Ross Lewis: 'Calories on menus are almost like the water charges to our industry'
He has cooked for royalty – both the Hollywood variety and the British type – but Michelin-starred chef Ross Lewis is the first to admit that it has been a hard slog to the top.
The chef, who has branched out into a new venture in Dublin’s Docklands, is refreshingly honest about what he describes as the “tough business” of running restaurants.
But as one of Ireland’s top chefs, he can clearly stand the heat in the kitchen.In addition to his renowned Chapter One on Parnell Square, he is also the owner-chef behind Osteria Lucio at Grand Canal Quay, an Italian eaterie which is getting rave reviews just weeks after opening.
But the Ross Lewis story begins in a more humble place.
While growing up in Cork, he spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ farm and it was there that he first discovered his passion for food and fresh produce.
“My grandparents were farmers and butchers, so that really would have coloured my palette at an early stage,” he says.
“We would be out collecting eggs, feeding the pigs and seeing that side of life.
“I suppose if you come from generations of people like that there is an element of it in your DNA. So there is always a kind of a link to the land.
“Watching the ladies on the farm cooking for the lads coming in from the land every day was great. It probably doesn’t happen nowadays, they probably go to the chipper now, but that was the way it was,” he says, laughing.
It was a huge change of pace for the Cork man when he moved to Manhattan in 1985.
“I ended up working in a bar on the Upper East Side, which became a very trendy and popular place called Dorrian’s Red Hand,” Ross says.
“I decided then that I really liked dealing with people and living in the here and now. I knew enough about the restaurant industry to know that you needed to know the engine room, so I then decided that I would like to own a restaurant and I needed to learn how to cook.
“So I went off to London and that’s where my cooking adventure started. Once I got into it, it kind of had me. I discovered that I had an interest and a passion for it and I was quick on the uptake so I fast-tracked myself as quick as I could.”
In London, Ross trained under Peter Langan at prestigious Odin’s and quickly rose through the ranks. The young chef had the right skills required for a long, successful career.
He credits his father with instilling in him a strong sense of determination, ambition and drive.
“My father is an extremely diligent man,” he says. “He was a chemical engineer and he ended up as a managing director. He is a man with a great work ethic.
Ross Lewis at Chapter One
“I remember my father consistently heading to work at 7.30am back in the 70s or 80s when he was a top executive and when it would have been more traditional for those guys to stroll in at 9am or 9.30am.
“I suppose I got a small bit of that determination from him,” Ross says.
These days the chef champions Irish food and its producers at Chapter One on Parnell Square – which has had a Michelin star since 2007.
In 2011, as the head chef for the state banquet at Dublin Castle held to mark Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland, Ross took the opportunity to create a menu which showcased the best of Irish food and included a number of small and artisan suppliers.
When it comes to Italian cuisine, Ross has an overseer role at his new project Osteria Lucio, but hasn’t left his Chapter One kitchen to cook there.
With an involvement in two restaurants the chef is vehemently opposed to regulations which hinder the restaurant industry – particularly when it comes to putting calories on menus.
“I think the reduction of VAT has been a great lifeline, but having things like the calories on menus are almost like the water charges to our industry. People have just had enough of regulation and being asked to do this, that and the other,” he explains.
“Having calories on menus really shows no understanding of what calories are. Are 2,000 calories of broccoli the same as 2,000 calories of Mars bars or crisps? We clearly know that it isn’t.
“So what you are really going to be doing is stifling any kind of creativity because people won’t change menus. It’s just really stupid.
“I’m not at all saying that there isn’t an issue there that needs to be addressed, but I don’t think the answer to that problem lies in putting calories on a menu in a restaurant like this,” Ross adds.
Increased regulation is one change to the services industry in recent times – the ‘celebrity chef’ phenomenon is another.
“When I went into cooking first it was viewed in a dim light indeed,” he says. “If you didn’t make the grade academically or you couldn’t do a trade you went into the services industry. I didn’t go into it that way, but a lot of my generation were shovelled into it.
“So it’s quite amusing for me how far the status of the catering industry has come.
“It’s wonderful and you couldn’t have dreamed it when I started. If you said to me 25 years ago that chefs would be celebrities or kind of well known, you’d think ‘nah, I don’t think so’.”
When it comes to a chef’s life Ross is open about the issue of work-life balance in the restaurant – he admits that he does not have one.
“People who say they do and they have three businesses or whatever – that’s bulls**t,” he says.
“Your life suffers. We actually close Chapter One on Sundays and Mondays and I am able to dedicate those days to family, but there is no question about it, I should be spending more time at home. That’s the bottom line.
“It’s like everyone in my position when you get to a certain age, it is about figuring out how you do that.”
When he is at home, it is all hands on deck when it comes to cooking.
“I cook at home and we all get involved, my three daughters and my wife. We all pitch in,” Ross explains.
So are there any budding chefs in the next generation?
“It’s too early to tell,” Ross smiles. “I suppose it’s an unusual thing that their father owns a restaurant and now it’s kind of nice and exciting for them and they come in and see what goes on, but the reality is it’s a tough business and there aren’t very many if any second generation restaurateurs.
“There’s one or two, but they are rare and there is a reason for that.”
One of the highlights of his year is the Taste of Dublin in the Iveagh Gardens where he gets to catch up with other chefs as well as meeting diners.
“I like that it is an event that people can go to and forget about the world for a while,” Ross says.
“There are a lot of people there even within the industry who I wouldn’t see from one end of the year to the next so it’s a great occasion.
“It’s a little bit like Manhattan, where you have this great energy pulsing through this small space.”
Taste of Dublin runs at the Iveagh Gardens from June 11-14