It was watching Saturday morning cooking shows that inspired a young Lewis Barker to want to be a top
“My dad and my brother were really into cooking and loved to watch the Saturday morning cooking shows and so I’d watch them too,” says 28-year-old Barker, who received a Michelin star for his Singapore restaurant Sommer in September. It is all a far cry from where he started out.
“My dad was a taxi driver and my mum worked for the council and I grew up in Seacroft,” he says.
“When I said I wanted to be a chef I did get a bit of stick from my friends. It’s not exactly a regular job with regular hours and I think my mum and dad were a bit concerned that I would still have time for a social life.”
But Barker was not to be deterred.
After being inspired but the likes of Rick Stein and Keith Floyd on TV, he decided to take food tech as a GCSE at school.
From there he went to Leeds City College to study catering under the tutorship of Yorkshire chef Stephanie Moon.
It was during this time that he started working for Anthony Flinn at his fine-dining restaurant, Anthony’s in Leeds.
“I pestered him for quite a while before I got a job there I was 15 when I started working for Anthony and I learnt an awful lot from him,” says Barker.
“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.”
Flinn was a fan of molecular gastronomy and it opened a young Barker’s eyes to a whole new way of cooking.
It was in contrast to the type of meal he experienced when he was treated to a meal at Michel Roux Jnr’s La Gavroche for his 17th birthday. The restaurant had two Michelin stars at the time and now has three.
“It sounds a bit up my self, but I did work towards it and it was such an experience, It was so different to what Anthony was doing. It was classic French cooking,” says Barker.
“It was the first time I really experienced fine-dining and was introduced to premium produce.
“I definitely felt out of my comfort zone. I grew up in a working-class family in Leeds, and we didn’t go out to eat at restaurants much.”
At the age of 19 Barker moved to Australia, spending 18 months in Melbourne working at Vue de Monde, and then at Sydney’s Quay, where he met with Sam Aisbett, previous chef-owner of one Michelin-starred Whitegrass in Singapore.
“Sam 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 spent a year in Barcelona having his ‘teenage years’ he admits.
“I’d worked since I was 15 and I needed a bit of time to have some fun.”
But after a year he took up Aisbett’s offer and moved to Singapore although due to some visa problems he ended working for one Michelin-starred Cure instead.
Shortly after that, Barker met chef Luke Armstrong of Bacchanalia, became his sous chef, and stayed on board even after it changed hands and was renamed to Vianney Massot, which held a Michelin star before it shut in 2020.
But as the door closed on one restaurant, an opportunity opened for Barker.
“When Vianney Massot closed, the investors presented me with this opportunity to open Sommer,” he explains.
“After a lot of planning and hard work, we opened on January 26, this year.
“It was a tough time to open a restaurant and we had to close it twice. There were still a lot of restrictions as Singapore has been far more strict than the UK when it came to Covid.
‘Sommer’ stands for ‘summer’ in various different European languages and is small 2o-cover restaurant Barker described as ‘relaxed fine dining’, but Barker has big plans.
“As a European restaurant, we are in Singapore, where it’s always summer,” he explains. “I knew it was going to be difficult. Although I feel so lucky. The investors let me have a say in everything even down to designing the crockery we use in the restaurant to the play list.”
There are no table cloths or dress codes here. Barker lets the service and the food to speak for itself, championing the best seasonal produce with flare and finesse.
And he must have been doing something right as within six months of opening Sommer received its first Michelin star.
“It was pretty incredible, and we really weren’t expecting it,” he says of the Michelin star.
“I would like to think we got it because we push for perfection for our customers all the time.
“We didn’t go looking for it but these things happen through your search for perfection and striving to be the best you can be with the best seasonal produce you can get.”
This in itself is a challenge as Singapore is small so much of its food has to be imported. For Barker this is mainly from Japan where he says the quality is good.
His long term girlfriend, a pre-school teacher from Leeds who has also moved to Singapore, was with him when he got the news and he video-called his parents.
“Unfortunately they have never been to see the restaurant and I don’t think they will as they don’t travel much – I’m not even sure my dad has a passport.
“But they are incredibly proud of what I have achieved and have always supported me.”
Barker isn’t finished yet. There are plans to open further restaurants in Singapore next year and even one in China.
When I catch up with Barker he is on a brief visit home to Leeds – the first one for more than two years-and-a-half years due to the pandemic, although he is ready to go back to the warm weather of Singapore.
Fellow Leeds-born chef Marco Pierre White, who opened The English House restaurant in Singapore in 2018, described it as ‘one of the great cities of the world.’
And while Barker agrees, he is also keen to return home to Yorkshire at some point.
“I would love to do something in my home town,” he says.
“There are some amazing chefs in doing some amazing things.”
But talking to Barker you get the feeling he won’t be returning home any time soon.
Asia still has a lot to offer this determined and talented young chef and you get the feeling he is just at the beginning of his journey there.