Chefs Lessons from a Chef: Robbie Lewis
Lessons from a Chef: Robbie Lewis
July 2009

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.

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.

Hi Antoinette,

 I want to give you an update as to where the hell I've disappeared to. I apologize for the delay but I have been out of the country for a few weeks. My new job has me going hard.

I was a private chef for a family during the holiday months. I went from leading a team of 20-plus talented cooks at celebrated restaurants to wearing an Ipod and talking to myself or the family dog in a two million dollar kitchen. I told them it’s not for me, I wasn't fully engaged, thanks but no thanks.

His assistant calls me in January and says they want to talk to me about something else. The guy is a senior vice president for a global technology giant. He tells me that the president of the company hates the food at his campus and would I want to fix it. Not even sure of what it meant, but I said what the hell—I needed a job. With two children, one loses the ability to "hang out in some friend's kitchens" like used to be the case in between jobs.

So starting about four months ago, I was hired as the executive chef at the world headquarters of this major corporation, overseeing 150 culinary staff at the 7 restaurants (all with different concepts: Japanese, taqueria, French patisserie, etc), the 500 seat conference center, and an offsite catering division.

Upsides: Educational, family conducive hours M-F, good pay and benefits, and most importantly right now: recession-proof.  I’m a chef in both the micro and the macro: I spent the morning starting the plans for a six-acre organic farm adjacent to the campus that the VP of Global Real Estate agreed to let me use, and then I walked downstairs for lunch and helped a chef bang out his pizza oven special at the Italian cafe.

It is such a different realm of food service that it is thankfully super-educational. I'm learning a tremendous amount of things (like ground-up 360-degree reconcepting and reopening of restaurants) that I think will really pay off. I'm enjoying myself in just how off-kilter professionally I am in trying to execute everything that is thrown at me. I love the challenges leading from an experience that I have never had before. They are exceptionally responsive to my ideas, thank god. We have implemented a farmer's market here on campus every Tuesday and I'm currently setting up a system where the 6,000 employees can subscribe to CSA produce boxes that get delivered weekly to their offices.

I have hired lately a couple chefs also formally of relatively high-profile restaurants to run some of the outlets. The recession is certainly making people think differently about how to be a chef: cook nice food, pay the bills and also, have a family. I think it's a trend that we will see more of.

I hope that on the economic upswing, I can translate this experience into "multi-unit" experience which would behoove a  resort/hotel with multiple outlets or possibly a corporate chef/director of operations position with a small group. I feel like some of my best career highlights are yet to come.

I would love to talk to you sometime soon. I really find my conversations with you highly entertaining and greatly insightful. It would be great to get your take on things and hear your musings on the future.

As I'm sure I've told you before Antoinette, thank you for everything that you and Will do for me. And what you guys do for everybody else actually. From the Rising Stars awards, to the amazing ICC, to all the other events, is a MAJOR achievement in the professional food service universe. I'm exceptionally proud to participate in it.


Robbie Lewis