'I'm not one to stand still. If things don't get better, I get bored, and that's never a good thing'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

When restaurants are finally allowed to serve their guests indoors, Mickael Viljanen, the former head chef at The Greenhouse in Dublin, will be taking the helm at Ross Lewis' Chapter One as the new chef patron

While the decision to pack in his role after securing The Greenhouse's position as one of 20 two Michelin-star establishments in the British Isles seems somewhat irrational, or even outright barmy, it is undeniably exciting.

"When this thing came along," (Covid, that is,) he said, in the first episode of the Grilled by The Staff Canteen podcast co-hosted by chef owner of Midsummer House, Daniel Clifford, "I started thinking, 'I'm going to be forty next month. If I don't do it now, when am I going to do it?"

And with a bigger kitchen and dining area, more resources and logistical scope, it seemed like the perfect platform for him to grow.

"I'm not one to stand still," he said. "If things don't get better, I get bored, and that's never a good thing.

"Here, we have an opportunity to do something that can go further than we've gone before."

The burden and blessing of taking over an institution

To be taking on restaurant as iconic as Chapter One, marrying chef Ross Lewis' three decades of experience with the Finnish chef's skill and go-getter attitude was bound to drum up some hype. 

The recipient of the Food and Wine Best Chef in Ireland title in 2019 chose to take the role because he and Ross both stand to gain from the exchange: Ross gets to bow out of the kitchen with grace, leaving his legacy intact, while Mickael gets to take his food to the next level.

"Ross is going to stay on for a couple of years and he's said, 'you just worry about the restaurant, I'll help with all the other things in the background,' which is a huge stress removed from me.

"With somebody in there giving me PNLs every week, I'll see where we are financially all the time. That's a huge relief at the start because I can focus on what we do best: trying to make people happy." 

"I just want to build on the identity that we have now. I have an idea in my head of what I want my food to be and how I want people to perceive it and I think you've got to build on that. It won't be perfect from day one, it never is." 

Consistency - not just with the food,  but the service, too -  will take centre stage, he explained: "I'm sure you've been in a situation where you do a plate and you show the lads, 'okay we do it like this,' then somebody else does it, and it's not quite the same. You don't know how, but it's not right."

"I want to remove that element and have it so foolproof and have systems in place that we can operate on a consistent level from morning to night every day. We have such a strict system in place of how we achieve that, and I've got to work on that." 

Reaching for two stars

Doubtless Mickael is nervous that after putting in so much work to earn two Michelin stars at The Greenhouse, he may not repeat the feat here.

"My ambitions haven't diminished since I left. If anything, they've grown. But everything takes time, and the key for me is that it has to be run as a business," he said. 

"Then we start building on that."

Truth be told, the chef wasn't expecting to win two stars the first time, "but it came, and it's one of those things that you never forget," partly because of the years of thought and consideration that went into getting him there.

While he concedes that the two-star life isn't for everyone, he believes that his obsessive mindset is what he needs to move forward.

"The mentality needs to be that if you want to go places," he said, "may that be any job - if you want to be a Formula 1 driver or a footballer, whatever -  somebody who does a Monday to Friday and switches off for two days completely I think will find it very hard to go places."

"At the same time, is it a great thing? Is it a good thing? I'm not sure," he said, "but that's the way I'm wired and you can't control that."

"Chefs are some of the most insecure people," he continued, "and that drives you." 

"Whether people want to admit that or not, everybody has that inside them - and I think you need to have it, because the minute you start believing your own bulls**t, you're done."

Pushed on the question of whether it is important to him to regain two stars, he said,  "of course."

"And the sooner the better. But at the same time, it comes from within." 

The best of the best comes at a price

One thing is for certain where Mickael is concerned: prices are going to have to increase when things reopen, because the cost of food, labour, rent, everything has risen, and the industry is weighed down by debt. 

"The top end of the market will be exceedingly more expensive," he said, "and there'll be less of them." 

And so, in order to be successful, "you need to be at the peak." 

Part of the reason that cost will rise, the chef explained, is because not only does his team need to be highly-skilled, dedicated and engaged, but well cared for. 

The pool of people with the ability and will to work at two-star level has always been small, but it has since decreased to be smaller than ever. That's without mentionning that giving chefs a good work-life balance means that teams need to be sizeably larger than they used to be.

"Just throwing money at people is not a solution," he said. "It's a short-term solution for a long term problem." 


Building your own talent in this way requires more time spent alongside them, he explained, which in business terms is costly too, but with some luck it also means better retention.

"We need to offer them a place where they learn, we need to constantly challenge people. If they get bored, that's when they start looking around." 

"If you can offer them an environment where they learn - yes they work hard when they're here" - which is four days a week, two of which for lunch and dinner - "but at the same time pay them more than before and look after them."

In recent weeks, the lid has been lifted on poor practices - some of them ongoing - in professional kitchens.

But as many chefs in Michelin-starred environments, Mickael looks back with some degree of regret to the way he managed his temper in the past.

"If you're leading a group of people and they keep leaving, there's a problem, and normally, it's you," he said. 

"All my guys and girls have been with me for three, four, five years at The Greenhouse and they all wanted to come with me. I took that as a big achievement for myself." 

Admitting that he still occasionally loses his temper, he said, "it's minimal compared to what it would have been 5-6-7 years ago." 

"The only time you lose it is when you're not in control yourself, and that's why I've tried to get better at that, calming myself down. I try to sort s**t out before it gets to that point that I have to blow the cask." 

Let us not lose sight of what is good about hospitality

There is value in having a conversation about how not to run a kitchen, there is no question about that.

But at the same time, he argued, we must not lose sight of the aspects of the hospitality industry that make it so great: the opportunities, the camraderie, the potential to raise oneself up.

"You have a job anywhere in the world - if you want to go somewhere, you learn new cultures, you work in amazing kitchens, you learn teamwork. You learn so much more in kitchens in restaurants - it's not just cooking or food or service, you learn to interact with people, your social skills get better." 

"I think it's a great industry. There's been many a morning when I was young, sitting on the edge of my bed, my alarm's just gone off and I'd find myself, thirty seconds later sleeping sitting up on my bed, because I'm tired.

"That's not productive to anybody. I don't want anybody working here feeling like that."

It is important not to pretend it isn't tough, however, as that would take away from the merit of achieving great things.

"It's not an easy industry," he said.  "If it was easy everybody would be doing it. There's a reason why there are only x amount of 3 or 2 star restaurants in the world, because it's not easy. 

"Nothing worth achieving is going to be easy, but it should be desirable." 

'We're going to have a full lunch and a full dinner for the foreseeable future, I'd better move my arse'

And so, it is with a mix of apprehension and excitement that Mickael and his team are returning to the stoves.

The atmosphere in Dublin has always been one of enjoyment: merry, cheerful and welcoming to its many international guests. For Mickael, for the first time in fifteen months, "it's coming back." 

The nerves he feels now will soon ease off, he believes, "the minute my head goes down, first ticket is in there and we're back in the swing of it." 

"There's no better feeling than when you open that door at 8:30 at night and all you can hear is hum of people, clatter and laughter.

 "There's no f****g better music in the world than a restaurant full of happy people."

"That's what everybody wants to get back to." 

"But at the same time, it's like, 'we're going to have a full lunch, full dinner for the foreseeable future, I'd better move my arse.'"

"Yes there's a hype and it's exciting for me to see that - and it's been phenomenal to have that support and the excitement that people have, it's amazing to see and watch it unfold. All we have to do now is deliver."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 8th July 2021

'I'm not one to stand still. If things don't get better, I get bored, and that's never a good thing'