Guest Post From Eat The Midlands: Exclusive Interview With Marcus Wareing

Following on my recent visit to Hotel La Tour, I am pleased to bring you an exclusive interview with Marcus Wareing, the inspiration behind Aalto Restaurant. The interview was conducted by my friend and fellow Midlands foodie James Day of Eat The Midlands. Following a discussion on Twitter, I suggested that James ask the ‘guilty pleasures’ question below. I hope you enjoy reading the interview and thanks to James for letting me share it with me :-)

Being invited to a press lunch is always an honour, never a chore, but some don’t warrant an afternoon smoshing, and saying how wonderful a place is, when you know there is a long way to go. But when  the team at the new Hotel La Tour in Birmingham invited us to attend a lunch, joint hosted by Marcus Wareing, one in my position would be a fool to turn down – Marcus is the chefs chef – the man who helped Gordon Ramsay get to where he is (er was) and the very same man who told him where to go (in no uncertain terms) when they famously fell out in 2007 and parted their ways  via the courts – the result? Marcus retained his status at The Berkeley in London, at what was Petrus, and it was shortly renamed afterwards ‘Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley’ achieving Marcus 2 Michelin stars and a lot of industry acclaim thereafter – so what is he doing on a  cold day in May at a hotel in Birmingham?

Marcus, welcome to Birmingham – is this your first time?
No, far from it – I have been up and down the M40 or London-Birmingham train many times in recent months – since I got involved with the team and MD Jane Schofield at Hotel La Tour last year, it has been non stop – really exciting stuff – this is really out of the norm for me, but I was introduced almost by accident by a  mutual friend, and I loved their ethos, passions and focus, and before I knew it, I was involved in a privately owned new build Hotel in the centre of Birmingham!

So, the Aalto restaurant we are sitting in is ‘Inspired by Marcus Wareing’ Explain
The food you have tasted today has been born out of over 20 years hard graft from me, yes, but the menu, and creation has come from my protégée Chef Alex Penhaligon – I met Alex last year, he went for an interview as a head chef with Hotel La Tour, and not until the final interview did he know he would be working with me – I think he was a little shocked! Alex has spent 3 months in my kitchens in London – both The Berkeley and The Gilbert Scott – he is a real inspiration to me, and my team. I saw the same ethos and passions in him that I also have, and despite spending some years working in branded hotels, which though taught him systems, discipline, structure and good buying, he had lost some of his spark when he came to us, but I could see it was there, deep down – all I did was bring it out of him, and now he is here doing an incredible job.

So what is the Marcus Wareing ethos you mention?
It’s what makes us what we are, and what makes my food what it is. To me it comes from deep within – a drive, a passion, and a vision and above all a comfort in your own skin – You have to do this job for the right reasons, there is no point in thinking you will be the next TV chef – that’s not important, and it does not reward the soul – believe me I’ve seen it. Getting up at the crack of dawn, seeing fine produce arrive in your kitchen, and creating something from it is what the ethos is – and doing it for the customer, not some food critic or a camera, that’s what is important to me. When Alex started with us, I told him to watch, listen, learn and follow – he did just that, and absorbed every bit of it, and look at him now – lunch was incredible, and for almost 90 covers, is a real achievement – when critics like you are watching with your eyes, and cameras, it ain’t easy. {laughs}

So what is Marcus Wareing style food?
Its hard to say…very hard. My own food at The Berkley, where I am most services, and has my name above the door, comes from within – My life growing up in Lancashire, my family cooking, my dads passions, and my training for many years – The Gilbert Scott, which I love, is more influenced by the history of the building and the classics, more brassiere in  style, much like Aalto Restaurant at La Tour. But overall I try and understand what customers want these days – most people are well travelled, have experienced food from all over the world, know what they like, and are prepared to experiment, but in recessionary times like we are in, chefs like me need to appreciate that firstly, the meal may be more of a treat than it was a few years ago, money is tighter, so the experience is key – the front of house staff have never been more important – so you have to respect that, and share your passions with them, so they then instil it on the customer. Gone are the days of the big expense account – it’s now more about value – not discount, but added value in the ingredients the service and the memory they go away with. We have tried to carry that to the Aalto restaurant menu – its excellent value, and classic dishes, such as stew’s, pies, great cuts of beef, fresh fish,  and other ingredients, largely from local suppliers – you have excellent producers in the region including Aubrey Allen Butchers, and Mr Moydens cheeses, both appearing on our menus – not just because they are local, because they are good – I use Aubrey’s in my restaurants in London for that very reason. Select buying means we can keep the prices keen. Customers  will respect that and then hopefully come back.

What are your plans for La Tour Hotels and working with them?

The owners are a great, progressive and passionate – coming from good hospitality stock – originating from Hayley Conference Centres and they have big plans – and good backing. To me their first venture in Birmingham is a huge achievement –a  great investment – and I am proud to be involved. Hotel restaurants are not easy  – they have a stigma. So marketing such places to the potential audience is key – it’s a long game, but as long as the message and the offering is consistent, and the customer receives excellent service and quality sustainable value, then there is no reason why a good destination food venue such as this would not succeed.  Seeing the team today underlines that – you can see it in their eyes. I will continue to oversee the menu development with Alex and the team – they are all very hands on, as am I, and work with them to ensure the diners of the Midlands, and those who are staying in the hotel, enjoy what we have created, and bring their friends and colleagues – it’s a long game and I enjoy playing it.

Your wife famously helps you at the Berkeley, has she been involved with this?
Yes, she is over there. My wife is great, she operates a lot of the back of house business in my own restaurants, taking care of bookings, systems and staff development – I enjoy figures, and systems, and processes, which I agree, is unusual for a chef, but I still focus my attentions onto what goes out of the doors of my restaurant kitchen – I am at every service, and if I am not my customers are told – You can’t pretend anymore with the advent of Twitter – ‘cause someone will tweet they have seen you out with your kids somewhere maybe enjoying a pizza, when hard working customers are spending a lot of money thinking you are preparing  their meal – it’s not on. Saying that – I also prioritise my family, so if I need a service off with them, then I will take it.

What do you do to relax – Any guilty pleasures?
Yeah, I close my front door! I live for my family, my wife and my kids – that is my reality check, and what I work for – In 20 years I want to have a good life, nice holidays and a happy healthy family – you need to keep I touch with that so whatever we are doing together – a night in, a nice meal out, a pizza, great burger, or just a day in the house, it’s my escape – guilty? No, just pleasures I reward myself with.

How does your cooking at home – have your children shown any gourmet-credentials?
{Laughs} We all cook, and I enjoy it at home, simple dishes, but real good ingredients. Family meals are important. It’s funny,  my son had his 7th birthday at the Berkeley, he got all suited and booted, and the family turned up and I cooked for them – I was so proud – “this is what daddy does” – they could see what I was doing when I was not home, and he loved it, they all did. I saw that he really grew up that night, he was even in the kitchen afterwards watching everything go out off the pass to other customers and pointing out what he had had, and watching the brigade and front of house service. I was so proud of him

Did he tip?
No he didn’t, tight bugger! {laughs}

So what will be Marcus Wareing legacy?
{Thinks…} I am not striving for a legacy, I am striving to be involved, fulfilled, and successful in what is our relatively new business, but I don’t strive for TV, fame and media, I just strive for respect, earned, not demanded, that’s all.

Marcus Wareing thank you.

More on Hotel La Tour and Aalto restaurant http://hotel-latour.co.uk/restaurant/

Interview exclusive by James Day of ww.eat-the-midlands.co.uk & www.leisuremarketingltd.co.uk’  © ETM & www.leisuremarketingltd.co.uk 2012.

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