He’s a chef who has made no secret of his ambitions regarding Michelin. While Mickael Viljanen is now aiming high at Chapter One, he says that his primary concern is to make his diners happy, and acknowledges the toll that chasing stars takes on family life
A few years ago, I bumped into Mickael Viljanen outside The Greenhouse, the restaurant on Dawson Street in Dublin where he was working at the time. He had dark circles under his eyes, and as we chatted, he alternated drags of a cigarette with gulps from a can of energy drink.
“I’m drinking six or eight of these a day,” he said ruefully, looking every inch like someone who was in the process of working themselves to death.
In the bar area of Chapter One by Mickael Viljanen, the chef sitting in front of me as we start this interview is unrecognisable. He is fit and healthy looking — his skin clear, the dark circles gone — and he’s full of energy. He appears to be at the top of his game. What happened?
“Well, to start with, I stopped the energy drinks. I still smoke unfortunately, but I’ve cut down massively. Nothing dramatic happened, but I learned that as I was getting older, I had to listen to my body more,” he says.
“I found it too easy to rely on sugar and caffeine to get me through the tiredness, but I haven’t had an energy drink in four years now. It’s funny how your tastes change, I actually find them disgusting now. I think I hit a wall. I realised I needed to look after myself. I’m 40 this year, born in 1981, and while that’s not exactly old, in the kitchen game it’s not young, either.”
Viljanen’s decision to leave The Greenhouse and move north of the Liffey to Chapter One on Parnell Street was easily the most talked-about move on the Irish food scene this year (when I ask, he says the departure was amiable).
His desire to own his own restaurant dovetailed with the decision by Ross Lewis, who opened Chapter One with Martin Corbett in 1992, to step back from the kitchen. The pair are now joint owners of Chapter One by Mickael Viljanen, but the kitchen is Viljanen’s realm. Out of that kitchen come dishes that are informed by his love of classic French cooking, but updated to reflect the changing tastes of Irish diners and his own evolution as a chef.
The menu changes regularly, but recent dishes have included organic black chicken from Challans in France, served with chicken skin, kohlrabi discs and a vin jaune sauce, as well as lobster from Clogherhead glazed with cacao pod concentrate and kari Gosse, a Breton spice mix.
Also there is what has become Viljanen’s signature dish of foie gras royale, a smooth parfait of liver with pieces of Lincolnshire eel, grapes and caramelised walnuts, topped with frozen, grated foie gras and a quenelle of green apple ice-cream.
What you won’t find on the menu at Chapter One, however, is anything that’s been fermented, pickled or preserved. Viljanen has eaten enough of that kind of food, he says, to last him a lifetime, and the associations are not good.
“That kind of thing is what we used to have in winter back in Finland when I was a kid and there was nothing else to eat. It came out of glass jars filled with vegetables that had been grown in my grandad’s back garden. It was school food that we were forced to eat.
“I’ll put my hands up and say I’m just not into it. How is a fermented vegetable better than a fresh one? It isn’t. To me, going to a good restaurant and finding fermented vegetables on my plate would be like an Irish person finding chicken nuggets there.”
Viljanen moved to Ireland in 2000 — “I worked for a period in the UK but went home and didn’t really know what to do with myself. I met an Irish guy practicing as a physiotherapist in my home city and we got talking. It sounded great, so four days later I was on a plane here.”
He started out his cooking journey here with Paul Flynn in The Tannery in Dungarvan in Co Waterford, but it was when he took on the head chef’s job at Gregan’s Castle in The Burren in Co Clare that he first started to attract national attention.
His food was recognised as being innovative and modern and he quickly picked up awards and accolades. Surely, many people speculated, a Michelin star couldn’t be far away?
Sadly, it wasn’t to come for Viljanen in Clare, and after five years in Gregan’s he moved to Dublin to head up The Greenhouse for proprietor Eamonn O’Reilly. It was while cooking there that he was awarded his first star in 2015, followed by a second in 2019. Only Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin and Aimsir at The Cliff at Lyons in Celbridge, Co Kildare, have two stars from Michelin.
So the decision to hand in his notice and walk away from The Greenhouse after nine years, and effectively start again in a new location, wasn’t one he took lightly. While Ross Lewis held one Michelin star at Chapter One and Viljanen had two at The Greenhouse, as of now, neither restaurant has a star. This is because when the person behind the stove changes, Michelin reassesses the restaurant as a matter of policy. It’s widely expected that Chapter One will be awarded two stars straight away, and there has even been speculation it could become the first Irish restaurant to be awarded three.
It’s common for chefs to say they don’t care about Michelin. They’re usually lying, Viljanen says, particularly if they are doing fine dining or classically inspired food. “Everyone who does that seriously cares about Michelin. It’s such an important part of this industry. Of course awards are not the be-all and end-all, but they are external validation.”
That said, he has learned from experience not to invest too much emotion in the question of stars. “The best thing to happen to me was when the first star came. It took a monkey off my back. I was like everyone else before that, wondering would this be the year, and for many, many years, it wasn’t. So when I got it, it allowed me to do what I wanted to do, and to do it for myself rather than for other people.
“I’m not hoping for anything, I’ve learned that much. My job is to fill a restaurant with happy people, and I’ve learned over the years that if those people are happy, then there’s a high likelihood that Michelin will be happy too.
“Unless you’re Alain Ducasse or someone like that, two or three stars don’t happen overnight and they don’t happen in a year. They don’t hand them out. Look at Noma, one of the world’s most famous restaurants — it took 18 years for it to get three stars.”
Even now, after 20 years in the industry, Viljanen says he doesn’t know what makes a three-star restaurant. With experience, the difference between a one-star and a two-star is not that hard to understand, he reckons, but from two to three is an enormous leap.
“A three-star restaurant is like visiting a dreamland and when you leave you are left thinking, ‘Holy f**k, that was amazing’. It’s a stunning all-round experience, and it’s hard to explain what it is to people unless they’ve experienced it multiple times themselves.
“Michelin wants to see all-round consistency over time. There have been a few exceptions around the world where people have gone to three stars quickly, but they are rare. In this industry, getting a star is one of the biggest validations you can get. It means you’re doing OK and it goes some way towards recognising all the long hours you’ve spent getting there and the fact that you’re never able to go out for a night with your friends, you’re never at social gatherings, you miss weddings and you’re never at anyone’s birthday parties.”
It’s a recognition of what Viljanen’s success has cost him and his family. Married to Brenda O’Connor from Tullamore, the couple have four children — Nea (20), Ryan (15), Milja (10) and Iida (eight). “I love my kids to bits but the reality is that they haven’t had me in their lives. I’ve been gone for most of the time. Thank god, they’ve all turned out alright.
But that’s no thanks to me — that’s all down to their mother, who did all the hard work. They all know the craic, they know that I work long hours and that it pays the bills, and they’re happy enough, but the price has been high.
“As a person I don’t really do regrets, but one of the only ones I have in life is that I didn’t really see the kids growing up. But you can’t live life torturing yourself. Cooking has provided a good standard of living for us and it’s taken care of the expenses we’ve all had. It is what it is. We all have to work and this is my life.”
His move to Chapter One has allowed him to plan for the future in a more sustainable way for himself, his family and his staff. One important decision he made early on was to only do lunch service from Thursday to Sunday.
In addition, his staff — many of whom followed him from The Greenhouse to Chapter One — benefit from a system that sees them doing no more than seven shifts a week, and having at least one lunch or dinner service off each.
“We did lunch and dinner five days a week for seven or eight years straight; it breaks you. Now we don’t do lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which means we have a later start on those days. Everyone in the kitchen has either a lunch or dinner off as well, so the pace here is different.”
Viljanen believes that taking pressure off his staff in that way has allowed them to work at a higher level on the shifts that remain. The younger generation of chefs he employs are all highly skilled professionals, but they don’t want to sacrifice their lives to their careers.
“That’s the way the world is going, and it’s not a bad thing. Restaurants are always going to be hectic, they’re going to be hard work and you’ll put in longer hours than you would elsewhere. But working 10 shifts a week, racking up 90 hours, that will wear you down.
“You get creatively blocked and you can’t think straight. I remember standing in front of a plate once, trying to come up with something new and my head was just empty — my brain was like mush — from tiredness. I don’t want that to happen to me again, and I don’t want it to happen to the team. I want them to be able to be creative.”
That’s not to say that the kitchen at Chapter One is some kind of Utopia. A little bit of stress, Viljanen believes, is essential to operating at this level.
“Stress keeps you sharp, but there is a limit. When you give people space, you get more out of them. Highly stressed people don’t give their best and they can’t be creative, no matter how brilliant they are.”
The world of professional high-end cooking is notorious for indulging people with tempers. There are some restaurants where the food on the table might be elegant and refined, but the shouting that can be clearly heard from the kitchen proves that the head chef certainly isn’t. It’s the ugly side of the industry but according to Viljanen, it’s becoming less and less acceptable.
“Look, I’ve been there, I’ve done that and I’ve been that. I’ll put my hands up and will freely admit I’ve done a lot of things wrong over the years. But I can look back at it now and say that it was driven by fear — fear of failing, fear of not being in control.
“The only time you really lose the rag is when you’re not in control, and there’s only one person to talk to about that, and that person is in the mirror. All I can say is that the people with me now have been with me for two or three years, which is a lifetime in this industry. I was very proud that they were happy to come with me.”
He looks back on his past, he says,
and realises that the day when it was normal to shout at people in the kitchen is gone. To do his job properly now, he needs to be able to deal with each member of staff as an individual, and recognise that all of them need to be managed differently.
“There are people in the kitchen who need to be told to pick up the pace to get them going. There are people who need an arm around them and a hug to reassure them. There are people who need to be sat down and talked to sincerely. It’s my job to know who needs what, and when.”
That’s the people-management side of his business, but Viljanen says he has also had something of an epiphany about his food, realising that sometimes less is more, and that elegance is often a matter of simplicity.
“One thing I’ve learned is that the hardest dishes are the ones where there’s nowhere to hide. If you have two or three things on the plate, they need to be spot on. If you eat a dish with just a few ingredients in it and it blows your mind, then that chef is doing well. It’s easy to put lots of stuff on a plate to make it look pretty, but I don’t want to do that any more.
“If you get the best ingredients that money can buy, then you have to manipulate them very little. Yes, you need to highlight things and bring out flavours, but when you start with a superior product, you don’t have to do much with it. You just let it sing.”
In an interview a few years ago, Viljanen was quoted as saying he believed that when it comes to ingredients, the French were still ahead of Ireland. Does he still believe that?
Yes. And no.
“All my fish and shellfish and a lot of my herbs and vegetables come from Ireland. But my responsibility is to the customer who’s paying the money, and for them I buy the best, regardless of where it comes from.
“I buy chicken from France because while there is good chicken available in Ireland, there isn’t any amazing chicken yet that will compete with the French. I’m sure at some point that will change, but the French have a history and tradition of raising birds that we just can’t compete with here.”
Viljanen’s prices start at €65 per person for lunch, with dinner at €120 a head and the tasting menu at €150. His goal, he says, is for Chapter One to be an accessible restaurant, not one that is seen as aloof or unsuitable for ordinary people.
What does he mean by accessible? “Yes, it’s expensive — we’re never going to be a cheap night out — but I think we are a great-value restaurant. We deliver massively for what we charge and we don’t overcharge. Our wine list starts at €8 for a glass and €30-something for a bottle, which is really accessible for a restaurant in Dublin city centre.
“I want this to be a friendly place. Anyone from any walk of life is welcome and we don’t have a dress code. I want you to feel you’re in Ireland having an Irish experience, and interacting with staff who are good fun to be around.”
After all, he says, restaurants are meant to be about fun. “We want you to have good food, to have another drink and to kick back and relax.
“We’re there to give people a great time, not to tell them what they can and can’t do. That’s not our job. Our job is to make people happy.”