Journeys in Taste Interview with Ross Lewis Winner of the Michelin Guide 2021 Chef Mentor Award

“It came as a huge surprise. When they told me over a Zoom call that they wanted to give me the award I was really blown away. It was quite emotional, to be honest.”

Ross Lewis is describing how he reacted when the good people at Michelin contacted him in late 2020 to tell him positive news – they were presenting to him a newly minted honour, the Michelin Guide 2021 Chef Mentor Award. Such an award is indicative of several things but it is primarily recognition of a person’s willingness to impart the good stuff, the interesting and insightful stuff, to pay things forward to numerous young chefs that have worked alongside him at his garlanded Dublin restaurant, Chapter One. He genuinely wanted to convey his decades of experience and knowledge to apprentices of the culinary crafts.

“It’s a feature of maturing as a professional,” he says, “and so get such an acknowledgement from Michelin gives me a profound sense of pride. The award is also part of my professional legacy, and that means a lot to me at this point. The other thing is that while they have their detractors, what I admire about Michelin is their consistency. They have come through my door every year for about 28 years, and I don’t think any other guide has done that. I’ve seen Egon Ronay and others come and go in that time, and Michelin is unfailing in their approach to inspecting. They have seen where Chapter One has come from and where it has gone to, and they also have a universal consistent approach to other restaurants.”

Ross adds that he now has “a much clearer idea of how you should manage people. As we know, within an industry such as ours the turnover of staff is something you fight all of the time. That’s just the nature of it, but I think if you respect your staff, teach them and challenge them then they stay, and the longer you keep them the better.”

Ross has a justified reputation in the food industry, Irish and beyond, for being the person you turn to not just for producing and presenting award-winning food (Chapter One has held on to its Michelin star since 2007) but also for savvy advice. Ask him a question and you’ll rarely, if ever, receive a knee-jerk answer. His philosophical modus operandi is that there are many considerations to ponder, and his wealth of experience proves that. When asked is it easy to quickly spot supremely talented up-and-coming chefs, he weighs up the response as if there are kitchen scales in his head. For someone like Ross, balance is important.

“It is very easy to spot people with natural talent, but that doesn’t mean they’ll go on to be successful.” Identifying people that will go on to be successful, however, is a very different thing altogether, he adds. There are people that have the obvious flashy spark just like a soccer player or a hurler, “but they’re not prepared to put in the time, the commitment, and so the end result is wasted talent. And then there are plenty of people that I thought would not go on to notable success yet have gone on to be successful.”

What is notable about talent, he reasons, is that it has to run in parallel with various ancillary attributes. For someone to go all the way to being a chef with their own business there are many factors at play. “There is, for example, a need for willpower, a commitment to long hours, ambition, doggedness, core skills, and being able to pile all of these on top of your sense of the business side of things. With all of these in one package then you may find someone who is very successful, but it can be hit and miss. I have come across people that I thought would never amount to a lot in this industry, but I’ve been proved wrong. That’s great, of course, but the commonality is that you need chefs with an open mind, discipline, a want to succeed and to be unafraid to work hard. The people that are successful have all of these.”

People looking in from the outside, notes Ross, have a potentially rose-tinted view of chefs being very creative people but, he readily admits, that isn’t always the case. “Some are skilled practitioners that work very hard, yet the problem with the creative types is that they are the poorest at managing their business affairs. The challenge within the cheffing industry is you need to be part of both if you want to work for yourself. Being a creative chef with no sense of financial nous is only going to lead to one direction, unless you have the correct people around you to guide you on business elements. Often, however, the creative types aren’t very good at taking that advice, either. If you want to succeed, then having an understanding of how to conduct business, having the discipline of figures, and not being consumed by ego is important. It’s very tricky!”

It’s apparent, I suggest, that he has found that dessert-sweet spot between creativity and financial survival? His response is typically understated: he is lucky enough, he discloses, to have always had a fundamental understanding of simple figures – percentages, profit and loss, costs, and so on.

“You’d be surprised at how many people don’t have that, it kind of bypasses them. The other thing is that I’m probably a little bit risk-averse, otherwise I might have had four restaurants by now. I believe in prudence in the running of things – that’s a core, innate characteristic of mine. If I hadn’t had that I might have gone off in the good times and invested in property and other bits and pieces. I’m disciplined in terms of how I run my business because I feel that if you’re not and you become speculative or non-prudent then things can disappear very quickly. I was always slightly afraid of that happening, so thankfully that approach has taken me through a couple of recessions and more.”

It’s all about absorbing and learning from experience, Ross agrees. He has learned a huge amount about the industry and himself in the past 30 years, the journey from then to now having taken him from aspiring chef at the bottom of the ladder to seasoned professional at the top of the stairs. Along the way, he says in his usual sanguine manner, there have been mistakes, self-education, maturing. “Every decade you start to think about the world, and business, and how you relate to people. What have I learned? I’m fairly resilient, and I’m getting a bit more patient as I’m getting older! I’ve also learned there’s a smart way and a dumb way to do everything, including how to manage, talk and relate to people.”

Helping people instead of obstructing them, Ross observes with his Chef Mentor hat on, is central to you doing good in the world and the world responding in kind. “Kitchens are known to be hard and aggressive places to work in,” says a chef who knows. “In that kind of environment I don’t think people flourish, so with the hindsight of my own knowledge, I prefer to support people, teach people, and make their job as easy as possible.”

Further details: www.chapteronerestaurant.com 

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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