Interview: Marlon Abela, founder of MARC restaurant group

24 November 2017 by
Interview: Marlon Abela, founder of MARC restaurant group

Marlon Abela, founder of the MARC restaurant group, is not afraid of fine dining. His plans for the Square in London's Mayfair include a refined Japanese-influenced menu that will showcase, in his words, "epicurean excellence", and reinvent fine dining for the future

We're in the Square in Mayfair, a couple of weeks before the restaurant's opening, following a complete makeover and the appointment of a new chef. In case you missed it, the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (MARC) acquired the iconic restaurant in March last year from two-Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard and restaurateur Nigel Platts-Martin. And yes, he decided to keep the name (more of which later).

It has had a bit of a false start. Abela had installed chef Yu Sugimoto in the kitchen soon after moving in, but there was a family crisis and he had to return to his native Japan. So the Square closed its doors on 11 August for a major refurbishment. "He was a wonderful chef - we were very sad to lose him," shrugs Abela.

The whole episode has prompted some navel-gazing - namely, the re-evaluation of fine dining, looking at what customers want, and what the next decade of fine dining will bring.

Not for Abela the current trend for a more casual approach to haute cuisine, precipitated in part by rumblings from some quarters that fine dining is dead (Abela blames the press on this matter). In fact, Abela, owner of two-Michelin-starred restaurants the Greenhouse and Umu, also in Mayfair, is going in the
opposite direction, ushering in "a new era of epicurean excellence", as he puts it.

The Square
The Square
"Fine dining is our niche. We have tens of thousands of loyal customers on our database across the group who don't think fine dining is dead. If anything, there are more restaurants focused on fine dining opening in London than in any other Western city. But fine dining has certainly evolved, and we recognise that." "What do I mean by epicurean excellence, exactly? It's about the quality of the ingredients. We don't cut corners - to the point where my management tells me off. We probably should have more control here, but we don't impose suppliers on our chef. They go to whomever they want. "Take our sake list at Umu. We have one of the largest sake and wine lists in the world, and that takes a lot of capital investment, but it is what we are known for," he says. There are a staggering 3,500 wines on the list at the Greenhouse and 2,000 at the Square.
The Square reception desk
The Square's bar
"It's also about service. At the Square, we will open with five sommeliers - a head sommelier, an assistant and three juniors. We will be open six days a week, and we want to give the ultimate service. A lot of other restaurant groups don't go as far as we do. Service is key today. It has to be a balance of elegant, friendly and professional; I think that defines the future of fine dining. "Epicurean excellence is also about environment. We are in the heart of Mayfair and the Mayfair customer base expects the very best - and we know Mayfair," he grins. "Yes, the interior at the Square will be luxurious, but this time, in a more minimalist way. By that I mean that every part of the restaurant has an intrinsic design value, whether that's the lighting, the chairs or the napkins. There's no superfluous decoration. I don't want that when I go to a restaurant - and neither do our customers." But forget the hushed dining rooms of old - Abela wants an energetic vibe at the new-look Square. "We want the Square to be dynamic, high energy - and that is a huge step away from the connotation of fine dining. How do we do that? With the space. There's a bar area as soon as you walk in, where you can sit at the counter and eat the full menu if you want, and with the same style of service." One rather radical departure from your average fine-dining establishment is the decision to deliver the dish descriptions only at the start of the meal, not during (unless requested by the customer). "We won't announce the dishes when they are being served; we don't want to interrupt the conversation," explains Abela. "This is another example of how I think fine dining is evolving - or certainly needs to." Light fantastic Menu structure, too, is key to MARC's new approach to fine dining. "I don't like the imposed set menu, I've never been a big fan. I understand why chefs do it and why some restaurants have to do it, and that it works for them, but it's not our model," he says. "I think people want more choice - generally in life, and therefore on a menu, too. So we are adopting a four-course menu with a choice of five dishes for each course, plus amuses-bouches and petits fours - but they will be light," he promises.
Cured Cornish mackerel, leek, pink radish, chive
Cured Cornish mackerel, leek, pink radish, chive
"We are seeing that people want smaller portions and lighter food, so I think a four-course menu is the right balance and compromise. You have more choice, you don't eat too much of one dish, and it makes things more exciting. Heavy food is in the past," Abela continues. "I'm not saying we don't have a little bit of cream and butter here and there to give the dish some texture or whatever, but the finished dish will still be very light." A recent meal at the Greenhouse, where chef Arnaud Bignon has garnered two Michelin stars, bears out this approach. The meal, which included dishes such as Dorset crab with mint, cauliflower, Granny Smith apple and curry, and Orkney scallop carpaccio, Jerusalem artichoke, sea urchin and Piedmont hazelnut, eased from one umami-rich broth to another with a strong Japanese aesthetic running throughout. Indeed, Japanese cuisine is a huge influence for MARC's chefs. "I think Japanese cuisine has been the strongest influence on chefs over the past decade. It's how we like to eat," declares Abela. I wonder how this all sits with the Square's new chef, Clément Leroy? Leroy was executive chef at the Auberge du Jeu de Paume hotel in Chantilly in France, and was previously part of the team that helped Guy Savoy's eponymous restaurant in Paris win its third star in 2002, working for him for 10 years.
Clement Leroy in the kitchen
Clément Leroy in the kitchen
"Clément is a classically trained chef, but he has evolved. There's a lovely twist to his food, and a creativity and originality, which is what I was looking for," says Abela, who admits that the search for the right person hasn't been easy. Indeed, he worries about recruiting staff in general, like many in the hospitality industry. And, brace yourselves, Abela voted Brexit. "Let's talk politics, shall we? I voted Brexit, even though I knew that there would be an immediate impact on my business. Do I regret it? Not at all. What the EU set out to be is not what it is now. I think the EU is a bloated and dysfunctional institution, and I think long term, it is damaging for the UK. Short term? Yeah, it's a problem. But the British have always had the ability to fall on their feet - we're at our best when we're left to our own devices. Of course, I'm worrying about staff. Do I think we'll manage? Yes, we'll manage. We'll have to adapt to the circumstances. We did it in the recession 10 years ago, and we'll do it again now." A living legacy Abela took the bold step of keeping the Square's name, which is a lot to live up to. "First, our customers already know the Square. Having a restaurant with a worldwide reputation is a platform that you can build on. Yes, there is an association with Phil Howard, of course, but the restaurant has been here since 1991, and I thought it was a shame for London to lose one of its great names. I would rather build on a legacy and build on a heritage than destroy it. We did the same with the Greenhouse. Though what the Greenhouse is today is so very different from what it was before. In hindsight, I should have changed the name," he admits.
Pan-fried foie gras, apple, mango, ginger
Pan-fried foie gras, apple, mango, ginger
o who is getting this new epicurean era right? "That's a good question," he ponders, briefly frowning, before recounting a couple of his top dining experiences. The first is Résidence de la Pinède near Saint-Tropez, where chef Arnaud Donckele bagged his third Michelin star in 2013, at the age of 35. "The chef and the maÁ®tre d' are a team - they really understand each other," says Abela. The second is another three-Michelin-starred eatery, Mizai in Kyoto. "It's the best kaiseki \[multi-course meal\] experience I've ever had. It's located above a big temple with a little stream running nearby - it's so beautiful. And when I look at the food, I understand what I'm eating - I like to understand what I'm eating." So what's next for MARC and Abela? "Once we have the Square relaunched, we will focus our attention on Green's," he says. MARC acquired the majority stake in Green's Restaurant and Oyster Bar in St James's in August 2014. The restaurant, which was established in 1982 by the Duchess of Cornwall's former brother-in-law, Simon Parker Bowles, has long since closed and site owners the Crown Estate have demolished it, so Abela is on the hunt for something bigger and better in Mayfair. He also has plans for an upscale Italian restaurant. "I'm not saying that the restaurants we plan to open won't be a little more casual, but we always want them to be the best in that category. So if we open an Italian restaurant, we want it to tick all our boxes," he says. The MARC bakery, too, is online for expansion. "We opened the bakery only three years ago, yet it's now supplying most of the top hotels and restaurants in London," says Abela, proudly. It began life in the basement of his Berkeley Square private members' club, Morton's, because, according to Abela, there was no decent bread in London. But when rents started rocketing, he decided that operating a bakery in Berkeley Square wasn't the smartest thing to do, so he moved it to a unit in Perivale. "We had too much capacity to just make bread for ourselves, so we started to sell our products wholesale, and now it's thriving, with lots of new opportunities presenting themselves. We will soon be at capacity, so we will have to look for a new site. Once we've done that, we will look at retail opportunities for the bakery," he reveals.
Comte agnolotti, Japanese artichoke, baby turnip and parsnip root
Comte agnolotti, Japanese artichoke, baby turnip and parsnip root
"London has woken up to many things in the past 20 years. The rate at which things have changed and improved here is unlike anything ever seen in a big city before. Take British cheese - it's so incredible now. That's why I get so frustrated when people say fine dining is dead. What are they talking about? Everything has improved - everything is fine dining. If there is a market for a man in the New Forest who grows wasabi, how is fine dining dead? You can find 30 different types of Japanese vegetables grown in the UK now. On the contrary, fine dining is very much alive. "Look at the openings in the past four months. And there is room for more. There are markets for fine dining that didn't exist 10 years ago. And there are so many different interpretations of fine dining now - and that's a wonderful thing. Fine dining is more than just a dish. "So in terms of the evolution of the Square, and the evolution of fine dining, when all those different elements and details come together, you suddenly have a restaurant that is very new in spirit, which is challenging the times, and which looks to the future rather than the past." From the menu at the Square - Smoked Lincolnshire eel, caviar, Agria potato, watercress - Baby violet artichoke, confit quail egg, trompettes, vin jaune - John Dory, celery, sea urchin, lychee - Malt-crusted lamb saddle, razor clams, seaweed butter, savoy cabbage - Salt-baked pineapple, kombu, coconut, salted-butter ice-cream
Smoked Lincolnshire eel, caviar, Agria potato, watercress
Smoked Lincolnshire eel, caviar, Agria potato, watercress
r courses, £95 MARC in a nutshell Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (MARC) was founded by Marlon Abela in 2001. Its portfolio includes two-Michelin-starred restaurants the Greenhouse and Umu, as well as Morton's Club, all in Mayfair, Green's restaurant in St James's (soon to reopen), OW Loeb Wine Merchants, near London Bridge, MARC Fine Wines in Mayfair, and MARC Patisserie and Bakery in Perivale, Ealing. In the US, the company runs Bistro du Midi in Boston and the FranÁ§ois Payard bakeries in New York and Las Vegas.
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