Chef Ross Lewis and his team have achieved greatness in Ireland for many years…In fact, when I arrived Chef Ross was putting the final touches on the recipes for his upcoming cookbook that celebrates the twentieth anniversary of Chapter One and all the work that it took to get there.
I walked into the kitchen on Tuesday morning at 9am, after they had been closed for two days, and prep was in full swing. There was not much talking and I was hustled back to the changing room. I ran into Chef Ross changing into his chef coat and we said a quick hello. He wished me well for the day and told me that we would catch up after lunch as the cookbook they were finishing was consuming his morning.
After a quick switch into my kitchen clothes I was off to prep. As I stepped into the kitchen I could tell this was a large and busy operation. There were around twenty people, all head down and hard at work. Lunch began at noon and there was much to do before then.
After asking a few people if they needed assistance and receiving somewhat of a terse “no” in response, a senior cook finally accepted my help. Ahmed, originally from Turkey and living in Dublin made it clear that he had a lot to do and I was more than happy to jump in. Initially, he was very attentive to what I was doing, but after a few minutes of getting to know each other and realizing that I had experience, he lightened up and it was all-good from then on. He explained that they get many stagiares, the majority of which have no clue what’s going on or how to operate in a kitchen of that caliber. I completely understood his feeling of apprehension in taking on what is usually a project, and on a day with a heavy workload. We worked quite well together almost immediately and were setup for service with time to spare. He was genuinely grateful.
I spent lunch service working the line with Ahmed, finishing plates and observing the flow of the rest of the kitchen. We had great conversation during service. He was very curious about the Chicago culinary scene and America in general. He said he is planning to come to Chicago in the next year so we exchanged information with the hope of getting together while he is here.
After lunch service was over, Chef Ross stopped over and asked if I was hungry. I don’t think I’ve ever answered no to that questions. He invited me to have lunch with him at the chef’s table. The kitchen cooked a couple of dishes for us, he had halibut and simply cooked vegetables (the lunch of a chef who knows the long term impact of eating heavily everyday) and I was given a gorgeous plate of short ribs with mushrooms and a beautiful glaze, accompanied potato puree studded with crispy skins and topped with pan fried strips of cabbage. It was a play on the classic Irish combination of potatoes and cabbage, but by no means was this tossed in a pot and boiled until unrecognizable. The short ribs were fork tender as I anticipated and oh…those damn potatoes, again. Perfect, simply perfect. Chef Ross offered me some soda bread, which I have come to know and love. Along with the soda bread was a house made sourdough that had a dark floury crust and a slightly chewy soft interior.
We traded stories about some people that we both know, (Hi Natasha ) and shared stories and bits of our philosophy on kitchens, nutrition, leadership, the evolution of restaurants and kitchens, and the state of food in America and the rest of the world. Head chef Andy joined us after a few minutes and jumped into the conversation and added bits about his cooking experiences in France, Japan, and Australia.
During dinner service I had it pretty easy. Chef Ross set me up at the corner of the pass and I had a front row seat for some great pictures. I spent most of the evening chatting with chef Andy and junior sous chef Eric. They were both very giving of their knowledge and explained every dish they were serving to me. Eric had worked at Chapter One in the past and has taken a couple of years to work at the Fat Duck under gastro genius chef Heston Blumenthal in Bray, England. He handed me a pan of spoons and welcomed me to taste my way up and down the line…I was in heaven. It was a fairly busy service for them, 200+ but everything was handled in stride and the plates were gorgeous.
Ross Lewis and I had been talking about all things food throughout dinner service and realized that we share a particular affinity for vinegar. Once the majority of service had passed he motioned for me to follow him. He led me through a back hallway, opened a non-descript door, and invited me in. It was like walking into Willy Wonka’s vinegar factory… my jaw dropped when, he asked me to hold out my hand. He began opening bottle after bottle of the most amazing vinegars and oils I could imagine, and pouring a bit into my palm. Mind you; none of these are found in gourmet catalogs and certainly not at your friendly neighborhood grocer. Everything was very small batch, most unlabeled, the name only noted on the bottle; wild foraged raspberry vinegar, several cider vinegars, cherry balsamic, katsuobushi rice vinegar, extra virgin hazelnut oil, peanut oil, and loads of others. I tried things from caper blossoms to brandy leaf wrapped figs. I think he understood how excited I was. He handed me a bottle of the katsuobushi rice vinegar as a gift. I thanked him for inviting me into his kitchen and especially for the vinegar and oil tasting. He suggested I head back to the kitchen, as they were going to cook a couple more dishes for me. He was off to edit more recipes for the book.
I got back into the kitchen and chef Andy asked what I wanted for dinner, anything on the menu. I knew that anything I chose would be fantastic, but in situations like that I always take the suggestion of the staff, they have their favorites.
I sat at the chef’s table again, was brought water and utensils by the service team and my first dish came shortly there after. The first: “a pig’s tail” the menu lists the following:
Pigs tail – stuffed with Fingal Fergusson smoked bacon, langoustines, basil puree, watercress salad and citrus mustard fruit
Amazing…there’s Fingal again. The plate was quite attractive; a smooth basil puree provided a spring green background and strong herbaceous character for the pork wrapped around a langoustine mousse and Fingal’s bacon. The roulade was then wrapped in pork skin and steamed during prep. On pickup it is heated in a small pan and glazed in a rich pork jus. It looked like a heavy and hearty bite of food, but a salad of raw celeriac, watercress, and shallots dressed in a lemon vinaigrette and citrus rind confited in a mustard syrup worked to achieve the perfect balance of acidity, richness, and freshness. It was absolutely delicious.
I had been asking a lot of questions about the sea bass dish and Eric thought it best that I have that…deal. However, it only got better when I heard him mention to chef Andy that he had just filleted some turbot earlier that day, they offered it to me in lieu of sea bass on the same dish
Sea bass with salt baked organic celeriac, rope mussels in a Craigies cider dressing and tarragon essence, Jerusalem artichoke
Turbot is my absolute favorite fish. I’ve had it when it’s spectacular, and also when it wasn’t really turbot… not the real thing. This was definitely the real thing…and when the dish arrived to me, someone decided to add a several nuggets of butter-poached lobster; ok then!
The flavors of each element were uniquely identifiable and the dish was clean and light from start to finish. Most ingredients were familiar, except for the monk’s beard, a crunchy green vegetable with a bit of tartness and minerality, a great accompaniment for seafood. The clarity and development of flavor was the sign of a dish developed by a seasoned professional and prepared by adept hands.
Chef Andy came by at the end of my meal to see what I thought. I was thankful and appreciative for the hospitality and bevy of tasty treats they had thrown my way. We chatted about the next legs of my trip and he passed on a few tips about travel and food. With a full stomach and mind, I said my goodbyes; changed back into my civvies and headed back to the hotel to share stories with Amy…she was asleep when I arrived
After a day at Chapter One, it was very apparent why their front wall is filled with accolades. This is a restaurant with a serious pedigree of talented and thoughtful leadership. Succeeding in this business is difficult, but thriving for over twenty years is something different all together. Congratulations to Chef Ross and all the people who helped him get to the top and stay on top. Thank you for opening up your kitchen to me. I am sincerely grateful.