Journeys in Taste Interview with Rob Krawczyk of Michelin Star Restaurant Chestnut

You might have thought it inevitable that someone with an upbringing that revolved around food, food produce/development, restaurants and (in general) making sure that people’s eating requirements were looked after would be a shoo-in to follow the family tradition. Yet it wasn’t the path that Cork chef Rob Krawczyk initially took. Instead, he went to art college.

Leaving the small coastal town of Schull (and his family’s compact restaurant, where his mother, Anne, was Front of House, and where his cheesemaker/charcuterie father, Frank, toiled/crafted in the kitchen), Rob’s love of creating things drew him to art college in Dublin. “I studied model making and special effects for television and film, and I worked within that area for many years after.” By the time he reached his late ‘20s, however, he decided to dive in at the deep end of the food arena, yet without attending any kind of catering college. Such a decision has obviously worked out well for the Michelin star chef – whose 18-seater Chestnut Restaurant, Ballydehob, West Cork, opened in March 2018 – but in retrospect did he think the no-studying approach was the best one to take?

“Yes,” he says, pure and simple. “I was 30 when I opted to change career direction, and I don’t think it’s ever too late to choose a different path. I decided to move towards food, it was always an obvious interest of mine and one at that stage in my life I wanted to pursue fully. And, yes, I went down the alternative route, not going to any catering college, but working instead in really good kitchens in Ireland and abroad. You’re thrown in at the deep end and it’s sink or swim, so you very quickly learn if this is an industry that you want to stay in or not.” When did he realise that he wanted to be a chef? “I grew up in a household surrounded by food,” he recalls. “My father is second-generation Polish and he shared all of his culinary heritage with me.”

Many of Rob’s immediate post-art college kitchen experiences were outside Ireland: he worked with Richard Corrigan in London and Alice Waters in San Francisco. In Ireland, he slogged alongside Martijn Kajuiter at Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore, Co Waterford, and was then head chef at Brabazon Restaurant, Tankardstown House, near Slane, Co Meath. By working in really good kitchens, he remarks, “you learn so much in terms of knowledge and skills. There is a wonderful community spirit of exchanging ideas, sharing knowledge, and I am very thankful to all of the chefs that I worked with.”

Of these, he singles out Chez Panisse and its pioneering owner/chef, Alice Waters, whose so-called ‘California Cuisine’ was very much ahead of its time. “Chez Panisse was an amazing experience,” he enthusiastically recollects. “It’s where food trends at the time began. I learned so much, especially to let the produce speak for itself. It was cooking that did not rely on technology. It is incredibly important to learn the basics and, of course, to have an understanding of both.”

Rob has previously said that he wanted his craft to embody nature and to depict in his food seasonal colours and textures. It’s not just a plate of food that is put in front of you, he suggests, but also elements of the season and how our senses react. His time in art college didn’t go to waste, did it? Not at all, he agrees. “My creativity definitely comes through my food. The first things you eat with are your eyes!”

And, of course, you read with the eyes, too. If Restaurant Chestnut is a destination in itself, then the menu is a list of words to relax with and scan when you sit in your chair. In Rob’s words, the menu choice and selection is constantly evolving. “I very much let the seasonal produce that is grown locally or found wild around West Cork dictate my menus.” Using local flowers, herbs, vegetables, meat and fish, the food is submitted as close as possible to nature. Such presentation, he says, “allows for an honest encounter between chef and diner.”

It has always been so for Rob, who has circled back home, not just geographically but also aesthetically with regards to his restaurant and what it provides. Eventually, what we learn and absorbed from our parents manifests, doesn’t it? “Yes, my parents had a small restaurant in their sitting room as I was growing up. My father cooked and my mum was the host, and in our restaurant I definitely wanted to recreate that lovely homely, intimate atmosphere they had when I was younger.”

Is it possible to have more than one USP? In Rob’s case, the answer is yes. His story, his life, his future, he relates, is rooted in West Cork. “I am very fortunate to have grown up in West Cork, it’s such a beautiful place and one that drew me back to open up Restaurant Chestnut, which is located just ten minutes down the road from my family home. The restaurant is part of my heritage, part of my family history and is a story interwoven into this area. It’s also a story that is very honest and true to the West Cork spirit.”

And the spirit is willing and fighting, needless to say. Speaking of which – I ask Rob how might this year pan out for Restaurant Chestnut? Or is he weary of even thinking about that question? “We are back open now offering our casual take out,” he replies, firming up for the challenge. “We are always evolving, adapting and working on new ideas. This year, of course, is going to be incredibly challenging but we are determined to drive forward.”

Further details: www.restaurantchestnutwestcork.ie 

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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