With just 14 seats, Marianne Lumb's first fine-dining restaurant, Marianne at 104 Chepstow Road, will be one of the smallest in the country when it opens next week. The 2009 MasterChef: The Professionals finalist and former private chef tells Neil Gerrard why she decided to take the plunge
Your new restaurant is pretty compact, with 14 seats and an area of just 35sq m. Was that always the plan?
Then this site came up, which was originally 21 covers. I had eaten in it a couple of years ago when it was called Dragoncello, and had always really liked it. So I looked into the micro-restaurant thing with my business â¨partner and we realised that there are a couple of really cool restaurants of that size in Paris, and about six in New York (see box on page 24). It felt like it was meant to be. We took the â¨covers down from 21 to 14 so as no-one's chair will get bumped and it will have a real feeling of intimacy. We are so excited.
And why did you choose now to open the restaurant? I broke my collarbone after I fell off a horse and I had to stop cooking. While I recovered, I thought, actually, I really need to do this. I took a role working as a development chef for a retailer, but I really started to miss cooking. I basically just woke up one morning and handed my notice in. That was on a Monday, and by the Friday my business partner had found out that I wanted to start up a restaurant. It was perfect timing for him and perfect timing for me, so it was obviously meant to be. I had better make sure it is a success.
You have a lot of private service under your â¨belt - do you feel that a small restaurant will suit you well? Yes. I would like to go onto larger things - â¨I would love to build an empire - but I think as far as the first restaurant is concerned it â¨is a really good place to start. I would rather build upwards.
Does the size of the space give you a chance â¨to offer a slightly more personal experience â¨to diners? Very much so - on MasterChef one of the food critics, John Walsh, said that what he liked about my food was that he felt I was cooking just for him. I trained in restaurants where I was part of a big team, but as a private chef I am used to focusing on the entire dish - not having eight people come up to the pass with all the different garnishes.
So my food is very much going to be full of soul and attention and care and everything is very well thought through. I even know the measurements of our ice cubes - that is â¨the attention to detail we are going to.
Your kitchen is just 10sq m, so you must have had to think quite carefully about how to equip it. What kit are you using and what did you have to do without? It wasn't easy to plan the kitchen because it is so small. We have taken the gas out and it is all induction - I didn't want it to get too hot in there. We have an induction hob and an induction plancha. With the plancha you can turn it to about 220ËC and it doesn't give off any heat, but when you put something on there, boom, it starts working.
I also have a rise and fall grill, and a small double combi oven so I can do lots of soufflés. I have one Thermomix, which is like having another pair of hands; a Pacojet, which I love using; and a vacuum pack machine, whichâ¨is really going to help me because I can braise dishes ahead. I also have London's smallest water bath.
We have ordered a meat slicer, but I just don't think I can fit it in. I wanted a dehydrater, but can't fit that either - but I can use the oven on a low heat. And we have as many fridgesâ¨as we can.
You mentioned your business partner - who â¨is he? He is a great friend of mine who wishes â¨to remain nameless. I feel very blessed - we complement each other very well.
Are you confident you are going to be able to make enough of a profit with such a limited number of covers? This is my first venture and any restaurant â¨is a massive risk. The amount of money involved is terrifying and that is somethingâ¨I am not used to, really. In a way, I think it is easier to control everything because it is â¨so small and the structure is compact. I have worked out exactly what I need to make to break even.
Like all restaurants, we need to be busy and if we are not, we won't make a profit. So the first priority is to be a profitable business, but not with any compromise on the wine, the food or the service. It is achievable, and my job is to make sure that when all my diners leave they say "Wow, that was awesome".
What are the opening hours? To begin with, we are closed on a Monday. â¨We are open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday and for lunch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In an ideal world, we would be open for five days for lunch and dinner and then close for two days, but we are just going to see how it goes.
Who have you hired to work with you? I know I can take care of the food, so my priority was finding an amazing front of house team who I can trust. I think I have found them. There will be three of us - one restaurant manager (Matthew Hough, formerly â¨restaurant manager of Michelin-starred Medlar in London), an assistant manager (Aviva Ryan) and then myself. And then once I know that we have a full restaurant, I will get someâ¨assistance. I think it is normal for any business to start small.
What are you planning to put on the menu? There will be loads of consommés and soufflés, and there will be pasta - I am going to do a seasonal tortellini, which at the moment uses rainbow chard, ricotta, parmesan and â¨a beautiful rich sauce.
One of the dishes I am most excited about is a courgette soufflé, which my mum used to cook for my sister and me on our birthdays. You have to hollow out the courgette, steam it inside and out and put a soufflé made with it back into it and bake it. We are pimping it up for fine dining, so I am incorporating a â¨tempura of the courgette flower and playing around with presentation ideas.
How has your appearance as a finalist on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2009 affected your life and career? It was amazing. It was incredibly stressful. The opportunities we got were phenomenal though, so the stress was balanced with the feeling of being on this rollercoaster. I remember being with Steve (Groves, winner 2009) and Daniel (Graham, finalist 2009) when we cooked for 35 chefs with 45 Michelin stars. Anton Mosimann and Raymond Blanc and Jason Atherton and Phil Howard were all there. It was very difficult to mentally take that in - and when they were patting me on the back and shaking my hand, we were almost speechless.
Having the opportunity to cook for food critics and restaurateurs and to be put under that pressure was a really steep learning curve.â¨I must admit I haven't really felt that pressure until this project.
What did you learn from the experience? I learned about myself - I realised how â¨tenacious I was and how much passion I had, and how much I loved cooking. I just wanted to get to a higher standard. I was hugely disappointed that I didn't win, of course, but all the producers said don't worry, the winner just gets a minute more airtime than you - and there were five million viewers, which was quite amazing. I was so happy with it all and it opened so many doors for me - I can email Michel Roux Jr and he is brilliant support.
Is there anywhere else you have eaten recently and enjoyed? That is the most exciting thing about London - there is so much springing up. Both myself and my front of house have been eating out around here a lot to make sure where we are in the pecking order. I love the Ledbury; I think Brett Graham's cooking is exquisite and his touch is just beautiful. I also love Hereford Road - Tom Pemberton's cooking there is full of vitality. He is brilliant value for money and when you have a plate of food from him you just want to demolish it like a wolf - it is really hearty. I like what they are doing with The Shed as well - it is a really fun atmosphere. Hedone in Chiswick is lovely too. So we are not short of competition.
Would you recommend private service to other chefs? What are the pros and cons? I think you have to have a certain type of â¨personality to be a private chef in someone's home. You have to be quite assertive, because you are dealing with people that are used to the highest of standards. Yet you also have to â¨be very gentle, especially when there are â¨children around - some chefs wouldn't be able to deal with that.
The pro is the produce you get, as most of the time there is no real budget constraint - that is not to say I would be frivolous or waste any food. You get to travel quite a lot and it is quite sociable. I think it is good for a chef and also your repertoire because you never really repeat a dish - you always have to do something different. And you generally tend to get paid a bit more - often when you get into fine dining the salary tends to plummet.
The UK's smallest fine-dining restaurants
Sushi Tetsu: Owned and run by husband and wife team Harumi and Toru Takahashi, Sushi Tetsu is a traditional Japanese sushi bar at
12 Jerusalem Passage in the City of London.
It seats just seven people.
Harry's Place: Harry and Caroline Hallam
run Harry's Place at 17 High Street, Great Gonerby, Grantham. It can accommodate
10 people across three well-spaced tables, and serves fine food cooked using classical French techniques.
Sienna: Russell Brown's restaurant on the High Street in Dorchester, Dorset, is the
UK's smallest Michelin-starred restaurant.
It serves 14 covers across five tables.
Places of inspiration The micro-restaurants that inspired Marianne, 104 Chepstow Road
Paris •Table D'Aki