The industry has suffered due to the pandemic and the staff shortage, but Marcus Wareing is thinking constructively. He speaks to Caroline Baldwin about being a MasterChef mentor, launching his Forward with Marcus Wareing training scheme with Compass Group and how he's no longer the angry chef in the kitchen.
The staffing crisis caught Marcus Wareing off guard. "It's the one thing I didn't see coming, to be honest. I thought there would be an influx of staff. I thought more restaurants would be closing and there would be an influx of people – but it's the opposite. Restaurants are booming and there's no people."
While Wareing's Michelin-starred restaurant at the Berkeley in London's Knightsbridge has got off quite lightly, with Wareing saying his team of 48 has remained "solid", with only a waiter and commis chef position vacant, he's very aware of how lucky he is, only having one restaurant to worry about: "I'm just glad I don't have multiple sites. I don't have the problem that the pub chains and hotels do."
He thinks the third national lockdown last winter really took its toll on the British population. "People's eyes have changed; the spark has left them. My staff, my own children, people in the hotel, people in the street – there was a real uncertainty about this coming out [of lockdown]. The first summer we opened back up, the industry was energised, we were positive. It was a beautiful time last summer, and there was a real energy to get back, because the lockdown was shorter. But this lockdown, the one in the winter, was a gamechanger."
The pause, he says, gave staff time to reflect. "They don't want to go back to London, or back into the industry. Some have changed careers, others want a different lifestyle. We've got an industry that's damaged and it won't take the next week or month to recover – it'll take years."
We've got an industry that is damaged and it won't take the next week or month to recover – it'll take years
Never has there been a more critical time for strong leadership, to train people and shout about the benefits of hospitality as a profession. And after his 36 years working in the industry and seven years judging on BBC's MasterChef: The Professionals, Wareing is about to take his mentor skills to a whole new level.
"Watching [MasterChef] chefs develop over a three-month period of filming is quite mind-blowing for me, and lifechanging to them. Their reaction is priceless. As a leader, as a father, as a restaurateur, and in my old age, it's quite heart-warming and emotional."
Forward with Marcus Wareing
It's this passion that has led him to work with contract caterer Compass Group UK & Ireland. The relationship has been 18 months in the making and has resulted in Wareing creating a culinary training programme, alongside national hospitality training provider HIT Training.
The scheme, called Forward with Marcus Wareing, will see 15 chefs from an array of Compass businesses go through a development programme, starting from August and lasting 18 months, which will provide them with either a level 4 senior culinary chef or level 5 operations departmental manager apprenticeship. The programme supercharges these qualifications with mentorship from Wareing, as well as advice on subjects including business, accounts, people, welfare and, of course, cookery. Wareing has shaped the scheme, sitting in on the interview process and helping to select the individuals who will go on to join the cohort of chefs that will help him deliver events across the Levy estate at various sporting venues.
"Rather than do what most chefs do – which is sign up to a catering company that I want to put my name to – this is about making a difference. The only way you'll do that is by training the chefs," he says. "I'm going to be their rock; they're going to hear all my stories; I'm going to push them, drive them and at the end of it they're going to be very different. And how I know that will happen is because we do this in three months on MasterChef – imagine what we can do with 18 months."
As well as help from HIT Training, the programme has been heavily influenced by Ryan Holmes, culinary director of business and industry at Compass, and Jon Davies, managing director at Levy UK and Ireland, and is clearly aligned with Compass's widely publicised ambition to become net zero by 2030. The programme features a ‘sustainability' module, which delves into the science to ask what else can be done to reimagine and reform the industry, a topic still fairly new to Wareing.
"Some people who have worked for me, when they hear me talking about net zero, they'd say: ‘What? Marcus? He fucking hates all that shit. Marcus doesn't hug trees'. But through meeting new people, they can show an old dog like me new tricks. If net zero and being green is important – and it is – then I want to be part of it."
It's this attitude that means Wareing will get almost as much out of his programme as his chefs will. "By being part of this training, I may be working with Compass and on my own programme, but I'm going to learn, too. Be a mentor to people but also getting something from it yourself – how cool is that?"
And, for the record, if any former colleagues of Wareing are reading this interview, he's not about to start hugging trees and following a vegan diet. "I'm not going to take meat and fish off my plates, I'm not going to become vegan. What I will do is reduce that on the plate and introduce more of the good stuff."
It's a win for the environment and for his health. As a 51-year-old, he says he has noticed his metabolism slow in recent years and how a ribeye steak sits more heavily on his stomach than a lighter meal of salad and pulses, leading him to rethink his own diet. "I feel better for it, and I believe that the workforce who are going back to their desks [will too]. If I feel lethargic after eating, so will others, and I want to encourage a better lifestyle."
Ten years ago, Wareing was in a completely different place in his life, describing himself as a "walking zombie", asking his doctor why he was so physically exhausted. In hindsight, it is unsurprising: he loved his job with a passion and worked an unhealthy amount of hours. "I had a short temper and I didn't eat properly – I'd eat nothing during the working day at all. Nothing. Zero. I just tasted, and I did that year after year."
He admits this temper could have been his downfall, but managing his lifestyle and starting by eating the right food made him work better.
"If you'd have come into the kitchen when I was 40, you'd have met a pretty fierce character," he admits, describing a tunnel vision to work as hard as possible to be successful. "But as you get older, you start to change your views and slow down a little bit and rely on the people around you. Once I hit that brick wall, I started to use the people around me and bring them into the fold, whereas before it was just about me."
He hasn't mellowed completely. He is still a chef who thrives on the fast pace of service. "Of course a chef is going to raise his voice – if I walk into that kitchen tomorrow and I see a chef doing something wrong, of course I'm going to raise my voice. What I have got out of [MasterChef] is being able to express [myself] in a way that I've never been able to do before. I've run kitchens for 30-odd years and there's still so much more to do."
It's not surprising, in that case, that the Forward with Marcus Wareing programme will also delve into kitchen culture in an attempt to create a better working environment – from learning skills to help avoid exhaustion, through to attracting a more diverse brigade. The chefs will be trained on increasing social mobility, developing mental health first aider skills, analysis of different leadership styles and outcomes, mentorship skills and unconscious bias training, in a bid to create a more welcoming environment, which can only have a positive knock-on effect on attracting new talent to the industry.
Take it slow
While Wareing says he has slowed down over the past decade, an outsider may argue with his definition of the word ‘slow'. As well as his beloved restaurant and his mentorship programme with Compass, he's just finished filming the latest series of MasterChef: The Professionals, is about to embark on a brand-new TV show with the BBC (see below) and will launch a new cookbook, Marcus's Kitchen, at the end of October.
"I don't believe in staying static – new opportunities spread you," he says, adding that his "core pillar" as a restaurateur complements his other interests and leads to a diversified offering.
"Running restaurants is an amazing thing to do, and I've run restaurants since the age of 25, but if I get to the end of my career and all I've ever been is a cook or restaurateur, then I don't think I'll have done enough."
If I get to the end of my career and all I've ever been is a cook or restaurateur, then I don't think I'll have done enough
It's clear that Wareing's various pillars have not come about by chance. Yes, hard work saw him almost burn out a decade ago, but in recent years, considered and careful planning has led to a diversification of his brand – a lot of which occurred during lockdown.
Wareing admits being part of a corporation like Compass gives him some form of security that being an individual trader doesn't – but that is simply a bonus. He clearly craves knowledge and wants to continue to grow and learn – be it from television, publishing, foodservice or the much-loved restaurant at the Berkeley he has built up over the past 17 years.
"The most important thing is looking back and saying I was able to do all those exciting things because I'm a chef."
The most important thing is looking back and saying I was able to do all those exciting things because I'm a chef
Tales from a Kitchen Garden
Wareing has switched his chef whites for wellies to film his new TV show, Tales from a Kitchen Garden, which will air on BBC Two next year. He animatedly describes the premise: a TV crew will follow him around for 10 episodes as he transforms his recently acquired small holding.
"I've never ventured into the supply chain. I've always been the type of chef who puts an order through to a supplier, it arrives at the back door and I cook it. In the nineties and noughties that's how the industry worked, but social media has opened up a whole new load of suppliers I didn't even know existed," he says.
His land in East Sussex already has a kitchen garden, an orchard and 10 beehives, where the colonies feed off the lavender and roses he planted when he bought the plot two years ago. He also leases parts of the property to a farmer who uses it to graze sheep and cows.
Over the course of the series, Wareing will be looking to find the best British produce and bring it back to his farm – such as a British variety of apple that can stand up to a tarte tatin recipe and piglets that will eventually be slaughtered and feature on his menu back at the Berkeley.
In fact, the restaurant is already reaping the rewards of his kitchen garden, with beans, rhubarb, herbs, garlic, blackcurrants and gooseberries all making their way to Belgravia in recent months.
"I just fell in love with farming. I've always enjoyed gardening and plants and growing herbs and using them in my kitchen at home, but when I stumbled upon this place four years ago, I saw something that made me smile," he says.
"It's just a whole new feeling about food – it made me look at it in a completely different way, because it's coming out of the ground and not out of the back of a white van."
But this show is a world away from the television he has featured in previously, mainly because it will be the first time viewers at home will see him out of his chef's jacket, which he is always wearing when appearing on MasterChef: The Professionals, Saturday Kitchen and the like.
"You'll see me in a light you've never seen me before, seeing me in a T-shirt rolling around in the shit with the pigs. I'm going to be having fun," he says, while also adding that his new-found attitude towards sustainability will also be front of mind.
"I'm going to have a great time meeting new people, discovering some real heroes of our industry and bringing them to the forefront, to show that this country is pretty cool at farming – it just needs more help. People need to buy more British, focus on net zero and get rid of plastic," he laughs to himself, "I feel like I'm turning into Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall."
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In