it out for seven or eight hundred customers a few times a week, on consistent basis. That’s the hard part of cooking. You always hear this phrase 5% inspiration, 95% perspiration – that’s what it’s like.”
“I’m a box ticker,” he explains. “A lot of chefs consider themselves creative people and are all about creativity and energy, but they are not box tickers. So they create this content and energy, and sometimes profile, but what they lack, because they are not box tickers, is they don’t get the business side right. It’s tricky.”
With his box-ticking mentality, unlike many chefs whose ambition to open a restaurant manifests organically from a desire to showcase their cooking, Ross reveals that for him having his own business was the primary goal.
“I was very clear that I wanted to own a restaurant, and I knew you couldn’t run a restaurant without knowing the engine room, that’s the one thing that I did garner from my time in the States. I spend all my time in the kitchen and I would find it difficult to conceive that I would survive without the skills of a chef to be honest with you.”
Moving to London in 1988 he garnered knife skills, and then mastered the smooth running of a restaurant working front of house; the crucial skill sets that culminated in the establishment of Chapter One on Parnell Square in 1993.
In the mid 1800’s Ross says the square from its elevated position looking down over the city was home to Dublin’s noveau riche, before they moved to Merrion Square, but when the restaurant opened this area in Dublin’s North inner city was very different place.
Breaking down the barriers “to get people across the bridge” was a challenge he admits, but adds that not having the luxury of a prime location to rely on pushed them “to try harder; to give a warmer welcome; to be more consistent; to give better value for money.” “I suppose really the funny thing is that that’s what defined us, because your ethos has to come from somewhere.”
“The fact that we’ve been able to pull off Chapter One in this area, that’s probably given me the most satisfaction.”
Starting very humbly, Ross says once they got past the fighting for survival stage his ambition for Chapter One became to create “an Irish restaurant of international quality.” Close to 15 years later in 2007 they achieved the ultimate seal of international culinary approval, a Michelin star.
“One star is about the food,” says Ross. “It’s about the food and the service has to be commensurate. That doesn’t mean service has to be formal, it could be people wearing jeans, it doesn’t matter. I remember 20 years ago Michelin gave the Carved Angel in Dartmouth a star, and she had no table cloths – there were a lot of mutterings.”
“I feel like there has always been this thought that there has to be a lot of art on the wall, and a stuffy style of service. But I think Michelin have given awards time and time again over the years to prove that this is not the case.”
Giving Dublin’s latest star-spangled restaurant, Heron & Grey, as an example he says: “Damien (Grey) worked here, twice, and he left here to go out there, and it’s amazing to see Michelin reward talent.”
Long before the ‘farm to fork’ movement became the popular restaurant mandate that it is today, Ross says Chapter One was about supporting the small artisan producer, and that while this has become almost clichéd now this remains their remit.
But Chapter One has gone far beyond the basic narrative of simply using local ingredients and cooking with the seasons. Over the past 20 years Ross has “developed a patchwork quilt of relationships” not alone with local suppliers but with Irish craftspeople and artists too whose work infiltrates the restaurant, from handmade bread baskets and the bog oak root on each table, to Project Art, an initiative that sees an original Irish artwork commissioned twice a year for the menu covers.
“We connect with Irish food, craftspeople, and artists to bring out the best of Ireland, not only on a plate, but throughout the restaurant,” Ross explains.
“Chapter One has become more and more not just about food and service, but the ethos of reflecting the landscape.”
On the changing landscape of the restaurant itself Ross says: “the hardest thing for people who have restaurants to do long-term is evolve. You have to evolve your thought process in order to evolve the food and the restaurant.”
“An accolade like a star brings a lot of attention, from consumers and the press, and people expect a standard to be maintained. The challenge for us is not just to maintain it, but to evolve it and increase it.” Ross is keenly aware however that the honour could be taken away in any given year, and he references the esteemed Kevin Thornton.
“He’s someone who had two stars, and now has left his restaurant. I think it’s very difficult for him, and it’s sad. He’s a chef of my era and I have known him for a long, long time, and you always look in the mirror and say that could be me.”
In a similarly sombre tone, Ross discusses the loss of Martin Corbett, the iconic maitre d who started Chapter One with him 23 years ago who retired earlier this year. “A lot of what we have achieved is down to him as well. He was the most democratic of maitre d’s you could ever meet. It didn’t matter whether you came from sweeping the streets or were the CEO of Goldman Sachs you always got the same welcome. He was one of the original and old school maitre d’s, he was on restaurant floors for 47 years.”
“He will be greatly missed, and his contribution was massive but he has left a legacy going into the next five years.”
The “next five years” is something Ross returns to again and again, and he says that 2017 is the “start of a new five year term” for Chapter One.
“With a new team we are looking at the next five years; how we evolve the food, make it cleaner, more clever. There’s a new vision, a new thought process.”
After training at the restaurant as a young chef and gaining experience in Australia in the meantime, Eric Matthews is now back at Chapter One as head chef; “a long term fixture.” More fresh blood from new general manager Danny Desmond will infuse with and bolster current stalwarts like restaurant manager of 12 years Darren Campbell and sommelier Ed Jolliffe.
With a “very solid base” on the floor, and “a very solid kitchen”, Ross says “from here on in it’s about the very small detail.” New tables have been commissioned, and together with Dublin design duo Designgoat they have created stunning new ceramic espresso cups and sculpted corian petit fours plate. Collaboration with Irish designers like this, and upgrading the restaurant and kitchen is a “constant renewal process” at Chapter One he says.
Does this five year plan include gaining an elusive second Michelin star? “To say that overtly would be a distraction,” Ross answers.
“I don’t want to cause a distraction to what is an existing very solid business. I don’t believe in striving for labels. I believe that we have our ethos, we have our identity and we are evolving that, and if we get better and that comes then …” he trails off.
But he goes on to say: “This business is a bit like you are going up a mountain, and you are close to the top and you can see the top, but the truth of it is you never get to the top. If you feel that you have gotten to the top there is only one way to go from there. You always have to keep that mirror up to yourself and say I have to keep climbing.”
While Ross might be reluctant to voice two star ambitions, the trajectory of his plans for the restaurant are less ambiguous. Is 2017 the start of the next chapter for Chapter One? For your answer, just read between the lines.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.