Chef Chat, Part 1: Paul Lewis of Paul's Kitchen

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Paul's Kitchen is the new concept from restaurateur Paul Miller, who also grew Union Kitchen to three locations. The name of the new place really works, especially since the chef is also named Paul--in this case, Paul Lewis.

In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, we'll get to know about Lewis, his upbringing in England, his family's close connections to the land and farm-raised food. We'll also get a great deal of insight in how culinary apprenticeship and training worked in that country when Lewis was going to school at the same time as he was working to become a chef.

Come back for part 2 tomorrow, where we'll pick back up at the point where Lewis arrives in Houston to work at the Deville restaurant at Four Seasons. (In time, it was revamped and became what we now know as Quattro.)

EOW: Where were you born?

PL: I was born in a small town west of London called Reading. My folks lived about 30 minutes away in the countryside.

EOW: When did you decide you were interested in cooking?

PL: I've been around food since a young age. To this day, my dad still has a huge garden and grows all kinds of things: carrots, onions, potatoes. He has two or three big apple trees and grows a bunch of tomatoes and things. Food has always been a part of family. What we couldn't eat ourselves, my dad or my mother would can, preserve, freeze or give away to the elderly in the village.

So, food's always been around at home. My grandmother's very much the same way. Getting on [in years] a little bit now, but she'd be in the kitchen making things. One of my earliest memories of food is with her in the kitchen making Welsh cakes, which is kind of a scone that you drop on the griddle--a johnnycake kind of thing but more of a dense batter.

EOW: So, your family has a close connection to nature, gardening and the earth. When did you decide you wanted to cook professionally?

I probably was around 13. That may seem silly, but my dad had got me a job on weekends when I was 11. We had a Michelin Red M-rated restaurant in the village I grew in. It was called the Royal Oak and was owned by a very great couple, Richard and Kate Smith. They go back to London hotels--to the 60s, 70s and 80s. They moved out to the countryside to start their own business.

My dad is a laborer by trade. He'd just redid the kitchen floor in the restaurant and somehow managed to get me a job working weekend for the great sum of one pound an hour. As an 11-year-old, that seemed like quite a bit of money, but it really is not.

I started washing dishes and really enjoyed what I was observing and the camaraderie--what you kind of felt from watching the cooks work together and do things.

Like I said, about two years after that when I was really interested. It was right around that time or a bit later when the sous chef had pulled me aside and said, "You're no longer going to wash dishes. You're going to start working in the kitchen." He gave me my first set of chef whites and I was working every weekend-- Saturday from 9 to 10 or 11 at night, Sundays working lunch shift, then two or three shifts during the week. It was like that until I was 13-and-a-half.

By the time I was 16, I'd pretty much worked my way around the kitchen and had a really good basic understanding of how a restaurant kitchen worked.

EOW: I guess when you started, the equivalent of a pound in dollars was $1.50 to $2.50 an hour.

PL: Someone asked me this question a few years ago. It was about $1.75.

EOW: $1.75 an hour. That's definitely not much.

PL: No, it wasn't, but for an 11-year-old it was pocket money. Now, looking back on it, it's like "Oh my gosh, you're crazy." They take full advantage of you to do that, though.

EOW: There is more of an apprenticeship culture there than in the United States, isn't there?

PL: Yes, or at least there was back then. I know it's changed a little bit. I'm 38 now, so that was 22 or 25 years ago.

When I was 15, I finished our equivalent of high school or secondary school. You can have the choice of going on to do A Levels, or further education, then go into a trade or skipping education altogether and just going to work. I had already decided that the kitchens were where I wanted to be. The chef in restaurant where I had started working at [age] 11 opened a second location right on the river Thames, not too far from Oxford. It was a beautiful stretch of the river where Jerome K. Jerome wrote Three Men In a Boat, a very old, classic English piece of literature.

Eventually, he closed the restaurant where I originally went to work. So, I moved down to the new place. I started there as an apprentice. I was working five if not six days a week and going to college culinary classes on my one day off.

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EOW: You just answered one of my questions. I was going ask if you had been to culinary school.

PL: Yeah. It was kind of interesting-- kind of fun working there and experiencing even more than I had experienced working part-time as a young kid.

Culinary school gives you the foundation, the basics, the understanding. Being able to put it into practice every day of the week is fun.

I did my basic culinary training then, the old City & Guilds 706/1 and 706/2, the basic culinary programs which were around then. Then, I went back and did my advanced, which was 706/3. I was working five days a week and thought it be fun to do a pastry program on one day and then a kitchen program on the other day.

So, I was basically committed seven days a week to everything. That lasted probably about 10 weeks before I just couldn't do everything.

EOW: Before you just cratered.

PL: I actually chose to stop doing the kitchen part and just focus on pastry. I just wanted to learn more about that. I was definitely weaker in the subject but I still wanted the challenge of learning.

I ended up passing that class with the merits. I was pretty happy about that and again, very different to what we see today. The final exam was an eight-hour practical, which involved a pastillage piece that we created towards the end of the of the school year, a sugar showpiece, a plated dessert, a buffet dessert like a soufflé, decorating a cake--there were many, many steps to that final exam which were fun.

I quickly found out that the savory side was for me and the pastry side was for other people. There's too much precision involved-- weighing out things. You can have a lot more fun and experiment more with the savory food.

EOW: Yeah, pastry is a science.

PL: It is. You have to have those ratios correct and other things so that things work.

EOW: What was your the first major gig after you got out of culinary school?

PL: I actually ended up staying on at this restaurant, called The Beetle and Wedge. It was in Moulsford. I stayed there about four years in total--about a year after I finished schooling.

They had been instrumental in putting me through college. Culinary school didn't cost me a single penny. Through the local trading agency, they were able to work with the restaurant to really substitute the cost of school.

So, I stayed on another year before I went to the United States to join the Four Seasons.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where we'll learn about Lewis' career in Houston, starting with Deville at Four Seasons, and what his culinary focus is at Paul's Kitchen

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