‘Its like craft jack’, Rob Krawczyk laughs with Corkonian intonation when I clumsily try to pronounce his Polish surname. The Best Chef in Leinster also happens to be the first to laugh at himself, immediately dispelling the image I had in my head of a hunter gatherer-esque brute of chef from numerous photos of him touting animal carcasses and grimacing. “Oh that photo’ he smiles…’I look like I had just been kicked in the nuts in that!”
The king of the kitchen at Slane’s Brabazon Restaurant in luxury five star Tankardstown House, Rob is in high spirits having just returned from an action packed week, popping up from Rome to Ballydehob. A short Roman holiday saw him cooking at Taste of Italy, with The World Gourmet Association, which is headed up in the UK and Ireland by Tom Aikens. Rob remembers sitting in a room with ten Michelin starred chefs, being the sole Irish chef there and loving every minute. His presence in such esteemed company speaks volumes. Rob may not have a star at this point, but it seems he is displaying the star quality that could propel him to this going forward.
After that, a reality check, but one he thoroughly enjoyed, to the village of Ballydehob. In Levi’s pub, Rob took to a home kitchen for his first time cooking in his native West Cork – “it was like cooking out of a phonebox…maybe I shouldn’t have done six or seven courses!” he grins, the cheeky glint in his eye telling me he’d do it all again without breaking a sweat. And with the odd ‘like’ marbled through his soft-spoken sentences, it’s clear a little time at home has left him refreshed and keen to return.
With a food obsessive, artisan cheese and charcuterie expert father, you would be forgiven for thinking Rob grew up with a firmly-fixed goal of kitchen domination, but wandering down a different path was to come first. Frank was making and selling cheese in their home in Schull before he and his wife started a pop up restaurant in their house, a supper club of sorts before they were trendy. The Krawcyzks have been ahead of the culinary game all along.
“They did the restaurant for about ten years, every summer, and it was lovely. They’d love to do it again and its something I’d love to do in the future” he says, my ears pricking up at the idyllic thought of sitting on a West Cork pier, enjoying the fine food Rob is known to produce. But despite being immersed in food from the word go, Rob’s ambitions to follow suit were absent in his younger years.
“You know when you’re young and you don’t want to have anything to do with what your parents do?” Rebellious Rob resisted the path that seemed pre-ordained for him for many years.
“But it was always there, and its only when you get older it comes out of you and you realise that it comes naturally to you. Now everyone wants to do what my parents were doing’
The creative flair we have come to expect from Rob’s plated masterpieces is likely a result of the years he spent finding his calling, the scenic route through art college. “I did model-making and special effects for TV and Film – I wanted to go and work in Hollywood!” he says. The showbiz life seemingly wasn’t meant to be and the kitchen would beckon him, although Rob laughs when pressed on the new Masterchef Ireland judging panel – “Of course I would have done it, if they had asked!”
Once Rob decided to venture down the food career path, he was in his late twenties and faced with the question of how he would do it.”I didn’t go to catering college – I just threw myself in the deep end…I always throw myself in the deep end” he reveals, with the return of the wry smile. Diving head first moving to London to learn the ropes in a fast-paced kitchen, Rob was lucky to have a key contact in the industry – Richard Corrigan. Frank knew Corrigan having connected through The Slow Food movement and kept in touch, giving Rob the perfect route in and a masterful mentor who remains a friend to this day.
Working his way up in kitchens to learn his trade included a stage in world-renowned ecological gastronomy mecca Chez Panisse.Revered globally as a site of culinary innovation, Alice Waters and her team were foraging and fermenting many years before the two F words became fashionable on these shores. An emphasis on provenance and seasonality was always the order of the day in the Berkley stalwart and Rob’s own culinary character can be traced to this.
Rob’s philosophy is to present ingredients as close as possible to their natural state, providing an honest encounter between producer, chef and guest – “I want my food to represent nature and it inspires hugely, if I see something in nature, like Autumn leaves, I try to depict that in food, with colours and textures and make it look similar so you are more involved. It’s not a plate of food that you’re just eating, it’s the season and the senses”, he explains.
Few people understand the primacy of the producer as clearly as Rob, a by-product of having artisan producing in his blood. “Ireland has just really really come on, we’ve had the most amazing producers for so so long, we had the producers before we had the chefs and restaurants” he believes, but thinks with many chefs returning from stages abroad and the broadening of horizons via social media, Ireland’s culinary star is on the rise.
Elements of his father’s craft had begun to trickle in to Rob’s cuisine over the years, slowly. As head chef in The Chop House in Lismore, Rob unearthed a smoker and was intrigued. “I rang my dad and asked him to come up and show me a few things. Then I realised I really loved it, it wasn’t forced on me, it just naturally happened”, he recalls fondly.
Of Irish charcuterie, I have often wondered myself, if having the raw materials of high quality livestock we can some day rival Bellota Jamon Iberico and Rob is the man to ask. “Maybe in 100 years” he says, believing in doing things slowly and properly, like the charcuterie itself, the quality of our methods will improve with time. I sigh – I can’t wait that long! “You have to appreciate it for the story behind it,” he advises me, as I get a glimpse into the way Rob really perceives his food and its significance.
Rob recalls people telling his father that the humidity and moisture in Irish air would never produce fine salami. “Further South it is drier – and its in their blood, they’ve been doing it forever,” he says of Spanish producers. “I have a couple of ham legs, they’re nice but they’re not going to compete with Jamon Iberico. It’s the story behind them that competes, rather than ordering stuff in from Spain and just slicing it. If you made it yourself and aged it 18 months and its nice then it lives up to what it wants to be.” For Rob, being part of the process of taking an ingredient from production to plate adds a dimension to his food.
As both a purveyor of haute cuisine and a charcutier, Rob has neared coming to blows with the Health Authority over the years. “The health inspectors have no understanding of food on a high level and what it takes. All they want is for it to be probed and reach 72 degrees” he says, that grimace I had seen before creeping in slightly.
I said to them ‘would you prefer if I took something out of the freezer and threw it into the deep fat fryer?’ ‘Well yes, it would make my job easier’ was the response. It’s bullshit.
“There is a fear in their faces like ‘what are you going doing with that?!’ ‘Oh just hanging it up for three months in a shed!” he laughs.
On the topic of the different varieties of wonderful charcuterie he hand produces, Rob ponders “Why are people afraid of fat?!” We agree, Lardo is king and backfat has never been so desirable. Rob incorporates his into various dishes but loves nothing more than enjoying that calibre of food in a relaxed setting. “I don’t like the phrase fine dining, I just want to do that level of food without the stuffiness, I don’t think people want it either” he says. “I don’t want to be sitting somewhere stuffy with two waiters breathing down my neck wondering if I’m sitting correctly or wearing the right clothes!’ he laughs, hailing Ciaran Sweeney’s Forest and Marcy as a ‘cracking restaurant’ which is proving how this model works.
In the same way he strips his food back to honesty, his responses are, refreshingly, seasoned liberally with it. When probed, he openly admits that he is somewhat “constrained” in a hotel restaurant setting. Of course he doesn’t want to serve a side of vegetables and potatoes. It doesn’t excite him and it doesn’t excite diners, he tells me. “When people come to eat in a hotel there’s a certain expectation. You need to have safe options, but I do wish I didn’t have to.”
But this, for now, is a small concession for the fact that he can hand pick his ingredients from a walled garden which sustains the entire menu – “sometimes you don’t realise how lucky you are and its only when its taken away that you see it” he admits. “My dad took the line of ‘this is what I’m cooking, whatever’s in the garden, grown locally,” he recalls of his parent’s restaurant and this tunnel vision focus on wild, local, foraged ingredients has stuck with Rob to this day.
I had to ask if Rob plans to do a ‘Viljanen’ on it in the future, taking his skills from hotel kitchen to high-end standalone restaurant where he can fully express himself on a plate, sides of potatoes be damned, and I think I already knew the answer. Far from the meaty spread of Lardo and Coppa I anticipate, seafood, untouched, fresh off the boats in West Cork is the stuff Rob’s death row meal dreams are made of. His roots begin to show and it becomes obvious that his future will include a return to his home county.
Rob lights up talking about his recent experience in Ballydehob, noting how easy it was to source incredible produce, a treasure trove of raw materials on his doorstep. The preservation of his roots is clearly a priority to him, so much so that his fore-arm is inked with a sprawling tree, its wandering branches firmly rooted, as his ambitions to have his own small restaurant in West Cork one day appear to be.
Those from the People’s Republic of Cork are often accused of lacking a streak of humility, but if Rob Krawzyck manages to put the grand plan in motion and take his skills back to his roots in Cork, they will have much to brag about on the food front indeed.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.