Saturday 26 May 2018

Food from the Heart and Soul

He's cooked for them all, from presidents and Pacino to Streisand's pet poodle. As his book is due for release, Ross Lewis of Chapter One talks to Barry Egan about stress, success and keeping insanity at bay

PRESSURE COOKER: Ross Lewis's drive and perfectionism helped win Chapter One a Michelin star in 2007. Photo: David Conachy
PRESSURE COOKER: Ross Lewis's drive and perfectionism helped win Chapter One a Michelin star in 2007. Photo: David Conachy
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Lord Byron once quipped that: "A woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and Champagne, the only true feminine and becoming viands." Barbra Streisand visited Chapter One in July 2007 and indeed had lobster; with turbot cooked on the bone and broccoli puree. The best-selling female artist of all time was due to arrive a little after midnight, after her concert in Dublin. She pitched up at the restaurant on Parnell Square with her coterie at 1.30am.

The restaurant's Michelin-starred chef Ross Lewis didn't mind waiting, nor did he mind cooking for the most pampered member of Brooklyn-born Babs's entourage – her pet dog. "The poodle had a Hereford beef fillet, middle rare," Ross says, with a mischievous smile. "He must have liked it because he cleared the plate."

Gourmet-fed canines of global megastars notwithstanding, the indefatigable man from Bishopstown in Cork has cooked for them all down the years...

Various royalty (Ross was the head chef for the state banquet during the state visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011). Various Presidents, both Irish and international. Various members of the Kennedy family from Massachusetts. Various sisters of the Corr family. Lots of luvvies (The Gate being down the road makes Ross's kitchen a second kitchen for its actors and theatre-goers alike), poets, pop and film stars.

Al Pacino came in on February 21, 2012, with his girlfriend Lucila Sola and a few friends. Chapter One that night was jammed with many people hoping for a word with the star of The Godfather.

"I thought I would not get near him," remembers Ross. "So I waited at the reception and when he got up to go to the bathroom, I said: 'Mr Pacino, really nice to meet you. My name is Ross Lewis and I am the chef here. I just wanted to tell you are the most important person here tonight besides myself. Would you like to have your picture taken with me?' He laughed and duly obliged."

However, the phenomenal success of Chapter One – all 21 years of it – is scarcely anything to do with A-list celebrity diners. This is something of a good thing, laughs Ross, his tongue very much in his cheek, as he recalls the night a few years ago when Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins dropped by for a meal. Chapter One's exuberant maître d' Martin Corbett didn't recognise them. When he asked the two stars, innocently, were they here for the show, their reply in unison was:

"We are the show!"

Ross opened Chapter One in February, 1993, with the aforesaid Mr Corbett. They met in the Old Dublin restaurant in Francis Street where they were, says Martin, "both PAYE workers".

Asked what is the secret of their enduring success, Martin – who is from Taughmaconnel in south Roscommon – replies, with a laugh, "profit".

"And hard work, great food, trust and honesty, of course ... " he adds.

"Ross is a perfectionist – an artist of food, a straight talker. He doesn't suffer fools gladly – if a young commis chef did not stick to the recipe he gave him yesterday, he would tell him to throw it in the bin and start again."

"I would say I'm driven," Ross says himself later. "I'm focused, realistic and fair with an ability to see the woods from the trees while retaining a perspective and a sense of humour."

In person, Ross is enormously charming and witty. He also has a bit of a Morrissey rockabilly quiff going on – regal, gravity-defying and possibly even gelled. The chef co-proprietor (with laughing boy Corbett) of Chapter One is an intriguing character.

He loves Tommy Cooper. His favourite record is either Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight by Bob Dylan or Old Town by Phil Lynott. He loves The Deer Hunter with Robert de Niro and Scent Of A Woman with his old mucker Mr Pacino. He eats up the books of Robert Harris and John Fowles. He is full of ideas and optimism, most of all for Ireland.

Ross believes that although there is, he says, "a complete lack of chefs", there is a huge growth in the restaurant sector since June of 2012. "There is much more confidence. There are probably 1500 more seats in Dublin restaurants now than there was at the start of the recession. You have a lot of them concentrated around George's Street and South William Street, Wicklow Street and that kind of area. What is fuelling that is the 20 to 35-year-olds, who are a generation of people who are employed but have no dealings with the banks. Because when they got their first jobs five or six years ago the banks were dysfunctional. So they don't even have car loans."

"They are living in and around town," he adds. "They have two or three hundred Euros disposable at the weekend to pay out. They are the yo-lo generation – you only live once. They come from the underside of recession where they are saying, 'We don't give a f**k. We are going to go out and party'.

"You go down to those places on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and taxis won't even drive up George's Street because it is so busy. Some of those places could be doing very little covers on a Tuesday and 300 people on a Saturday. So there is kind of a real growth.

"We are a small island nation and we are always looking to the outside for influence, whether it is architecture, haute couture, haute cuisine in London, Paris or New York. We don't have the confidence in our own abilities at times but we are getting that confidence."

He is equally excited about the imminent release of his fine new book, Chapter One: An Irish Food Story, edited by Ross Golden Bannon.They are having a big bash to launch the book tomorrow night in the museum next door to the internationally feted restaurant he and Martin launched over two decades ago.

Asked what he attributes to the ongoing success of the restaurant – which was awarded its Michelin star in 2007 – Ross states unequivocally: "First and foremost we have been supported by a lot of serious regulars who have really liked to support a product like this on the northside.

"We make a very conscious effort to use prime-quality Irish ingredients and have developed our own style of cooking through an Irish prism. We combine a good deal of braised non-prime ingredients with a good depth of flavour and an increasing emphasis on vegetables.

"We have worked hard to deliver on all fronts, to make sure Chapter One is a sum-of-the-parts restaurant and not just a temple of gastronomy," he adds. "People need to feel comfortable in the atmosphere, warmed by the welcome and the service, while enjoying an honest, consistent product from the kitchen that provides some value for money. Because of our non-prime location," he says referring to the restaurant's address in Dublin's north inner city, "trying harder to please became an ethos for us as we were not around the Green.

"We always felt we needed to try harder to attract people. We work on these aspects and we don't believe our own hype. We are constantly innovating the premises and our product etc.

"That's my best guess," he says, with a smile.

Born November 22, 1966 to parents Maggie and Gethin, Ross was the eldest of three including siblings Guy and Sallyanne. He wanted to go into science like his father, who was a chemical engineer.

The Gods, thankfully, intervened when Ross missed out on a science degree in UCC by one point. He ended up, instead, in Dorrian's Restaurant in Manhattan on a student visa in the United States and then later in London and Geneva before finally taking a chance on a place in Dublin's north inner city. He almost immediately started making a name for himself with his food.

Now, as then, Ross doesn't just pay lip service to championing the finest, freshest and and most seasonal of Irish artisan food produce. It defines him. He lives and breathes what goes on in his kitchen.

You might even have been forgiven for thinking Ross Lewis would die in his kitchen – a literal Last Supper – but a few years ago he made a decision to change himself so he didn't drop dead at his stove one evening. His health was starting to suffer and he realised he better starting listening to his doctor and more importantly, his body, before it was too late. "There was a stage in my life from working extremely hard that I found myself quite low, health-wise," Ross says, referring to roughly 2005.

"I was worn out, physically – working 16 hours a day, drinking 15 cups of coffee, not eating properly, drinking on your nights off to relax yourself. You think you're there but you're actually down there," he points meaning in a low place. "But it is a side of the business that isn't talked about. I had been working for 15 years like that. I was completely worn. It is kind of a treacherous business in that sense."

His wife, Jessica, asked him one day: "Are you trying to kill yourself? You can't go on like this."

"It was a psychological exhaustion as well," Ross adds, "because when you run a restaurant you're running the kitchen, you're running the business that employs 43 people. You're running sales, marketing, PR. You're running ... "

" ... yourself to death," I say.

"Exactly. I went to see someone about stress. You know, it is not stress that kills you. It is the things that you are doing or not doing when you are stressed. You don't take downtime. You don't take exercise. You don't eat properly. I mean, can you imagine being a chef and not eating properly? You are eating but you are picking at things that are no f**king good for you. You may be drinking. All those things. It is a part of this business that they don't teach you how to deal with in catering college. But somebody should.

"It is a funny thing, but I can assure you if you look at a lot of chefs who have made it long-term in the game, they fall into two camps. One: they are slowly teetering with their lifestyle over the edge. Two: the others are people like Michel Roux and Philip Howard who has given everything up. They have started running marathons. They realise they have to prioritise to keep going, because you fall into insanity."

How did he stop himself going insane?

"I just had to rethink my life in terms of exercising and drinking two cups of coffee a day instead of 16, eating properly, taking vitamins. Your body is an engine. If you put shit into it and you stress it out all the time, you are going to end up completely falling apart. So, for the last seven years, I've been looking after myself."

And did your wife notice a change in you?

"No!" he laughs. "But I might live longer."

He met his future wife, Jessica Dempsey, in the summer of 1997 when she was working with another chef, Conrad Gallagher, in Peacock Alley in South William Street. Ross used to go in there for drinks after work. Suddenly – when he noticed Jessica – he was "going in there five nights a week".

Eventually, Ross plucked up the courage to ask her out. Their first date at the Tea Rooms restaurant in The Clarence Hotel in Dublin's Temple Bar area was an unmitigated disaster. "I was an hour late. The Dart was cancelled in Dun Laoghaire where I was living!" Ross roars with laughter. "I had to ring the restaurant manager and ask him to get as much champagne into her as you can." Despite the false start, Jessica married Ross and they live happily in Monkstown with their three children: Molly, aged 12; Eabha, ten and Sheana, seven

I ask him what is he like as a dad.

"I try my best," he says.

Do the kids get a five-star star breakfast served up to them every morning?

"No. Essentially, I am short on time with them. Tuesday to Saturday is a lottery. I mightn't see them at all or I might see them one night but Sunday/Monday is sacrosanct. We spend a lot of time together on those days. We would have a kind of Sunday routine. We go to the People's Park market. Essentially, they have gotten to know the traders there over the years and we'd buy things and we'd either go out to somewhere like Ragazzi in Dalkey on Sunday night or we'll cook in and we'll go out on a Monday night. But we'd spend a lot of time together.

"I do cook a bit at home, especially if we have people coming over, because what I can do in an hour it takes the missus three hours to do! I'd just bring it home from the restaurant. She is not happy about the amount of dirty pots and pans that are created."

"I enjoy life. But like everything, the restaurant life takes a huge part of your energy and your mental energy. You try to keep some in reserve then for the very important bits in your life. I do find that aside from the restaurant and being a father and a husband that there is not much over. I don't get out a lot."

He describes Jessica "as calm and elegant despite being dragged into a catering lifestyle".

I texted him later that week to enquire how she would describe him. Instead I get a text reply from her: "He is good humoured, funny, generous, smart. And it would have to be said, life is never dull."

Then a text from Ross: "Let me translate: she just means nuts!"

Organic nuts? I jest.

"Nuts nuts!"

Learn to Cook a Michelin-Star Meal with Ross Lewis as part of Dublin Book Festival.

Sunday, 17 November at Medley on Drury St at 6pm, Tickets are €15 and available from www.dublinbookfestival.com.

Chapter One: A Story of Irish Food is in shops now, priced at €39.99.

www.gillmacmillanbooks.ie

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