Main photo: Elaine Fleming
Award-winning chef Rob Krawczyk has traded the Royal County for the People’s Republic in his first solo venture. Conor Forrest caught up with the Corkman to learn more about his inspirational family and a focus on culinary simplicity.
The village of Ballydehob is a small but vibrant and diverse settlement on the southwestern fringe of Cork, home to a wealth of history and a culture of music at the edge of the Mizen peninsula. There’s an almost haunting beauty to the landscape around these parts – an imposing 12-arch bridge (the last remnant of the West Cork Tramway) provides the backdrop to a children’s playground; an estuary teeming with wildlife flows close by and, several kilometres outside Ballydehob’s borders, is Kilcoe Castle, which stands guard over Roaringwater Bay and was restored to former glories by the actor Jeremy Irons. The village is also well-known for a wide variety of eateries ranging from traditional Italian dishes to simple but delicious Irish pub food. For the last two months or so, that culinary scope has been expanded by the arrival of Restaurant Chestnut, an intimate 18-seater helmed by chef Rob Krawczyk.
Rob grew up outside the nearby town of Schull in a house where life revolved around the kitchen, and one of his main sources of inspiration has always been his parents – proponents of the supper club before it came back into fashion. Well-known within food circles, his father Frank made world-class charcuterie in West Cork for 25 years and taught Rob how to cure and smoke meat and make salami and dry-aged coppa – his mum Annie would look after front of house as the family hosted guests in their home every summer over the course of a decade.
“They had a little restaurant in the house as well, so I’ve always been around food. I always wanted a small place to do small numbers, to be able to do it and do it right,” he explains. You’d think that the son of a devotee to the craft of charcuterie might make a beeline for the kitchen but, despite his family influences, Rob’s journey into the world of food took a bit of a roundabout route. At the age of 18 he left for art college, studying model-making and special effects for film and TV. He was in his late twenties when he made the decision to follow the food path and, instead of hitting the books once more, he eschewed culinary college for throwing himself into the deep end in London, with the help of a key friend in Richard Corrigan. In the intervening years he worked under a string of chefs across the world including Alice Waters of Chez Pannise in San Francisco and Martijn Kajuiter of the Michelin-starred Cliff House Hotel restaurant, won the Best Chef in Leinster title two years in a row, tested local waters during a residency at Glebe Gardens in Baltimore in 2017, and worked as head chef of Brabazon Restaurant at Tankardstown House in Co Meath, where diners would begin their meal with a plate of charcuterie made in-house. Now he’s back on home turf. “I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half just trying to find the right location and we were lucky enough that, kind of by accident, we stumbled upon this,” he tells me. “This part of the world is very important to me personally and I’m so happy to be setting down roots back here.”
Rob’s approach to food is one of simplicity, avoiding complication and presenting food in its natural state as much as possible. The menu at his first solo restaurant focuses on strong and bold flavours, offering a choice between two starters, two main courses and two desserts and featuring culinary treats such as salted celery root and duck, crispy chicken wing with yeast cauliflower and onion, or rhubarb combined with Jerusalem artichoke, yoghurt and pollen. Walk-in guests can grab a spot at the bar and enjoy a snack – charcuterie, a selection of local cheeses, terrines, and whatever best is available during that season (not to mention a glass of wine). Dinner is served four nights a week from Wednesday to Saturday, with Sunday reserved for lunch.
“The focus at Restaurant Chestnut will be on quality food and sustainable, respectful methods of growing, cooking and entertaining,” Rob explains. “Good cooking starts with good produce and when you have the richness of the Irish larder to choose from, you’re off to a great start. We want to celebrate Irish producers, in particular small, local and sustainable producers from West Cork, and from all over the country.”
That’s hardly surprising given the artisan blood that flows in his veins and the depth and breadth of food producers right on his doorstep. Skeaghanore West Cork Duck is just down the road, hand-reared farm ducks fed on a natural diet and given space to roam. North of the village, Cornucopia Farm takes the organic approach to food production on 72 acres of forestry, fields, orchards and a vegetable garden. Many local producers come together every Friday for the village’s food market, a social event featuring everything from home-produced jams and baking to local vegetables and craft items. Food is very much embedded within the village’s DNA – take the old butter walk connecting Ballydehob with Schull, a grassy track on which farmers once trekked with oak barrels of salted butter, bound for the Butter Exchange in Cork city.
“We’re very fortunate down here, and another reason why we were looking down around here is the quality of the produce,” he notes, passion exuding from his voice. “All over Ireland it’s fantastic but I just think the level – there’s so much available down here and it’s right there. So many people have come in to me and are growing this or that, you’re trying all of this amazing stuff and it’s just fantastic. There’s so much passion and people are really doing it out of love.”
The restaurant itself completes the experience. Housed in an old country pub formerly known as The Chestnut Tree, its got character by the bucketful, a casual and informal space that offers diners the chance to sample quality food in an intimate and homely atmosphere. Think wooden panelling and chestnut floors, bare walls, 1960s G-plan chairs, old English silverware and bone-handled knives, as well as bespoke plates created by a variety of potters.
“Originally it was a pub, the building is about 100 years old. There’s a lovely feel, a lot of little rooms – it’s not one big open room,” says Rob. “We have a larger sharing table, we have the old bar counter and there are a few tables around it. What we call the dining room is a smaller room with just three tables in there, it’s quite intimate, and that leads into the kitchen.”
While the building has been refreshed and altered – cosmetically – in part to suit the needs of a restaurant, the essence of the old pub and its personality has been very much retained. “It was very important to us that we keep the character of the restaurant, and we want to keep the same casual relaxed atmosphere for our diners,” he adds. “The former bar has some of our larder of ingredients on display and is an extension to the kitchen, which can be seen from the main dining space. It’s a small, practical kitchen and guests are welcome to peep around the corner and visit. I’m cooking mostly on a charcoal grill, and using both old and new techniques – from salting, curing and pickling to liquid nitrogen.”
The restaurant also sits on a half-acre site with plenty of promise – Rob notes that in the long-term they’re hoping to perhaps grow and cultivate some of their own produce; a smokehouse may be another addition at some point. For now, however, the focus is on the quality of the food, enjoying the experience and, of course, filling the restaurant every night. So far, so good – one reviewer on its opening night noted that “West Cork is so much the richer for its arrival”.
“We have a small team, we work hard and it’s great, we all love what we do,” Rob says. “We have 18 seats – if we do 18 people a night I’ll be happy.”