Why did you open Marque? I never had any great aspirations to open a restaurant as Marque is now, it’s just that the ambition has grown as my technique grew. I came late to cooking, and late to the whole industry, and I think my aspiration has kept pace with my skills.
Where are you from? Murray Bridge, South Australia. I moved to the goldfields when I was 16 and did an electrical apprenticeship in Norseman in Western Australia [190km south of Kalgoorlie and 700km east of Perth]. At the end of the Nullarbor, there’s a T-junction – that’s Norseman. That was confronting, even for a country boy from Murray Bridge, a relatively verdant bit of land, dairy country on the Murray River, the life of Tom Sawyer and everything, going to the Western Australian outback’s blasted basalt landscape and doing my apprenticeship 4000 feet underground with a bunch of stinking miners.
Do you still break out the needle-nose pliers from time to time or do you leave that to the real sparkies? I’ve still got my pliers from my apprenticeship which are used to adjust the slicer from time to time when the knob gets stuck on it, but that’s about it.
Have you ever been electrocuted? I’ve been injured. I’ve had electrical boards blow up in my face and shower my eyeballs with copper wiring. Yeah.
How did you make the transition from working as an electrician to cooking? I would say my heart was never really in it. At 21 I finished my apprenticeship and got on the Indian Pacific, said goodbye to my mum and dad, grabbed my guitar in time-honoured country-clichéd way and headed east to Sydney and never went back. I lobbed up in Balmain with a friend of mine, got work on Cockatoo Island, barely a step up, refitting submarines for the Australian Defence Force. Collins class.
Stuck with that for a couple of years and then moved on to Skilled Engineering, a labour hire company, for a year, living in share-housing in Balmain. I married Valerie at 23 while I was still an electrician. She was at that stage a first-year-out teacher at Punchbowl Boys. They joked it was the only school where the barbed wire faced in. She was desperate to get out of teaching; a move to Maroubra Boys was barely any better. Valerie and I had decided that we might want to run a café together. She had decided to enrol in a business course at TAFE, and I decided I would do the kitchen. I was a sound home cook at that stage, known for streets around for my curries, and I’d been living with Linda Robinson, the head chef at Macleay Street Bistro, so she said, why don’t you come in. I’d tried to get jobs around the place before that. I went to Dick’s Hotel for my first foray. My first job was to open the tin of refried beans for their nachos, but I obviously didn’t cut the mustard because I wasn’t hired. I went to work for Linda around 1991 and the place was super-busy at the time, one of the first modern bistros in Sydney. It was still the heyday of the Bayswater Brasserie, balsamic vinegar was new, sun-dried tomatoes were new, if you can believe such a thing. Hence my aversion to anything called Modern Australian, growing up during the coriander pesto years.
At the end of that first day at Macleay Street Bistro she offered me an apprenticeship. I was thinking, this is the shit, I’m above ground, I get to eat food at a table with wine, with people who seem to be having a good time, there’s fresh air, it’s not 42 degrees and 70 per cent humidity and I'm not eating out of an aluminium tin that’s been sitting in the pie warmer for four hours.
I ended up winning the Josephine Pignolet award [for young chefs] in my fourth year, 1995. I think I was the second one after Tim Pak Poy, and then I was there for a year after that. The bistro changed ownership, a couple of very nice ladies came in and tried to fix what wasn’t broken, bringing in gingham curtains and things, so I decided to leave.
We opened up Peninsula on Darling Street in Balmain in 1996. That was all our savings, and all our friends helped us to do the renovation ourselves. We got a graphic artist to do a couple of sketches for 500 bucks and my friend Kevin and I basically built the place. We had that for two years, it was very successful as a business, and we had reasonable accolades. I had a lot of ambition about what I wanted to do on the plate and I was becoming increasingly frustrated – I was thinking I wanted to do more, but I didn’t know how to do more.
In ’96, Valerie and I had gone on a self-drive tour around France, and we happened upon a young Alain Passard cooking. He had two Michelin stars when we dropped in there and I had my second culinary epiphany there at L’Arpège. (My first was when I worked my first service at Macleay Street Bistro.) It was incredible, and we came back inspired to open our own bistro from that experience. That lunch stuck in the back of my mind as a constant source of my dissatisfaction.
What was so exciting about it? The produce, the incredible technique – nothing was overwrought. Even then I was minimalist in my cooking. I appreciated a simpler approach to things. A roast rabbit would come out and they’d carve it at the table. It wasn’t done with any fuss, it was just the maître d’ doing it and doing it well, portioning out the liver and the heart, the head scooped onto your plate, just with beautiful little roasted carrots. It was the first time I had the chaud-froid egg, and I had the confit tomato with 12 flavours. That was pretty out-there for 96. Having that vision in my head of how good it could be was important – there was no confusion about it.
I corresponded with the restaurant, and the first letter I got back was on this almost wood-grain paper the same colour of the walls in the restaurant. I’ve still got it. It was a very exciting letter to get back: yes, we would be interested to see Mr Best, and from that point we started planning. At the end of two years in the bistro, we sold up, and off we went. That would’ve been the end of 1997.
You both upped-sticks and left for France?
We both went, and I turned up at the door of L’Arpège and said, here I am, and they’d never heard of me. Turned out I had been corresponding with Passard’s PA or whatever and no one had told the kitchen. I said, but I’m supposed to start, they said, but we have no room. I became increasingly upset, and then the chef came out, and at that time it was Pascal Barbot [now chef at red-hot Paris three-star L’Astrance]. He was the head chef, and he was about six weeks away from leaving for Sydney to work for Tony Bilson at Ampersand, and I think he wanted to hone his English, because he said, don’t worry, you can start tomorrow.
I was there for just over four months, working for nothing, and Valerie at that stage said, this is going to be pretty difficult for both of us, because I was working from 7.30am until last orders at midnight, and Friday night would be the big clean-up, and you’d be there till 2.30am. We decided that she would go home rather than sitting in romantic Paris by herself. There’s only so many museums you can look at, so she headed back and worked as a waiter at different establishments here, including Pier and Rockpool, and I continued on with my stage.
You were basically working until you collapsed each day? Collapse, then work, then collapse. I’d go across to the Auguste Rodin museum, pay my 10 francs, which they thought was nuts, and sleep in the gardens in the afternoon break. I thought that was fantastic – you were left alone and it was beautiful.
What did you learn? I learned a lot. Passard had completely broken away from all of the rules that had restricted people for so long, and still restrict a lot of my peers, I think. He did things a different way. He roasted ducks to perfection, but they never saw the inside of an oven. He’d roast whole joints of meat on top of the grill, propped up by frypans or whatever to make sure the thickest parts cooked first. The way he trussed birds. His approach to vegetables even then [L’Arpège has, since 2001, switched the focus of its menu to vegetables, supplied, since 2002, by Passard’s organic, machine-free kitchen garden], the way he sauced things. You wouldn’t find giant pots of reducing veal stock anywhere. If he wanted to make a red wine sauce, he roasted veal bones then filled the entire 40-litre pot up with red wine rather than stock. He did things like that which I thought were just unbelievable. They’d reduce that red wine stock down to nothing and then mount it with about a kilo of grand cru Breton butter. It was beautiful. He’d want to make a carrot sauce for his meat, so he would juice about four boxes of carrots and then fill the entire pot up with carrot juice on top of the veal bones and then cook that and reduce it. Pretty interesting stuff.
How much of that could you take away and apply practically?
Philosophically it’s about what you want to achieve and whether the way you’ve been taught is the best way to get there. Are there better ways? Technically it was an absolute masterclass. Anything from pastry recipes – and I still use those because I’ve found none better – his treatment of meat and poultry. You’d never see him blanching vegetables and then refreshing them in cold water. Never anything like that. It’s stuff that I still use today, even at home. If I want to have beans for dinner, I don’t put them in water and then refresh them for a salad. I’ll put a bit of olive oil in the bottom of the pot and season it, and then put just enough water to create enough steam to cook them, and then at the end of cooking them on super-high heat there’s no water left.
After the stage was finished Valerie and I spent some time in Paris, and I applied for two jobs. One was the sous-chef at Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow, and the other was Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons. Rick Stein looked at my menus from the bistro and wanted to make me head chef at his hotel, but I decided that I was on a mission to learn, so I went and worked for Raymond Blanc. Justin North [chef and owner of Sydney’s Bécasse] was there then. After about three months I basically severed my thumb boning ducks.
I’d hated it, absolutely hated it. Raymond’s sort of a bumbling professor figure, and he looks at you over these half-moon glasses, but they’d always be covered with duck fat or something. When you go in, Raymond assumes this mentoring role straight away with everyone that comes in, and he sits me down and we have a glass of Champagne in one of the lounges, which is all beautiful. We have the big talk about making a commitment and what it all involves, and I’m thinking, yeah, I’m ready, let’s go. The next trial is that I have to cook for him, anything I want. So if you’re a young commis, you’d be asked to cook a soup and maybe a salad with a simple vinaigrette. I was given carte blanche, anything I wanted to use, and he wanted it by lunchtime. Off I go, thinking, holy smokes, I’m a pretty junior chef and I have to cook for Raymond Blanc. The only thing I could think of was to take a dish from Arpège, where I’d just been for four-and-a-half months. I cooked roast lamb with a fondue of onions and mint and new dates. I think I’ve done a pretty faithful rendition of this dish, Raymond assesses it: ‘lamb well-rested, nice fondue of onions, not a bad dish, but of course this is a bistro dish and we’re fine-dining here’, and from that day I thought, you idiot, I’ve come from the cutting-edge French restaurant, and turned against him. I think I’ve had a thing against English-French chefs ever since.
So you came back to Sydney...
And started looking for a site for our next restaurant straight away. I thought it wouldn’t take long, but Valerie suggested I get a job, and I said, I don’t need a job, I really should concentrate on this, and she said, no you really should get a job. I went out and got a job as a sous chef at Bilson’s [on the site where Quay now sits] under Guillaume Brahimi, and I worked for him for six months. Which was interesting. That would’ve been the end of ’98. He used to make jokes – he’d pull out a Kangaroo Island chicken and say, hey, Mark Best, I bet you couldn’t afford chickens like this in your bistro, huh? That sort of stuff, constantly, that was Guillaume’s way.
That was my first experience at a bigger, busier restaurant, a different way of working. Meanwhile, I was beavering away looking for sites, and was given the current one. It was between us and an Indonesian restaurant. I remember the day I told Guillaume I was leaving to open my own restaurant. He completely turned on me. He called me into the coolroom, which is always a bad sign, because it’s a soundproof area, and he said I wouldn’t get any reference and that I was never to mention to anyone that I had ever worked there. I said, no problems, Guillaume. For years I didn’t tell anyone, and then he started telling people I’d worked there, so I guess I was true to my word.
You opened Marque in April 1999. The menu then was a lot Frencher than it is now. It was a lot of pressure for us. We’d spent all of our money and all of someone else’s too, and I had a team that I’d scrabbled from nowhere. I was very thin in those days.
Has it been a steady progression to where you are now since then? It’s not like we’ve suddenly turned a corner one day, no.
If you were to compare your boned chicken with pearl barley and pea sauce of 1999 to your roast squab with green-lip abalone, celeriac and chocolate feuilletage of nearly 10 years later, you’d have to say that something somewhere along the way has changed though, right? My ambition has kept just ahead of my skill and confidence as a chef, and that’s a continuing thing.
When did Pasi Petanen, your head chef, come on? Pasi was sponsored by Guillaume. He’s from Finland, and he and I have been working together for about four years. He was the first chef at [Paddington gastropub] The Four in Hand when we were running the restaurant there. We have a very good working relationship.
How many do you have in the kitchen?
Four or five, depending.
You also seem to attract ambitious young chefs to your fold. Why do you think that is? It’s clearly not your looks or your charm. No, I give them free reign. And I think the food here has the excitement factor. We keep up with current trends, and young chefs are always attracted to what’s brightest and shiniest. We have a good reputation for being very generous with our knowledge. I think that has to be a free exchange, otherwise it breaks down, and they give everything they’ve got right back.
Why do your customers come back to your restaurant? They’re generally excited by what we do, and they trust us. We’ve got to the point where we don’t even announce the menu any more; we want people to leave their preconceived notions behind.
Wine has been a big part of the restaurant from the word go.
The first list was done by Jon Osbeiston from The Ultimo Wine Centre. I was doing a lot of the wine at that stage myself while doing everything else, and it all became a bit too much. I’d be concentrating on the wine list, and the food would stand still, or vice-versa. My interest in wine had developed along with my interest in food. I read anything I could get my hands on about wine voraciously; I’d drink a wine and then read a book about it or the appellation or whatever, and read Anthony Hanson’s book on Burgundy back to front twice or three times. I think my taste has become more sophisticated as I’ve employed people like Andrew Guard, who was one of my first sommeliers, and Nick Hildebrandt [now co-owner and sommelier of The Bentley, three blocks north on Crown Street], who came on about three years in, and then Peter Healy, who has been with us since 2007.
What would you say the wine list at Marque is about?
Our overriding principle with both the food and the wine has been that it must be delicious. It doesn’t matter what intellectual component there is to it, people have to go, f*, that was good. The wines might be sometimes esoteric, but they should be explained in a way that people will say, shit, that really works, that’s how it should be. The wines are there for their intrinsic value. You’re not going to find Sassicaia. That was an example that someone brought in last night, a 1997 that I thought was rubbish and tasted like ropey old Bordeaux. Cabernet sauvignon from Tuscany has no sense of time and place, and I think that that’s what we like to choose in our food and wine. Something with some meaning.
You haven’t set out, then, to tick the big-name boxes for the sake of ticking them? No. You won’t find verticals of anything. You won’t find a page of Henschke or a sponsored page. Commercially we’re not as savvy as our competitors. We do enough to hang in there and make a modest living, but we are pretty idealistic about things, and remain so.
How’s that paying off? It’s a slower process, and I think it keeps you pretty humble, but I think career-wise I’m very satisfied.
What’s next? A bit of consultancy. I’m working on a hotel project in Albany in Western Australia. We get lots of offers, but sometimes I think it’s a bit greedy, and it has to be right, so I’m waiting for the right offer. I don’t see us being in Marque forever. I’d like to see, perhaps, what we could do with a brigade of 15 and a multimillion-dollar fit-out.
Marque, 4-5 355 Crown St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9332 2225.
This web exclusive interview was posted in August 2008.