Meet Martin Corbett, your 'Face of Irish Hospitality' for 2017!
Reader Travel Awards
What one person embodies the spirit of Irish hospitality? Aoife Carrigy meets your 'Face of Irish Hospitality' for 2017.
Winner: Martin Corbett
You named Martin Corbett, co-owner and former host of Dublin’s Chapter One restaurant, as the ‘Face of Irish Hospitality' for
The story goes that when a certain late, lamented restaurant reviewer turned up at Dublin’s Chapter One restaurant to report for a London-based newspaper, his undercover status was already blown.
At least two loyal Dubliners — a tailor and a fellow hack — had called ahead with advance warning. The resulting review captures Martin Corbett brilliantly: “A maître d’, who was so effusive and charming he could have given a Christmas tree diabetes, said ‘Mr Gill, it’s an honour and a great, great pleasure to have you here’, which was three lies in the first sentence alone.”
The story not only demonstrates how fast word travels in our village of a capital city, but captures the lavish, loquacious welcome for which this stellar Irish restaurant and its Roscommon-born frontman are famed.
- Read the full results of our 2017 Reader Travel Awards.
But it misses a couple of essential footnotes. Firstly, a maitre d’ with Martin Corbett’s profound professionalism — never mind his photographic memory — needed no tip-off. He would have recognised AA Gill as sure as he would any other past customer of his Parnell Square restaurant. Besides, as the ever-present front-of-house face of Chapter One until his retirement last June, Martin led a consummate team that always, always put its best foot forward.
Secondly, Chapter One regulars will know that Martin’s welcome catchphrase was as well-worn as the many pairs of immaculate shoes he must have gone through in his 45-year hospitality career.
Surprisingly, however, Martin is by his own admission, “actually a very shy person”. “I don’t interview very well,” he anxiously repeats before our chat.
Of course, it transpires he’s a great talker — just not one who is very comfortable talking about himself. “Over the years we’ve picked up a few awards for best service, and it would be killing me to have to get up on stage.” Thankfully his business partner and executive chef Ross Lewis “could talk for Ireland” and would usually say a few words instead.
“The only reward I ever wanted was customers coming back to the restaurant.”
The way Martin says it, you believe it. “On a Saturday night at 11 o’clock, when you have a room full of diners singing the praise of the food, and of course the service, that to me is very, very rewarding.”
Shyness might seem a handicap for a host. But Martin discovered early on that his real role was to deflect attention back onto the most important person in the restaurant: the customer. He began his career as a teen pulling pints in his uncle’s Clonmel hotel.
A dessert that is the essence of Irish milk & honey? We have it right here. "Flavours and textures of Irish milk and honey" is sublime pic.twitter.com/YJhnKuURjG— Chapter One (@ChapterOneDub) December 9, 2016
“It was a glorified pub with a few rooms over it, looking back now, but even at that young age I loved the interaction with people.” In the mid-1970s, he landed a role in The Shelbourne, where he saw that the key to a great welcome is to treat people as individuals.
“In my years in the Shelbourne, we had a pianist, Fergus Sheil, who knew everybody by their favourite tune. When they’d walk in he’d break out of what he was playing and play a line of maybe Dr Zhivago or The Days Of The Kerry Dances or whatever it was. What I learnt from him as a very young man, early in my career, was that everybody loves their identity being recognised.
“The Lord blessed me with a photographic memory so I could remember people’s faces even if I haven’t seen them for five or 10 or 20 years. That helped me an awful lot,” he admits, as did his strategy for remembering names: “LAURA, which stands for ‘Look At, Use, Re-use and Associate.”
Fast forward to the mid-1980s, when Martin found himself working in Eamonn Walsh’s Old Dublin Restaurant on Francis Street, where Ross Lewis was a rising star.
“It wasn’t exactly the most fashionable part of Dublin,” he says. But he relished its character. “I remember one day looking out the window and there was David Bowie going into Cooke’s Antiques.”
In 1993, with the backing of Eamonn Walsh, Ross and Martin secured a basement restaurant space in an equally unfashionable part of town, below Parnell Square’s Dublin Writers’ Museum. Many predicted that a northside fine-dining restaurant would fail, he recalls, “but Ross proved that if you get your product and your food right, people will find you.”
Today, Chapter One is one of Ireland’s most acclaimed restaurants. But it took hard graft to make it so. “We always had to work twice as hard as our competitors across the river, no doubt about it,” Martin agrees. “I spent the first two years parking cars...” (Anxious about the safety of their vehicle, first-time customers would be told, ‘you double-park your car and I’ll take it from there’). Well-heeled ladies regularly arrived with designer handbags wrapped in plastic supermarket bags. ‘I wouldn’t dare cross the road with this, do you know how much it cost me?’ they’d say!”
Gradually, things began to come together. Long before the days of social media, Martin could be found handing out flyers on the Gate Theatre steps.
Running one or two banquets a week in the Gallery of Writers upstairs “would pay the wages,” he says (years of banqueting experience made them the perfect choice to cook for and serve Queen Elizabeth in Dublin Castle in 2001), and high-profile corporate gigs with the likes of Goldman Sachs and Fiat helped build their reputation in the fledgling Irish Financial Services Centre.
Soon, word about town was that Chapter One was the top spot for a pre-theatre meal, especially if you returned for dessert post-show: one of Martin’s signature Irish coffees, flambéed table-side.
Before long, the restaurant was ‘unmissable’ when visiting Dublin. “Arthur Miller, Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Gabriel Byrne, Al Pacino, Pierce Brosnan...” the famous names roll easily off Martin’s tongue. His mobile number was shared among the Kennedy family, with Jean Kennedy Smith a regular. (“I used to be blown away by that… these people are royalty.”)
But the greatest honour was hosting the restaurant’s real VIPs, he says: first-time customers for whom a fine-dining restaurant mightn’t be their natural habitat — yet.
“You would get couples coming in, saying ‘you know we had to save to come here tonight’, or with a voucher from their kids in Australia. And you would go the extra mile for those people,” he says, adding: “that’s how we built our business.”
Such customers weren’t always the easiest to serve, he says — “often you’d know that a fella would rather be at home watching the match” — but he enjoyed the challenge.
“The meeting and greeting is terribly important — eye contact, a good smile, all that kind of stuff, relax them when they arrive and make them feel welcome to ‘the Chapter One club’. And what is probably even more important is to take the time when they’re leaving to walk them to the door or to their taxi and say ‘thank you very much for coming here this evening’.”
And presumably mean it, as our readers’ ‘Face of Irish Hospitality’ nominations attest.
Martin is quick to remind me that he was blessed with a business partner who could turn out such reliably brilliant food, allowing the front of house team to focus on the customer. “Every day of the 30-odd years I worked with Ross was a happy day,” he says. “Now don’t get me wrong, every good marriage has the occasional barney. But looking back on it, he made my life very, very easy with the food and the consistency of the product.”
Despite working long hours — “you’re with people from 10am to 2am, often six days a week” — Martin always found time to connect with the green island that his restaurant’s food so beautifully represents.
“It’s kept me going for years,” he says. “I’d often driven down early to Wexford on a Sunday morning and walk the beach, and then be ready to engage again.”
Looking back on a long and illustrious career, Martin has some sound advice for the next generation of hospitality professionals.
“Don’t drink too much of that coffee, watch the alcohol intake, and keep yourself right, both physically and mentally. Do your swimming in the sea, do your running. Because you have to manage this business or it will manage you very quickly.”
If you can find that balance, he says, and aren’t shy of hard work, then you too could live a professional life that is an honour, a privilege and a great, great pleasure.
“If I had my life to live over, I’d do it all again.”
What made Martin's welcome so special?
In asking you to nominate your ‘Face of Irish Hospitality’ 2017, we looked for an individual that not only made your holidays super-special, but that embodied the Irish spirit of hospitality. We didn’t specify their role… that was up to you.
Readers cited Martin Corbett's as “the best welcome in Dublin”. Chapter One has “staff who make you feel like you’re meant to be there,” you added.
“I’ve only been to Chapter One once,” as one satisfied customer put it. “But I felt truly welcome for such an upmarket restaurant.”
Katy McGuinness, restaurant reviewer
“The first time I went to Chapter One in a professional capacity, having not been for several years, I was almost embarrassed by the effusiveness of the greeting from Martin. I thought that somehow he knew I was there to review – even though this was impossible – and that I was getting special treatment. It took a few more visits to realise that everyone who eats at Chapter One is treated to the same warm welcome, and that Martin is honoured to host them all.”
Ross Lewis, business partner and executive chef at Chapter One
“Martin was the ultimate expression of Irish hospitality. Warm and humorous, he was always willing to share quick-witted anecdotes to entertain but mostly to put people at their ease. His greatest legacy is that the democratic and warm welcome he showed everyone has become our hallmark.”
John McKenna, food writer Reader Travel Awards judge
“Martin’s brilliance has always been his ability to unify utter professionalism with the most disarming geniality. As such, he showed how the art of service was a noble, and profound, calling. And in making a success of Chapter One, Martin and Ross Lewis did what everyone said couldn’t be done: have a Northside, inner-city, basement restaurant that ranks with the best restaurants in the world.”
Declan Maxwell, former restaurant manager at Chapter One
“Martin is the ultimate professional who had a special knack of making people feel so important, like they were the only people in the room. He has an amazing ability to remember faces and names and special occasions in people’s lives, which he helped them to celebrate in style in Chapter One.”
Michael Colgan, director of The Gate Theatre
“My favourite restaurant, and not because it’s near, is Chapter One. The magnificent food, due to the brilliance of Ross Lewis, and the extraordinary welcome afforded by Martin Corbett made the place legendary. Martin had a great understanding of his customers, was tireless and forever cheerful. He will be missed but in his replacement, Darren, the restaurant will continue to uphold its prestigious reputation and well-deserved reputation.”
More from our Reader Travel Awards 2017: