People 6 minutes 22 September 2021

The First Day We Got Our Stars: Lewis Barker of Sommer

Lewis Barker of newly awarded one-MICHELIN-starred Sommer talks about passion, music, and a special birthday that he will never forget.

Michelin Guide Singapore 2021 First Day I Got My Stars Michelin Star

Age does not faze Lewis Barker, who, at only 28 years old, is the head chef of newly minted MICHELIN-starred Sommer. "Everyone's path is different," he says. "I've found myself in this position as a MICHELIN-starred restaurant chef through circumstance. Nothing’s written for anybody; it's really just through hard work and taking my chances when they are presented to me."

“I’ve never rushed and tried to climb the ladder. I’ve had opportunities where I could’ve maybe moved up faster, but I’ve chosen not to.”

According to Barker: "I’ve only said 'yes' when I felt a bit more comfortable doing a task presented to me. Even still, when we opened Sommer, I was still a little nervous. I’ve never made my own food before. I’ve always been a sous chef for the last few years.”

Sommer features modern European cuisine that is produce-forward and ingredient-driven.
Sommer features modern European cuisine that is produce-forward and ingredient-driven.

A Birthday Treat to Remember

When Barker turned 16, his auntie asked him what he wanted for his birthday. The year was 2009, and while most teenagers would ask for a digital camera or an mp3 player, he requested a meal at two-MICHELIN-starred Le Gavroche in London.

"Le Gavroche is such a venerable place to dine at, and it had a grandeur about it as well. The chef, Michel Roux Jr., was a popular face on television that time as it was the first restaurant in the U.K. to be awarded three MICHELIN stars,” says Barker. "I had just started cooking at a modern gastronomy restaurant then. I'd never been to France, so I wanted to see what classic French cuisine looked like.”

To this day, Barker can still vividly recall the twice-baked soufflé he had during his meal at Le Gavroche. "It’s one of the signature dishes, it was a mix of four different cheeses, gruyére being the most predominant one. Basically, it’s a soufflé that’s been baked first, and then gratinated with all these different types of French cheeses. It’s really simple, but executed really well. Of course, it was incredibly delicious,” he says. "To me, the perfect bite is one where you get full pleasure and full enjoyment from every aspect. It should be moreish.”

Barker fondly reminisces further about that sixteenth birthday treat: "It was the first time I really experienced fine-dining and was introduced to premium produce. I was a 16-year-old kid eating truffles and foie gras, and I was the youngest person there. I definitely fell out of my comfort zone. I mean, you have a lot of rich kids in London, but I'm not one of them. I grew up in a working-class family in Leeds, and we didn’t go out to eat at restaurants much."

Barker says, "I believe that without good products, you are at a disadvantage. If you have great quality produce, then half of the job is already done for you."
Barker says, "I believe that without good products, you are at a disadvantage. If you have great quality produce, then half of the job is already done for you."

Not Your Ordinary Childhood

As a child, Barker would sit in front of the television on Saturdays to catch Saturday Morning Kitchen at his home in Leeds; his dad would tune in to the cooking shows of chefs Rick Stein and Keith Floyd, and Barker would watch along. "I really got attracted to cooking the more I watched these shows,” he shares.

"My family definitely has an interest in food. My dad is a pretty good cook, he would make Sunday roast, and my aunts even built their own pizza oven. My younger brother, who is 26, also has a huge passion for cooking. He used to work in fashion, but he is also a chef now because cooking is his passion. He can’t hide from it. He tried to maybe move away from it, but he pursued it, eventually.”

Passion has truly fuelled Barker’s culinary journey, and it continues to do so. At the age of 15, Barker got his first job working at local fine dining restaurant, Anthony’s, in Leeds. "I would study through the week, go to work on Friday night, all the way to Sunday night, and then I would go back to school on Monday.” According to Barker, the chef-owner of now-defunct Anthony’s, Anthony Flinn, was the first British chef who was paid to work at El Bulli. Flinn was only 24 when he opened Anthony’s, and this was where he applied his learnings in molecular gastronomy. Anthony's was where Barker was formally introduced to cooking, and where he first learned to create savoury foams, custards, and gels. "I pestered Anthony to give me a job. I did everything — the phone calls and the emails. I wanted to find the best place possible to work and to learn,” shares Barker.

Barker then travelled to Australia when he was 18, where he spent two years working. He says: "I wanted to go as far away from the U.K. as I could, but only with the sense of excitement and adventure. Not to run away.” His first stint was at Vue de Monde at Melbourne, and then at Sydney’s Quay, where he crossed paths with Sam Aisbett, previous chef-owner of one-MICHELIN-starred Whitegrass in Singapore.

"Aisbett was my head chef at Quay, and he told me he was opening a restaurant in Singapore, but I was already on my way to Barcelona,” Barker shares. Barker eventually came to Singapore, and due to an unexpected turn of events, he briefly joined Andrew Walsh of one-MICHELIN-starred CURE instead. Shortly after that, Barker met chef Luke Armstrong of now-defunct Bacchanalia, became his sous chef, and stayed onboard even after it changed hands and was renamed to Vianney Massot, which held a MICHELIN star before it shuttered in 2020. This end of an era opened a window of opportunity for Barker.

Passion has truly fuelled Baker’s culinary journey, and it continues to do so.
Passion has truly fuelled Baker’s culinary journey, and it continues to do so.

The Beginning of Sommer

"When Vianney Massot closed, the investors presented me with this opportunity to open Sommer. After a lot of planning and hard work, we opened on Jan. 26, 2021,” shares Barker.

"We called the restaurant ‘Sommer’ because it stands for ‘summer’ in various different European languages. As a European restaurant, we are in Singapore, where it’s always summer,” he explains. "I knew it was going to be difficult. We are still figuring out what our set style is, and that takes a few years. I’m still pretty new to this, especially with everything going on, and now, with the MICHELIN star, it's been pretty busy. I’m only 28, and it feels really cool — it’s incredible. I don't really know how we did it, but we must be doing something right. So now, my focus with the team is to just do better and be better.”

Barker advises young chefs to always put learning at the forefront of their journey.
Barker advises young chefs to always put learning at the forefront of their journey.

Tell us about your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
It would be at my first dining experience, which was at Le Gavroche in London. It had two MICHELIN stars at that time, and it still has to this day. I was 16 years old, and that was my first real taste of what a MICHELIN-starred restaurant is in terms of food, service, and the overall experience. I was taken aback. It was eye-opening. The service was incredible, and I tasted food that I've never seen before, prepared in a classic way.

What did you feel when Sommer won its first MICHELIN star?
Elation. Of course, and excitement. I was surprised.

Who was the first person you called when you found out?
My girlfriend was here with me when it was announced. She was hiding behind me, away from the camera. I also did a video call with my family. They were watching it from Leeds, where it was morning. That was pretty cool.

Were there tears?
There were a lot of tears. Normally, I’m not emotional. There weren’t tears on my side, but there almost was, watching my family. I haven't been with them, physically, for over two years.

How did you celebrate?
We celebrated with the team. We definitely enjoyed ourselves. We ordered food, celebrated with our crew and our company investors, and had champagne. I’ll say three flutes of champagne at the most for the sake of this interview, but we may have had more.

Advice to younger chefs?
Your main focus should not be limited to winning an accolade. I mean, that can be your personal goal if that is your dream, because earning a MICHELIN star was my dream. Realistically, I never knew if that was going to ever happen or not, but I worked hard to hopefully one day achieve that. The forefront of your journey should just be to learn as much as you can because it will enable opportunities to open up for you.

Accolades are not your choice, they aren’t under your control. But you can choose to work hard and put your full focus into learning as much as you can. Take your hard work, your learnings, and your passion and bring them into what you cook.

What’s on Sommer’s restaurant playlist?
I do love music, and I want my guests to feel comfortable in a fine dining restaurant. The Sommer playlist is really personal to me because it’s a mix of music that I like, which I also feel creates the ambiance I wanted to achieve in the restaurant. 

There’s a mix of Little Dragon, Chet Faker, Two Another, and Jordan Rakei. My personal favourite, FKJ (French Kiwi Juice), and some Maribou State, which I love. When I was younger, I listened to City & Colour, which was a bit more folk-rock. I like Tom Mish and a few Australian bands like Ocean Alley and Sticky Fingers. I grew up listening to Arctic Monkeys, Foals, and Arcade Fire.

What qualities do you think helped you achieve this milestone?
The four main things I would say are hard work, passion, determination, and sacrifice. It’s such an intense environment and an intense career. Be ready for busy weekends. If you’re starting young, you won't be going out on the weekend with your friends because you’ll be working. If you decide to move overseas like I did, there's a lot of sacrifice because you don't see your family very often. Especially more so now than ever.

What’s next for you?
I have a passion for hospitality, and I have this restaurant. Once I'm comfortable with this, do I want to do other things? Yeah, for sure.

Everyone has a different mindset, but I would probably understand it the same way as an architect or a designer. Does an architect just want to do one building? Is a designer happy with just doing one task? No, because there’s an excitement in seeing it develop into something that makes people happy. You just want to build more. I find it exciting.

If you were to post a photo on social media that captures the moment Sommer won its MICHELIN Star, what would the caption say?
It would say: “Dream, believe, achieve.” I think that would be it.

All photos are from Sommer.

Sommer is located at 2 Marina Blvd, The Sail #01-02, Singapore 018987. Make a restaurant booking here, or follow them on Facebook and on Instagram for updates.

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