WHEN I spoke to Rob Krawczyk late last summer, during his successful residency at Glebe Garden in Baltimore, he was already scouting for locations for a new restaurant near to where he grew up with his family in Schull, West Cork.
Holding your cards tight to your chest out West is necessary, partly because we have impressively fervent jungle drums but also because it meant a great deal to him. There was no rush about the venture: just a knowingness that the right place would eventually present itself, preferably in time for summer.
Fast forward to the new year, and the first rumble of news that Rob and his partner, Elaine, were knee deep in a tasteful renovation of an old pub on Ballydehob’s main street, The Chestnut.
The plan? A small, intimate restaurant to seat 18 diners at a time, scattered between the old front bar and the lounge to the rear of the pub.
The food ethos? The best of what is local and seasonal, a pared down curated menu. Rob in the kitchen, Elaine running front of house.
Rob explained: “We were looking for the right premises, coincidentally a friend of ours was leasing The Chestnut. We called in for a drink over Christmas and Elaine and I both liked it. It just stuck in our minds and had a really nice feeling to it. We pursued it and by chance everything worked out really well.
“After last summer, we both decided that we really liked living down here. We can work really hard and still have that balance of life outside of work. I could have opened in Dublin, but it’s not where I wanted to be. I like being part of a community, and having just a small restaurant space serving 18 to 20 people a night but doing everything right is a way of working that allows us to do what we want to do.
“I guess there is pressure to always fill the tables but we have a lot more control over what we are doing.”
Ballydehob is a place that has long been at home with itself as a great place for food, drink and craic. A place where art of all kinds, from painting to music to food, pours forth from a seam of endlessly creative folk. It seems more than fitting that Rob, recognised for his culinary art, has decided that this is where he needs to open his restaurant.
“The produce has a lot to speak of here, essentially most of the work has already been done for me! Local food to me still means Irish food — Ireland is local, but I have some amazing producers on my doorstep.
“I like that I can get fantastic asparagus that’s grown just up the road from The Chestnut, but I also choose from a wealth of Irish cheesemakers from all over the country.”
Entering The Chestnut, it is unmistakably an old pub; the décor best described as puritanical glamour: dark battleship grey walls, scrubbed wooden floors and mismatched tables and chairs stand in stark contrast to the elegant but simple table settings of glistening stemware, polished steel and crisp folded napkins. Hard to imagine a flat-capped farmer ever perched upon a stall sipping a pint of Murphy’s at the bar.
“Elaine and I were very conscious of the natural character of The Chestnut. It’s a 100 year old building and we wanted to keep the sense of that, and also for people to feel welcome, somewhere to come and relax, chill out.
“We have lots of little areas to play with: the rear dining room feels completely different to the front bar. Soon, we will be offering small plates to be eaten at the bar: ham, cheese and ferments, things that are an extension of our larder. We want people to feel they can come in for a glass a wine and a plate of some nice things to eat, or to dine.”
There are a variety of menus on offer: Sunday Lunch, daily a la carte and a Tasting Menu that requires diners to book in advance for. All are pared back with only a couple of choices each (save the Tasting Menu which has no choice, naturally). Less a menu, more a carefully curated list of things that Rob suggests you would like to eat. Something that could easily divide a crowd, perhaps?
“I didn’t want to do lots of prep to satisfy a huge menu selection. In the end, we decided on two choices per course with meat and fish for the a la carte. Our tasting menu is pre-booked so we know in advance what needs to be done there too. This allows us to change our menu every day if we want to because we can see what produce is at its best on any given day and adapt to that.
“Our suppliers call into us, show what they have and I can plan a dish around that. The fish will always depends on what is or isn’t coming in off the boats, it’s unreliable and depends absolutely on what is good on the day, but that’s the nature of fresh fish.”
Of course, Rob comes from a pioneering family of food producers. His father, Frank Krawczyk, was (still is) a pioneer of charcuterie and food smoking with the first wave of West Cork food producers that put Ireland on the global culinary stage.
One of the things that was on Rob’s wish list for his restaurant was building a smokehouse and his own charcuterie with his father.
“The smokehouse is in development and it should be ready soon. It will be great to be able to serve our own charcuterie in the restaurant. I’m working with my dad on getting it set up, and he’s also helping me with sourcing the best quality produce.”
A true family industry is blossoming from this venture, and the close relationships between the restaurant, growers, producers, diners and community will help to foster a unique experience when coming to dine there.
And what of Rob’s goals for the Chestnut Tree?
“I just want people to enjoy themselves,” he says. Take it from someone who has sampled what Rob and Elaine are offering at their cosy restaurant; it is a simple wish easily delivered here.
* This Friday, June 1 we feature Eddie Atwell, Head Chef of The Eccles.