When the news broke that Ireland’s leading chef, Mickael Viljanen, would take over Dublin’s most beloved restaurant, Chapter One, from chef Ross Lewis, it came as a huge surprise. Viljanen was already the head chef at The Greenhouse, one of three two-Michelin star restaurants in the whole country, and widely recognised as the most interesting and talented chef in Ireland. Lewis, a constant of Irish gastronomy, remains a partner but has stepped back, ushering in a new chapter at the Parnell Square restaurant.
Some months later and after breathless critical acclaim, the project can be deemed a resounding success. Whispers of Ireland’s first three-Michelin star restaurant abound, but, while exacting in his standards Viljanen is a chef with two feet very much on the ground. It may seem like a whirlwind few months for the chef, but it had been in the pipeline for some time.
“Obviously things like that take time,” explains Viljanen. “It doesn’t happen over a week or two or a month. We’d been a good few months in discussion and there’s so much detail to discuss anyway – what way we want to do things, and me buying into things here. Ross was here 29 years so it was a big move for him. We’ve found the right balance so that it suited both sides and that always takes time."
The lockdown has brought change for everyone, but the restaurant industry has been particularly affected. Viljanen is very calm about change, things are different and will continue to change, but hard work and a passion for what he does has served him well up to now and that’s what he intends to continue to do.
“I think the hunger is always there. In this line of work, you don’t do it for any other reason than you love what you do. It’s not a great lifestyle choice but it’s just what I’ve always done, I’ve never done anything else. We look at things a bit different now because the situation is different, but not just because of lockdown. I think the generation coming behind me, they’re not ones who are willing to do five doubles and ninety-hour weeks. That’s the biggest change."
The staffing crisis may not affect a restaurant with Chapter One’s reputation, and Viljanen is working with a team, some of whom have been with the Finnish chef for years. However, Viljanen himself is the first to recognise that there is a generation gap. He is old school and has committed to a life in the kitchen, while the younger generation wants more of a work/life balance.
“I look at the UK and Ireland and perhaps we’re dinosaurs in that respect. Yes, you need to do long hours to be a success. It’s not going to happen on 30-hour working weeks. It’s not sustainable in a restaurant like this relative to operating costs. But I think we’re at a point now where we have a bit more balance with people. So those ten shifts a week are now seven shifts a week. I’m here every day for various reasons. That’s my choice, obviously."
“Eventually it will come to a point where I won’t be here all the time. Maybe if I could get here at 11 am and leave at 11 pm, I’d be happy with that. We have our team in a good place. They work hard, but they have their time off and that’s the way it should be."
Ireland’s restaurant industry, which experienced one of the longest and most severe lockdowns in the world, is facing a perfect storm of problems, from staffing and supply chain issues, to financing and tourism, all feeding into a very difficult moment for restaurateurs. The new landscape will see a narrowing of the market for the higher end of fine dining.
“What will happen now is top-end dining will become more exclusive and more expensive,” explains Viljanen. “And there will be fewer of that kind of restaurant. The talent pool is only so big, as there are only a limited number of people who will want to do this for a living. Also, it needs to cost more money. It’s an exclusive, nearly tailored service what’s being done, and it doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea, but there will always be a market for it.”
Indeed, perhaps Ireland has suffered traditionally for fine-dining being perceived as too exclusive or inaccessible. It’s only recently that the country really began to find its culinary feet, thanks to the work of the likes of Ross Lewis. The idea that food is exclusive doesn’t sit naturally with the Irish. Viljanen insists he is determined not to deter anyone from enjoying a meal at the highest level in whatever way they want.
“I always said to the guys that we're not there to lecture the guests. I don’t think people really need to understand what they're having, they just really need to enjoy it. We’re not here to tell people what they should like, or what they shouldn’t like, or how they should like it. We’re here to provide a good night for people. I just want people to leave happier than they came in and our job is done."
"They don’t need to know why they should like something. Sometimes you go to a place and you hear 'you should start with this and then you should do that'… People ask me ‘how should I eat that?’ and I say ‘listen whatever way you want’. I’m not here to tell people how to eat."
“It shouldn’t be an experience where people sit straight in a chair and they’re afraid to look left or right because they don’t know what pinot noir is or what chardonnay is. We should be there to soften every single cushion for those people and make the experience accessible and normal and everyday, while still keeping it a special occasion for them. That’s what good hospitality boils down to.”
We know for sure that Chapter One will appear in the next Michelin Guide, but we don’t know whether they will award one, two or three stars. Viljanen hasn’t a clue either.
“They came in, that’s all we know. Every year that goes by, I know less and less about Michelin. People ask me questions and I just say people come here, we cook and we do what we do. We’re here to feed them they’re the judges and not the other way around. It is what it is.”