by Marcus Leach
It takes a wise man to realise that what he has been doing for the last ten years is no longer what people want in an ever evolving world, which is why Marcus Wareing closed his award winning restaurant at The Berkeley for a total re-design.
And now, with his new look establishment all set to re-open we caught up with the two Michelin star chef to find out what makes him tick, as well as discuss the importance of having a sound business background when going into the restaurant business.
Marcus Leach: Marcus, great to meet you. Can I start by asking what was it that started your interest in food and cooking?
Marcus Wareing: It started at a young age really. I did Home Economics at school and really enjoyed that, as well as there being an element of food within my family. My brother is a chef as well, and my father was in foods through fruit and vegetables. I think I would say it was my brother being a chef, and the whole 'following your big brother' that started the cooking side of it. It felt like the right thing to do, and I’m talking from an age of thirteen, fourteen, so relatively quiet young. Where some people at that age are wondering what they are going to do, I pretty much knew.
ML: And from there it was a natural progression?
MW: It was because my father’s business allowed me into kitchens by being a deliver boy with him, so I got the opportunity to deliver great basic ingredients to all sorts of kitchens. I saw all sorts of characters and I was intrigued by the kitchens. Of course one of the kitchens I used to deliver to was my brothers, he was the chef of a five star hotel in our town. It was a natural progression for me to pick up cooking, and as well as working with my father I had another job at nights working in my brothers kitchen, and the rest I suppose is history. My brother advised me to go to catering college, and after that it was straight down the train track to London.
ML: If you look back at all of the kitchens you have worked in, which would you say has taught you the most as a chef?
MW: I'll be honest, every single one because I made a point of choosing the right places. I never just floated from one kitchen to another, I chose my career path very carefully. Every single one of them offered me something because I was looking for something, and I was never shy of knocking on the door of a restaurant or a hotel and asking for a job. To be honest with you once I got going one door opened to another door, to another door and there was always something to learn in these places. I had such great experiences, met some great characters, I went from five star hotels, to fine dining, to catering for twenty-two people in the North American mountains, working in Paris and Amsterdam, all great learning curves.
Braised Duke of Berkshire pork belly, fennel and nectarines
ML: Was all of this done with one eye on owning your own restaurant one day?
MW: I think the goal was a pipe dream, and I think kids have pipe dreams and they don’t know how long that kind of dream lasts for. I never had a goal to open a restaurant of my own, I never set out to achieve that. I never really looked too far down the line because I was too busy staying focused with what was right in front of me to get carried away with the big picture. I think sometimes by dreaming too much you can get lose sight of the here and now. If you don’t put any effort into the now, there is no future. Dream all you like but forgot about the present and that dream isn’t going to come to anything.
ML: As your career has developed how hard has it been to nurture your business interests whilst not losing sight of the cooking side of things?
MW: I love business. The most important lesson my father taught me was hard work and the understanding of how to look after your money. What you do with it, how you save it, how you make it work for you, how much you put away, what you spend and so on. That was a major lesson from about eleven onwards when I started to work, and I was engrossed in pocket money and earning money and saving it. I was lucky living at home with my parents taking care of everything, so I never had a real need to spend my money. I had this interest in small amounts of money growing in a business or in a saving accounts with interest and it intrigued me.
Coming into the world that I live in now I get as excited about running the business as I do about running the kitchen. I get as excited about business as I do putting food on the plate, because you can’t do one without the other and chefs aren’t really recognised for being businessmen. However, in my last ten years I took a huge interest in the business side when I was with my previous business partner where we were in a corporate environment, and there was lots of skilful people in accounts, in HR, in marketing, in PR, and I tapped into all of them and got a lot of knowledge out of them. So the education I missed by not going to university in London, not studying business, I learnt as an adult talking to the right people in a wider environment. I don’t need a qualification to do business, its common sense to me.
ML: Is that because you had a desire t learn business? Do you think all chefs need to have a business grounding?
MW: Yes. One of the things I look at it is going through my training I went to kitchens to learn certain points. In kitchens you've got various different sections and one of the sections that nearly every chef fails to learn is pastry, because they think they can just employ a pastry chef. If you don’t take on that part of learning then it's going to be your Achilles heel, that’s then your weakest link. It will trip you up down the line. I guarantee you the chef that’s never done the full training will always fall over on the things he’s never trained to do. I look at this as if you must look at it, if you're going to be chef you must look at the bigger picture.
There are a lot of chefs that will never need to worry about business because they will be working for a large company and they would never be asked to be involved. But if you have a big ambition, if you want to grow you need to cover all aspects, and I looked at my future businesses as I looked at kitchens when I was training; do every bit, cover every bit. To go into the business I need to understand all the things that I needed for a company.
ML: If you look at what you have achieved in your career, you have created a successful brand. Again, was that something you set out to do or is it something that has been borne out of your success?
MW: It naturally happened through my work ethic, my ethos as a chef, consistent commitment to getting it right and driving hard. No matter how many hurdles were thrown at me, or obstacles, or challenges I stayed focused on the food. I was always recognised in the industry as being very focused, a very hard line chef, but also a chef that was very committed to the kitchen and I still am committed to the kitchen, and it is my job to surround myself with the people to run my company so that I can be committed to the kitchen. Never walk away from the thing that made you who you are. Cooking is what I do and I need to keep in touch with that. There will come a time in my career when I well pull completely off and I will allow a group of new people it run it, but that will be a time where I decide to step to the side of the kitchen to run the group.
ML: Do you enjoy being in control of all sections of the business then?
MW: Absolutely. I want to be in control of every single element of it.
ML: That seems to be a common theme amongst chefs.
MW: Well it’s too fragile, your business is too fragile to be taking it for granted. That’s the wrong word but you don’t want it run any other way than your own way because you'll risk your reputation. If you get it wrong from the financial side you are not only ruining your own business, but you are also ruining your own career and you don’t give freedom to parts of your business to people who have no understanding of how it works. I have a vision, have a goal, have certain things that I want to achieve in a certain period of time and I’m not going to go off track for anyone. It’s my way and that’s it.
ML: That fair enough, because that’s something that you have created from scratch. Like you said, you don’t want someone coming along and ruining what you've put your love, heart and effort into.
MW: Absolutely. I've seen people that are older than me and look at what I’ve got, and I’ve seen people four or five years younger than me and think 'well I should be in your shoes'. I remember from the age of fourteen onwards, in my twenties and thirties I didn't have much of a life. When everyone was at home at weekends watching football, or socialising at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock at night, I was at the kitchen grinding until midnight, every day, year after year. I look at those people and say maybe if you had done what I had done, maybe you would be where I am.
Buratta, beetroot, watercress and dandelion
ML: The thing is most people aren’t prepared to sacrifice the time and effort to get to where you are, or where they want to be.
MW: So true. That said there are young, ambitious chefs coming through today. You are looking at chefs that want to be celebrities at 25, and can be as well when it comes to the food elements, but whether they make it [their restaurant] into a financial commodity or sellable asset or real value is anything thing. That's the hard bit.
ML: Speaking of celebrity, you have done your fair share of television work. How does that impact on business? Do you see a tangible increase in bookings following an appearance on TV?
MW: Yes. I think the media, press and TV, they both add value. The TV screen is the one that can fill restaurants overnight. My time on TV is actually quite limited. I will spend two and a half to three days filming Great British Menu, I will spend two days filming Master Chef, maybe two half Saturdays to do Saturday Kitchen, and maybe bits and pieces here and there. That probably equates to eight days out of 365 - that’s not a lot but people see it and it does make a difference. If you had a show of a 6 part series or an 8 part series twice per year, or once per year on mainstream TV you're guaranteed that your phone will ring and there will be a massive percentage that will want to be in your restaurant because they relate to you, they think they know you. It’s quite surreal. I saw it in the Gordon Ramsey days. It was extraordinary the power of the TV and what it did to a restaurant group.
ML: Do you think that it have a negative impact, that you can't grow organically and are maybe forced to grow too quickly?
MW: Business are grown on your clientele base that you build year after year, recognising your regulars, recognising the local community, recognising the people that had been there first and running the business with that in mind. When TV comes into the equation there is a whole new wave of people that are not your loyal client, they weren’t there in the beginning. They are there because they saw you on the box, which is fine, it’s managing that and how the business will manage those people that is key. We have to manage them. You need to make sure that when you get big you don’t lose the core business. They [non-regulars] are there just to put the icing on the cake, but it’s the core business why you keep moving forward.
I actually don’t look at television as a means to boost business. If something is going wrong in here, the first place I look is in there [dining room] and in the kitchen, because this is where it counts. If we are not full and we not busy the first place I’m going to look is in this restaurant. I’ll look at the front of house, how are we running reservations, how are we treating customers. If we are not busy enough then we need to work hard around the existing customers that we have. I often say to the guys 'don’t rely on me going on TV or doing an article in the newspaper to bring customers in'.
ML: I guess it gets to a saturation point where you can’t keep doing that. People will actually go hang on 'we've seen that'.
MW: They’ll move on and then you are left with nothing. So it’s very important that your foundation is rock solid. Success before TV is more important than TV making you successful. That's the way I look at it.
ML: TV obviously has a role to play, but what else are you doing to ensure you stay ahead of your competitors?
MW: Work harder, analyse what you are doing, look at your competitors. In this area [Knightsbridge] we have a huge amount of restaurants opening in the last three years from Heston Blumenthal ,Daniel Boulud and Wolfgang Puck to Alan Ducasse and Pierre Koffman, and they have all come in the last four years and two of them are huge. They have an impact on our restaurant here because they are all in spitting distance.
It’s healthy and it's challenging but it doesn’t scare me, and I actually kind of enjoy that edge, but we try to analyse what we are doing from who we are, not what they are doing. Our idea is to continue reinventing ourselves and not to feel static, which is why we have taken this new approach with the total refurbishment and change of attitude. Times change and to be a successful business you need to be able to change with them, failure to do so and you can't succeed.
ML: The new look at The Berkeley aside, what does the future hold for you?
MW: With the new opening and the Gilbert Scott (Wareing's bistro at London St Pancras) we’ve got a fantastic brand there and we are looking to grow that. I want to grow our group organically so that it can move in the right direction, at a pace I feel comfortable with. I want to do it my way to make sure that I don’t have this massive big board of directors all sitting here arguing with each other. I want to do it with the people that I employ, with the people that manage me, and one of the main ideas is that we grow the group for the group, the people who work in the group, not for the people that want to come in and buy a piece of it.