Multi-Michelin-starred restaurateur Marlon Abela has just opened his fourth London restaurant, Provence-inspired Cassis Bistro. He tells Fiona Sims how his business has fared through the recession and what effect it has had on his bold expansion plans
Cassis Bistro is your latest opening; why a Provence-themed restaurant? Grasse http://www.marcrestaurants.com" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">in southern Provence] was my first home. I lived in a thick-walled bastide until I was six. Even when we moved to London I went back every summer. The first thing I would do was visit the walled garden to see how the herbs, fruits and vegetables were doing.
I love the culture, what Provence stands for, the way of life there, and their philosophy towards food. It's about simplicity and bold flavours, and I love the way the cuisine evolves with the seasons.
But I feel that Provence has been overlooked. There are not enough genuine Provençal restaurants, both here and in France. Some authenticity has been lost along the way and that saddens me.
So yes, it was about going back to my roots. Those early years in Provence shaped me - I'm driven first by the purity of ingredients, second by the technical execution of those ingredients, and third by the personality of the chef.
There was a long gap between Umu opening in 2006 and Cassis Bistro. You originally had a much more ambitious plan of 30 restaurants. Where is the business heading now? London has been a challenge. I wish we didn't have that gap, but it took us a while to find the right location, which is difficult to do in London - there are so many licensing and planning constraints.
It's about more than just the food on the plate, and more than the quality of the ingredients - it all starts with the location.
When we set up MARC I believed that our expansion was predicated on a very strong acquisition strategy. But there was no way we could get to 30 restaurants in five years without acquiring a restaurant group - we tried that and it didn't work.
But that doesn't mean we haven't been busy. We opened four restaurants in the USA, we created MARC Fine Wines, and we acquired a high-end food supply business called Chef Middle East in Dubai, and we've made them all a success. We have put a very strong management team into place and now we are ready to accelerate our expansion plans.
Does this mean another restaurant in London? I will be announcing the details shortly; we have signed the deal on a new acquisition - a new restaurant in London that will open in 2011. It will be, perhaps, our most ambitious one yet.
Will it be another A Voce? We will open A Voce in London in time - when we find the right location.
And you have recently teamed up with master pâtissier François Payard? He is perhaps the most renowned pastry chef in the USA. We have invested in all his businesses. We've just opened our first FPB - François Payard Bakery - in New York. It's a casual bakery concept with a wide range of products from pastry to sandwiches. It has a small café and a 7000sq ft kitchen, which will be our central production kitchen for all the other FPBs in New York. The plan is to open three more FPBs in New York in 2011 and if they are successful, another five in 2012 before looking at other locations in the USA.
We've also opened a chocolate bar at the Plaza Hotel and we will be opening a high-end pâtisserie on the Upper East Side at the beginning of 2011. When I opened A Voce in New York I got to understand the market more and saw what an enormous gap there was for a high-end pastry/bakery concept in New York, and across the USA.
Have you considered floating MARC or bringing in new partners? My objectives are very simple - I'm here for the long term. I would like MARC to be in existence when I take my last breath. And I want my son or daughter to take over one day. That's how I see it.
I have no intention of selling or bringing in other partners, or any of that stuff. That's what makes us unique, that is why we take the long-term approach, and that's why we can't afford to cut corners.
Which is your most profitable restaurant? All of our restaurants are successful; I am happy with the way they all perform. A Voce Columbus is a 220-seat restaurant, so with the numbers it does it's obviously very profitable. Every story is different. You don't always measure success by the bottom line, especially when you are looking long-term.
How have your restaurants been affected by the downturn? The recession has helped us, actually - in getting the sites that we want, for the prices we want. We had a very good 2009 and we are having an exceptional 2010.
OK, so 2009 was a little flat on the wine side, but not on covers - they went up. And 2010 has just gone up all round - occupancy, wine spend; it's very strong. We are more established as a group now.
But Morton's has eaten up the cash, hasn't it? Some critics have said it's a rich man's toy I love Morton's. I pounced when it came up for sale. But I always knew it would only work as a private members' club. I saw a huge gap in the market for a high-end, modern, private members' club in that location [Berkeley Square, London].
The business is strong and growing - we have 1,800 members, and a 25-year lease, so this is a long-term project. Maybe the initial perception was that this was a rich man's toy but I would hope that two years down the line this perception has changed.
We have built a serious management team both here in the UK and in the USA. We are perhaps the only restaurant group with our position of quality, with such a diverse portfolio, that is so focused on London and New York, in two of the most competitive markets in the world. We couldn't do it if we didn't know what we were doing. We are pioneers in what we do, and it's down to our skill and management ability. If people don't recognise that yet then they simply don't want to.
Would you ever open a restaurant in an edgier area? Would you ever do fast food? It depends on the concept. But I'm very far from opening a fast food restaurant right now. A quality casual restaurant - that interests me. But we're not there yet. We've got a lot to chew on right now. What we don't want to do is dilute the culture of our ethos - that would be our downfall. It's about sustained growth.
Just how involved do you get in MARC? MARC takes 90% of my time. I have other businesses, but I put all my effort, passion, love and attention to detail into this.
The attention to detail that's needed in a MARC opening is phenomenal, from choosing the words on that wall over there, to the artwork, to the chairs - I get involved in every little detail.
You travel a lot - does this inspire you too? I generally go to places where I want to eat. I went to southern Italy recently, to the Amalfi coast, which I really enjoyed. Not for the restaurants or the scene you understand, but for the ingredients. I discovered white nectarines the size of plums that were so juicy and aromatic - that's my memory of last summer.
But I love Thai food, so I want to go back to Thailand. And I need to go back to Japan - I've always loved Japanese food. But now it is time to rediscover authentic French food, which has been sidelined - hence Cassis Bistro. An increasing number of top French chefs are going back to basics and opening up bistros. Making a business success of what I love - that inspires me, and I'm lucky that my work and my passion are one and the same.
Marlon Abela was born in Provence in 1975 to Lebanese contract catering entrepreneur Albert Abela. He was involved at an early age with his father's global food service company Albert Abela Corporation (AAC), which employed more than 30,000 people in 40 countries and owned top-rated hotels in locations such as Monaco, London and Nice.
Abela became executive vice-president of AAC in his early twenties, until 2002 when, following his father's death, the empire was split between him, his brother and his uncle. He set up MARC in London in 2001 with the aim of opening fine-dining eateries as well as more accessible dining venues across London, Europe and the USA. Also included in MARC is his fine wine business, MARC Fine Wines.
"I am lucky. From a young age I got to eat in the finest restaurants," Abela recalls. "My family owned a hotel with a two-Michelin-starred restaurant. I would listen to my father critiquing the food and I thought this was normal. So I guess that this has been part of the way I have approached life right from the start. I've never had any other ambition than to be in this business."
A Voce Madison, New York
A Voce Columbus Circus, New York
FPB Francois Payard Bakery, New York
Morello Bistro, Greenwich, Connecticut
Bistro du Midi, Boston, Massachusetts