He has had a terrible year-and-a-half, during which the differences with Gordon Ramsay grew and then became irreconcilable. But now that Marcus Wareing has a new restaurant in his own name, and the chance to become one of the country’s best-known chefs, he is in a better frame of mind. Mark Lewis speaks to the Berkeley hotel chef first as he plans for life without his former boss and once great friend
They’re preparing for a funeral at St Paul’s Church in Knightsbridge. Under an Indian summer sun, flower arrangers are still carrying elegant bouquets into the nave as the first black sedans hove into view.
Across the road in the Berkeley hotel, Marcus Wareing’s kitchen and dining room teams are gathered in a circle for their morning briefing. A few tweaks to the starters are referenced the first halibut dish of the season is flagged up there’s a birthday to be aware of at one of the window tables. Everything is just the same as every other Monday morning.
Except everything is not the same. Menu covers that until recently bore the name Pétrus now announce Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley. After 15 years as one of his most loyal lieutenants, Marcus Wareing is about to lay to rest his professional relationship with Gordon Ramsay and strike out alone. The restaurant’s florists have chosen white hydrangeas for the occasion.
Never again will the 38-year-old, two-Michelin-starred chef have to stomach being described as a Ramsay protégé. When the first guests arrive at noon, his career as an independent chef-restaurateur will begin.
Rumours of an irreparable rift between Wareing and Ramsay had long circulated around the industry until the Maybourne Hotel Group, owner of the Berkeley, confirmed in May its intention to work directly with Wareing to operate the restaurant formerly known as Pétrus. The spat between the two chefs burst spectacularly into the public eye this summer, when Wareing was quoted as saying, “If I never speak to that guy again in my life it wouldn’t bother me one bit.”
Since then, it’s the lawyers that have been doing all the speaking, as they have sought to broker the agreement that sees Wareing retain his two stars at the Berkeley, but yield the Pétrus brand.
With the spectre of a lengthy legal wrangle behind him, Wareing looks tanned and fit. There’s fire in his blue-grey eyes. With the bells of St Paul’s pealing outside, we focus upon the future.
Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley opens its doors an hour from now. How do you feel?
The build-up to this has been draining physically and mentally, but in a way you could sum it up as just like Christmas morning, if not all of my Christmas mornings together. We are independent now and there’s a sense of excitement in the air. It’s a beautiful day outside, everyone’s fresh and excited. The guys have pulled a rabbit out of a hat to get this ready, not just my team but also the hotel and all the people behind the scenes. It’s a special day and I think they all feel that.
Describe seeing your name over the door.
That was weird. I’ve lived with other names, fabulous names, but when you see your own in big, bold letters above a hotel as globally recognised as this, it gives you a sense of pride. I can’t wait for my parents to see it.
You recently admitted to feeling “constrained, confined and trapped”. Has anything changed?
Absolutely. Just imagine someone taking a heavy bag off your back. You’re going to feel the sense of relief. I’m not going to look back at all, I’m just excited about what’s in front of me. Looking back is something that you do to say, “Shit, have I really made the right move?” I know I’ve made the right move, because when I woke up this morning it felt right. Divorce is always tough but it’s done and we move on. The past 10 years have been full of adventure. And it can only get better. Let’s put it this way, there’s enough cake for everybody to have a slice.
Did you always plan to break away from Gordon Ramsay Holdings?
Ask any chef and I’d say nine out of 10 will say “I want my own restaurant”. I was no different, 15 years ago. I don’t think anything was planned, it just took its natural course. I think I’ve always been my own master in an odd way. I’ve always fought against the odds and always wanted to be an individual. I’ve had an amazing career of being a head chef and a partner. Now I’m going to be my own boss and it’s nice that it has come in stages. I’ve waited for lots of things in life and sometimes it’s better to wait. I waited for my second Michelin star and when they awarded me that it felt that we were ready for it, that we really were a two-starred restaurant and that when our guests arrived it wasn’t shaky. So now, having waited for so long, it’s really exciting that the future is how I want it to be.
What do you put your success down to?
Dedication: nothing in life arrives on a silver platter, you have to work bloody hard for it. But the most important thing about being a good chef is self-discipline. I don’t do anything in my kitchen I wouldn’t expect my cooks to do. I don’t sit on the hot plate having a meal, I wouldn’t show them that. People eat at chef’s table, and the first thing they say is how quiet it is and what a professional team I’ve got. What that creates is fabulous young girls and boys who become self-disciplined. I’ve had many chefs leave me and I always say to them, “keep your self-control, and self-discipline and you’ll rise to the top naturally.”
You might have chosen a better time to move away from the security of a restaurant group.
London’s good. Yes, it’s tough. Yes, people are feeling the pinch, more aware of what’s in their pockets. You put on the radio and you hear banks crumbling as I did this morning in America. You think, is that going to affect me? And I suppose in one sense it is but seven or eight million people live in this city plus all the people that travel through. I only need to attract a fraction. What I’m going to do is be here and make it special so that even through these hard times people walk away thinking, “that was worthwhile, that was great”. If you can do that through the recession and keep bums on seats, great! It’s a big world, we’ve got a great city, we’re the leading capital of the world for gastronomy, we’ve got the Olympics, every hotel’s doing major refurbishment. Yes we’re in a recession but we’ll get out of that in a couple of years. I’ve a feeling London is going to get better and better.
What’s your vision for the restaurant?
To raise levels of service and food – though I’m very happy with my food – and to raise levels of customer hospitality from the minute the phone is picked up to the minute guests leave the restaurant. How am I going to do that? I don’t really know, but the key is working with a great team and allowing them to do what they do best but doing it in an organisation that is disciplined, and an environment that’s happy. I’ve got two Michelin stars, done great in the guides the next stage is to get to the next level. Three stars is something I’ve always wanted but I’m not going to focus my whole restaurant on that. I’ve got a business to run, a hotel to keep happy, clients to keep happy. Chasing stars can drive you insane.
Will you need to become less of a chef and more of a restaurateur?
The role needs a bit of both and I’ve always been a bit of both. I’ve put an office in place but I’m really excited about getting back into the kitchen because I’ve spent a lot of time recently doing other things. I want my clients to walk into this establishment and see me here. Like what the Roux brothers did, like Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon When you went to Jamin, Joël was there, and that’s what I want. Sometimes when customers walk into the kitchen, they look at me and say, “Why are you here?” I say, “Because I work here – where am I going to be?’ It’s extraordinary. I think customers sometimes don’t expect a chef to be in his kitchen but that’s where I’m at my best, where I want to be.
What has the response to recent events been from clients?
They’ve been incredibly supportive and delighted for me to be my own man. I think they’re going to be quietly happy and surprised in some areas because I think we can deliver a better service now and because there’s a whole new feel about the place. I never really walked the room, graced the tables. I want to get to know the clients, like those fabulous Relais & Châteaux hotels and restaurants in France that know everybody that walks through the door. I want to keep it personal so clients feel a sense of personality – a heartbeat within the place and not just an operation.
Any plans for global restaurant domination?
Nothing’s scheduled. This has been the main focus and it’s going to stay the main focus. When opportunities arise I’ll certainly look at them but to be honest I want to enjoy what I’ve achieved and the new challenge in front of me for a while. Yes, I’m going to do other things down the line without a doubt, but I can only cook in one house at one time. And that’s going to be my focus, staying in one house. I’m not a greedy man, I just want to enjoy the next 15, maybe 20 years of being in the industry and I feel ready for that now.
What relationship have you forged with the Berkeley?
Although we’ll be a completely independent restaurant, I’m not going to segregate myself from Maybourne. We’re a team and you’ll see something quite special evolve as the years go by. If you want to sum it up, it’s a marriage. You have to work at it, you have to love each other, look after each other, respect each other and, yes, you are going to have your arguments but you’ve got to sit down and deal with them. They have been a major part of me getting to this stage in just three weeks.
Tell us about your back office set-up.
It’s all very well one girl answering the phone, standing at a door with a diary flicking through the pages. I want to deliver something faster, making sure the clients are kept up to date with seasonality, updating regulars, sending Christmas cards, birthday cards, knowing when anniversaries are, and just doing things that good restaurants should do. It’s important that the mis en place of the office and phone system is spot on, then we can deliver the rest. I’ve got three full-time reservation staff and my wife, Jane, overseas the office. I want those phones ringing but I want them dealt with efficiently.
Will you look to heighten your media profile?
Books are a fabulous window on a chef’s personality. I’ve just started my new one, due out in the autumn next year. Book-writing is almost putting your history down on a page, albeit it’s all recipes. There’s a lot of them out there but you keep plugging away because one day you’re going to hit on something that could be absolutely best seller. Television is an odd world. I don’t search for it but it does come your way from time to time. If I could find something that represents what I want to do and isn’t gimmicky or gameshow-like I would consider it.
Have you felt the support of the industry, in recent months?
The industry has been extraordinary: friends you didn’t know you had come out, put their arm around you, tap you on the back or make a phone call. It’s an extraordinary feeling that you’ve got these people who are championing you and supporting you going alone.
What do you put this goodwill down to?
“The guy’s getting up and having a go.” It’s not going to be easy. I’m going to make mistakes and I’m going to have all of London’s critics coming through the door ready to tear my balls off but I’m not here to prove anything to anybody. We’re just doing our thing, cooking my food, serving it with great wine, great service, with a smile on our faces.
What will you be saying in your team talk, a few minutes from now?
Ten minutes to go and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I have an amazing amount of adrenaline rushing through me. But for them, I just want to gather them together, thank them for their support and say “Just get on with what you do.” This is the beginning of something very special and I want all of them to enjoy it and be part of it. I’ll wish them the best of luck, and get back in my bloody kitchen where I belong.