The secret life of a Michelin-starred restaurant
From early morning deliveries to taking care of VIP guests, ensuring seamless service and a beer tax for chefs who make mistakes, The Irish Times spends a day behind the scenes of Chapter One in Dublin
Ross Lewis, chef and owner, with Eric Matthews, head chef at Chapter One. Photographs: Alan Betson
Friday, January 20th, 8.30am: The first mistake I make is to go in by the front door. The Irish Times is spending a day behind the scenes at Chapter One, on Parnell Square in Dublin’s north inner city. We’ve been given free rein to observe the inner workings of the Michelin-starred restaurant, front and back of house, at close quarters.
But we are not on the guest list for the day, so I should have used the staff entrance. Despite having been in the restaurant several times as a diner, I’d have been hard pressed to find it though. Behind the scenes, Chapter One is huge.
The dining rooms and bar are spacious, but give no hint of the vast working area that fans out behind the main kitchen. There is a second prep kitchen and butchery area, offices, staff room and locker room, wine cellars, a walk-in fridge and outdoor veg storage space, all leading off a very long, wide corridor called “the tunnel”.
This is the main artery of the restaurant, through which staff move seemlessly throughout the day. Awards and plaques, and this week’s rosters, line the walls. On a whiteboard someone has written “Why? Because I’m fantastic” in red pen.
A delivery area at the back leads on to Frederick Lane, where a graffiti festooned gate guards the entrance and is a more gritty reflection of the restaurant’s Dublin 1 postcode than the polished front entrance.
8.45am: Head chef Eric Matthews gives us the guided tour. There’s no sign of anyone in the locker room, though the official start time is between 8.30am and 9am. So, is everyone already hard at work? “Well, if they’re not, I’ll kick their arse,” Matthews says.
There’s an ironing board in the locker room for the staff to use. “If they don’t look like this,” he says, pointing to his starchy and pristine whites, “they go home.” The bosses, Lewis and Matthews, get their whites sent out to be laundered; the rest must do it themselves.
We duck into the walk-in fridge, and learn that not keeping it tidy and organised is a crime. “If any of the lads are late, not shaved, make a mistake, or if they mess up the walk-in, they have to buy a crate of beer for Friday night staff drinks,” Matthews says.
9am: This crucial time in the kitchen schedule is when the bulk of the prep for lunch, pre-theatre and dinner services is done, and there are almost 200 people to cook for today. Nobody looks up from the task at hand. The chefs move at a different pace than us civilians; there is definitely no running but they weave around the kitchen in a synchronised fast-moving blur.
Ross Lewis, chef proprietor, has arrived in from his other business, Osteria Lucio in Grand Canal Quay, and his is the only voice that can be heard above the hum of ovens, the whirring of a mixer, timers dinging and the gentle clatter of pans meeting stoves.
10am: Front-of-house staff have been at work since early vacuuming and polishing. Table cloths are ironed while they’re on the tables – they come in already starched and ironed, but it wouldn’t do to have a fold or crease showing.
Restaurant manager Darren Campbell has arrived, and once changed into his uniform, a smart suit, double-cuff shirt and tie, he takes us on a tour of his domain.
Already familiar with the front-of-house layout, I thought I had seen it all. But no, there’s another private dining space. The demi-salle is a sunken den, seating six in complete seclusion at a square table in a former coal bunker. It’s a racy space with a whiff of bad behaviour and good liquor.
11am: Campbell explains the intricacies of the ordering system: multiple dockets destined for different pick-ups, the difference between the runners who bring the food from the kitchen and the waitstaff who serve it, and the reason why you’ll never hear “who’s having the fish?” uttered here. A diner’s position at the table, and a sort of visual shorthand along the lines of two circles for the person wearing glasses, are noted on the docket for this reason.
All morning receptionist Sharon Shevlin fields telephone calls, breaking it gently that, no, there are no tables available. “The whole country seems to want to eat on Friday or Saturday,” she says.
11.30am: Sommelier Ed Jolliffe is excited about the changes the arrival of a Coravin wine delivery and preservation system has allowed him to make to the by-the-glass selection. Thanks to the nifty gadget he can now offer some of the restaurant’s most expensive wines by the glass, and diners aren’t holding back: it’s not unusual to sell a single glass with a €150 price tag, he tells me, and some guests have been known to order a second one too.
11.45am: I am summoned to the kitchen for the tasting session when all of the sauces, purées, vinaigrettes and garnishes that will be used that day are lined up on the pass and tasted by either Lewis or Matthews. “Not even The Fat Duck do this,” Matthews tells me, as we freewheel through a kaleidoscope of taste, colour and texture. “If I don’t like it they have half an hour to redo it,” he says.
Noon: General manager Danny Desmond takes the staff briefing, attended by chef Lewis and the entire front-of-house team. The menu and wine list are gone through, reservation numbers are discussed, and VIP customers are identified.
A writer from Germany who was in the restaurant just two days earlier is back again for lunch. He is to be gifted a signed copy of the Chapter One book. A famous poet’s son and a TV news reporter have also been spotted on the reservation list, and are name checked.
12.30pm: There is a distinct change in atmosphere on both sides of the house. The first customers are expected. It’s definitely game on. Like athletes waiting to spring from the blocks, the kitchen brigade stand ready for the orders to come in ... but they are slow to arrive.
“That’s Friday,” Lewis says, a day when lunches always run late and the stragglers mingle with the early pre-theatre arrivals.
2.45pm: A total of 65 diners have now been fed, and the final orders to the kitchen raise a resounding “Oui”. It’s almost time for the staff meal, and bangers and mash is on the menu. But first the whole kitchen seems to be taken apart and walls, floors, stove tops and counters are scrubbed until they sparkle.
3.30pm: It’s time to get back to work, and the late shift has arrived, fresh blood to bolster those on the dreaded split shift, who are on duty from morning to close. Everyone gets on with replenishing mis-en-place for the pre-theatre and dinner services. Fresh bread is baked, and tables are cleared and reset discreetly.
5.30pm: Day has segued into evening, and the first pre-theatre orders are in. With a tight window in which to serve more than 40 diners, many of them heading to the Gate for curtain-up, there can be no slacking. With “the gaffer”, as they call him, over in Osteria Lucio again, there’s a lighter atmosphere in the kitchen and even a joke or two. “I’ll bet there was,” Lewis says.
7pm: Break time. But nobody in the kitchen is putting their feet up. I retreat to the empty staff room to briefly recharge my batteries as well as my phone. There’s a giant machine for rolling puff pastry along one wall, a couple of freezers humming away, and a noticeboard on which someone has pinned a copy of the Seamus Heaney poem Blackberry-Picking.
“It just appeared there last summer,” head pastry chef Darren Hogarty tells me, in between rolling, folding and rerolling massive sheets of puff pastry for a game pithivier.
Hogarty has been at Chapter One for 12 years, broken by a one-year spell as head pastry chef for all of Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurants. “Intimidating” is how he describes his former boss.
8pm: The main act is playing out in the kitchen and dining room, with almost 90 expectant diners to be cooked for, served and entertained. For the next 2½ hours, I attempt not to get in the way, pressed up against a wall at the pass, trying not to lean against the fire extinguisher or knock the phone off its mount.
There are compensations; I am fed delicious morsels from the cold starter section while the team wait for orders to come in. Chef Matthews swoops and diverts the taster of “rehydrated crapaudine beetroot flavoured with bonito vinegar and ver jus, light onion soubise and broccoli rabe” that is making its way to me. It is back with me again a few seconds later. What was wrong with the first one? “I didn’t like the [tiny] broccoli leaf,” he says.
9pm: Suddenly, the mood changes as “runner” Diego swoops in with one of the vast silver trays used to deliver plates to the dining room, its cargo untouched. What could it be, a fly in the soup, a hair on the plate?
No, it seems that a guest has committed the cardinal sin of getting up for a smoke or a bathroom visit just as their food was en-route to the table.
The dishes stay under warming lamps as a countdown commences – if she’s not back quickly, they’ll all have to be replated. But no, the lady is not a loiterer, so the tray can go back out. The kitchen returns to its carefully choreographed rhythm – and I make a silent promise to myself never again to leave the table during dinner.
9.30pm: The kitchen is at its busiest. There are main courses for the 12 diners in the Jameson room to co-ordinate, and every inch of space is used as a succession of those giant silver trays is assembled so they can all receive their meals at once.
Raucous laughter rings out from the chef’s table, where six guests are enjoying the tasting menu with a grandstand view of the kitchen. “Sometimes I have to go out and say quieten down, the chefs can’t hear the orders coming in,” Matthews says.
9.45pm: “Oui!” The happy diners at the chef’s table might be going up an octave or two, but the most audible soundbyte of the night comes from the kitchen brigade as the last order of the night comes in.
The finish line is in sight, and by 10.15pm clean-down has begun in the cold starters section. Yet over in the pastry kitchen the pace is hotting up, with two-thirds of the diners still to be served.
10.30pm: “You can spot when a young chef is panicking, they get tunnel vision.” Matthews is filling me in on how the team performed throughout the day. “How do you know?” I ask. “We know the signs because we’ve been there.”
They’ve been working with food all day, some of them for 15 hours straight, but the last words I hear as I leave the kitchen is a detailed discussion about what’s for staff dinner the next day.
It was a good day. Nobody made a major mistake (and the walk-in fridge stayed tidy), so Friday night drinks are on the boss. “I bought a case of beer,” Matthews says with a smile.
11pm: My taxi is waiting, and it’s time to sidle out the front door. There’s a pleasing hum still coming from the dining rooms, and it looks like the party won’t be ending any time soon. “Still a lot of bums on seats,” Darren Campbell says.
The front-of-house team are hoping for a 1am finish. Then they’ll head home ... and come back and do it all over again tomorrow.
CHEF/PATRON ROSS LEWIS
“It’s like being on the world’s greatest stage. The curtain opens at 9am and closes at 1am and no two scripts are the same. It changes constantly, anything can happen, and I’ve seen everything ... that’s why this business is the challenge that it is.”
For Ross Lewis, 2017 marks the beginning of a new era – and another challenge. It is his first year as chef-patron at Chapter One, the landmark Dublin restaurant that has been his life’s work for the past 23 years, without co-owner Martin Corbett alongside.
Corbett, the former general manager, retired last year, and Lewis has taken over his shareholding. Restaurateur Eamonn Walsh, who initially backed the pair, both former employees of his Old Dublin restaurant, retains a 5 per cent share, down from his initial 50 per cent.
But it is only Lewis’s name above the door now, and with his wife Jessica playing a key role in the management team, it has become a family business. The restaurant’s 43-strong staff (15 of them chefs) is its extended family, and “like all families we have our good and our bad days”, Lewis says.
However, he strives to ensure that employees are treated fairly, becoming “emotionally invested” in what they are doing. “What we try to do here is to construct an environment that allows people to learn without being totally stressed out of their minds.”
There is a paternal dimension to Lewis’s kitchen-management style. “I try to get them to eat right, exercise, not spend all their free time out drinking – all the things that I didn’t do.” Things have changed now though, judging by the plate of mostly vegetables, with some lentils and a tiny sliver of pheasant, that he is having for lunch.
So what does it take to become one of those elite young chefs who pass through his kitchen, usually staying for a year then heading on to broaden their experience elsewhere? “Attitude is the most important thing for me. What you need first and foremost is someone who wants it.”
FRONT- OF-HOUSE: DANNY DESMOND AND DARREN CAMPBELL
“The minute they come in, you can see ... were they caught in traffic, had they an argument in the car, is it their first time out in a year, are they stressed, are their shoulders uptight. It’s all in the body language and facial expressions.”
Danny Desmond, general manager at Chapter One, is describing the pivotal moments when a diner arrives at the door and is escorted to the bar, or to their table, and how front-of-house staff use those few moments.
The conversation may sound like banal niceties, but the aim is to find out as much as possible about the guests and then tailor their experience to suit. Is there a birthday or anniversary being celebrated; is it a personal or a business occasion, are these guests that like to be showered with attention, or left alone?
“A lot of the time we have notes, from the reservation, but that little conversation is very important, and we’ve only got maybe a minute,” says restaurant manager Darren Campbell. “You usually can tell within 10 seconds at the door how a person is going to be.”
And if they turn out to be difficult customers? “We kill them with kindness. About 99 per cent will generally relax then, and it’s fine. When you get a table that come in maybe not in the best of form, and at the end of the meal they’re walking out of here with a smile on their faces, that’s a great feeling,” Campbell says.
Desmond succeeded Martin Corbett in the genial host role at Chapter One last year. It’s his job to make everyone dining at the restaurant feel like they are a VIP, and it is a finely honed skill.
When an actual VIP comes through the doors chances are their reputation has preceded them. Film stars, singers, politicians, scions of industry – Chapter One has played host to them all. Reservations are made in advance by aides and PAs, “but it’s kept quiet till the last minute”, Campbell says.
“My hero Al Pacino was here, for the Jameson Film Festival in 2012. He was on the chefs’ table – and on the same night we had Michael Madsen in.” So, when not one but two famous actors are on the premises, does the red carpet come out? “No, everybody who comes in gets 110 per cent. We try to engage with everyone, that’s one of our qualities in Chapter One, we’re very friendly.”
Not too friendly though, and that goes for fellow diners as well as staff when there’s a famous name on site. “You maybe look after them a bit more, ensure that they’re not being bothered by anyone,” Desmond says. “Say they’re a smoker, we’d just go out and chat while they’re having the cigarette, shield them without them knowing it.”
HEAD CHEF: ERIC MATTHEWS
“Ross is the architect and I am the builder.” Eric Matthews, the 29-year-old head chef at Chapter One is describing his role in the hierarchy of the kitchen and is deferentially playing down his contribution.
He is a high achiever who has worked at a succession of Michelin-starred restaurants in Dublin and London, including Heston Blumenthal’s three-star The Fat Duck, and he won a scholarship that took him to Australia to work. But something always brought him back to Chapter One, where he held a variety of positions in the kitchen before being appointed head chef.
Four years ago he headed to London. It was “interesting”, he says, going from a senior position back to being a commis again. There were other considerations too, not least a working day that began at 7am and ended maybe 18 hours later.
He describes the London kitchen scene at the time as being like a war zone. “It was like Baghdad, it was like Vietnam, it was screaming and shouting, it was a very tough environment to work in.”
As a head chef himself now, this is not a scenario he wants to replicate. “Here the guys come in at eight o’clock, half eight, they are all relatively well rested, they left here last night about 11, they get their breaks, nobody looks stressed, Ross isn’t screaming. That thing doesn’t happen here.”
In an industry often criticised for long hours and poor conditions, some chefs are getting behind a movement for change, and Matthews, taking his cue from Ross Lewis, is firmly behind it.
“If it comes to a point where I think they’re doing too many hours they get booted out of the kitchen,” he says. “I get in trouble with Ross if they don’t get off the floor [for breaks], so I have to enforce it. It’s a mentality thing – they think, well I did it in my last place, I worked 15 hours a day, so I have to do it here.
“I love coming in every day and I would work 100 hours a week if I had to, but you don’t have to any more. I have a life outside of here, I have a girlfriend, I have friends, and I want to see them. It’s the best job in the world. I’d do it for free ... but don’t tell anyone.”