Lessons from a Chef: Robbie Lewis

by Katherine Martinelli
July 2009

Biography

Robbie Lewis started out like most chefs. He worked his way up under mentor Traci Des Jardins and was on track to becoming a top San Francisco chef. But careers are funny things; they don’t always lead you in a straight line.

Chef Robbie Lewis

Robbie wrote to us recently to let us know what he’s been up to. After leaving the San Francisco restaurant scene, Lewis took an opportunity to become a corporate chef. He soon realized that it provided the ideal balance between the excitement of the kitchen and the ability to raise a family.

As executive chef at the worldwide headquarters of a large corporation, Robbie was hired to bring his restaurant experience to the company’s multi-outlet campus dining and raise the level of the cuisine. He personally cooks for the CEO and high level executives on a daily basis in addition to overseeing the seven on-site restaurants, conference center, an off-site catering division, and a line of prepared foods for home consumption.

And it turns out the corporate chef gig has its perks. Lewis has an incredible budget and a remarkable amount of freedom with it; he’s been able to purchase two CVap ovens, start a CSA program for the company, and is divising plans for a six-acre plot of land where he can grow his own produce. That’s not even the best part—he has weekends off and finishes at 6pm every day. Lewis is able to play a bigger role in his childrens’ lives and enjoy time with his family.

Every two weeks or so there is some form of executive-level meeting or company dinner that Lewis cooks for. It enables him, despite the recession, to cook “gloves off”—meaning cost is not an issue. People don’t associate being a corporate chef with cooking beautiful, high end food, but Lewis proves that perception wrong. With these high level dinners he’s still able to showcase his artistic and culinary talent, with the added bonus of having amazing resources at his fingertips.

More than anything else, Lewis describes this part of his career as an incredible learning experience. He is in the process of closing and reopening a number of the on-campus restaurants, which includes coming up with new concepts, picking out all new equipment, redesigning the restaurant—basically starting from scratch. This is something he never got to do as the chef at a restaurant.

Most chefs would go into this thinking it would be a cakewalk, but Robbie has learned that it’s “pretty intense.” Still, it’s the very challenges of the job that make it worthwhile. And the position has made Lewis rethink his own definition of success. For him it comes down to a choice between being in food and wine or raising two well-adjusted kids—and with this position, he doesn’t have to pick one over the other.