Interview: Marlon Abela (MARC) May 2010

Posted on: May 2nd, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

According to the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (MARC) website “the complete MARC portfolio will include fine dining, casual dining, suburban chic, retail boutiques, fine wines and management services”

With a young, dynamic and inspirational founder and leader MARC goes from strength to strength – a work in progress if you will. Already boasting flagship addresses to match any in London, MARC has expanded confidently into the east coast of America. More is to come.

Marlon Abela found time to talk to Simon Carter of fine-dining- guide at Morton’s Club, Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London. Interview took place during February 2010.

What aspects of your background inspired you to become a restaurateur?

I consider that I was born into a family of food. I had the bug for top end restaurants from the beginning. My father founded a catering business in 1948 that expanded throughout the globe. The business covered catering and high end hotels, which naturally led me to my passion for top end restaurants. Family life and business life were inherently linked therefore so much time was spent around food.

We lived in the south of France for a while and one of the hotels the company owned included a Michelin Two Star restaurant, so I was very lucky and privileged to grow up – from a pre-teen – visiting and eating in our restaurants with my father.

Naturally, I was encouraged to pursue this line of business as it would potentially play a larger role in my life in the future, so by my early teens I was looking at hotel plans for new ventures with my father and at the age of seventeen had taken a closer interest in the business on the catering side.

At home we also had a beautiful garden with fresh herbs and vegetables – tomatoes, French beans, courgettes, peaches and apricots – everything was grown there and was of the highest quality. Through my late teens and early twenties the top end restaurant bug had really taken hold and I must have visited every two and three Michelin Star restaurant in France and many in Italy.

So food and wine were always a passion and when the time came to sell the family business I had the opportunity to focus all my energies into creating MARC – a top end restaurant and wine company.

Tell us about MARC from the beginning?

Some six to seven years ago, we decided to make life very complicated for ourselves (smiling) by re-launching The Greenhouse restaurant and launching from scratch Umu and Morton’s Club – all within the space of four months!

These remain flagships of our group.

A fascinating aspect of dining today is that chefs from all over the world ask themselves the simple question about a dish they’ ve created: “does it work or not?” The amount of influences that have appeared across cultures, across geographical boundaries and around the world is quite amazing. Chefs can now experiment with combinations of ingredients that would never have been considered 20 years ago.

In France, let’s say, there’s Bocuse and Gagnaire that offer two extremes of French gastronomy but both will retain sound fundamentals in common. So long as these fundamentals are adhered to then the scope for all chefs in presenting new and exciting dishes with influences from all over the world are enormous. These are exciting times in the food world! Umu is very much like that. The food is often contemporary with international influences but it is based on fundamental Japanese techniques.

And there’s a natural marriage between top end restaurant food and top end wine?

Yes naturally. I have always had a very passionate interest in both the restaurants and the wine – sometimes you find people have a greater passion for one over the other but for me they are inherently connected. I may be more so on the wine than the typical restaurateur; indeed a stamp of quality of a MARC Restaurant will be the wine list: There must be an extraordinary wine list!

The Greenhouse is a perfect example. Whether it is somebody who wants to taste interesting but inexpensive wines that are perhaps hard to find or unique, or whether it is someone who wants to taste older vintages of great wines that may be hard to find with excellent provenance or again those who just try something that they like and think they may want to try something similar but a little better, there are upgrade paths – you can climb the ladder of wines – and before you know it, the restaurateur has developed a 3,300 bins wine list! (Laughing).

Umu again, the Japanese Kyoto influenced restaurant in London, has over 600 bins plus the largest selection of sake in Europe. The new (second) A Voce Italian restaurant in Manhattan has over 2000 bins and we just opened.

How would you describe or define the MARC Group restaurant philosophy?

How are Marc restaurants defined? – MARC aim is to be of the highest quality in whichever area of the market our restaurants exist. This encompasses many things. In the food for example, we demand the highest quality ingredients, to have the right chef, the right designer for the restaurant space, the right décor, the right service, to generate the right atmosphere and so on.

MARC is slightly different to chef-driven enterprises where, in many instances, the restaurant will revolve around the named chef.

With MARC, step one is the concept, which may for example be Kyoto influenced food in a restaurant space in Mayfair, London or authentic Italian food in a contemporary setting on Madison Avenue, New York. From this Umu and A Voce are born. The chef is of course critical to our success and is sought after (then trained and guided) very carefully, so too is the space, the designer, the service, the wines and so on: all of them carefully brought together to achieve a clearly designed concept.

MARC has seven restaurants that are highly individual but joined by the common denominator of high-end quality. They started without constraints and as a result of shared high quality standards they are delivering a growing expectation of the quality of the brand. This reflects too, in a shared great customer experience in any of our establishments around the world.

You will not find a MARC restaurant with the name of the chef above the door, although many of the chefs are garnering first class reputations from their work within the context of the Group and receiving recognition from some of the leading guides, magazines and reviewers.

What are your proudest professional achievements as a restaurateur?

Something I’m proud of is having maintained and improved highest quality standards across a group of restaurants. It would be no good to launch restaurant number eight if restaurant number one had started to suffer.

I’m also proud of the achievement of having opened restaurants across two continents in a relatively short period of time that all retain the sought after quality of the group.

We have a new venture coming up in September 2010 – a more informal Provencal bistro with 80 or 90 covers in Brompton Road, London. Hopefully in a year or so that too, will be one of my proudest achievements (smiling).