Last of the Crusaders
Published on Nov 5 2012 11:11 AM in Features
Marcus Wareing is a man with a strong sense of mission. A mission to teach - both skills and respect – to the younger generation, and a mission to manage his own kitchen, Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, to the point where he has a life outside it. From his days as Gordon Ramsay’s protégé to the winning of a second Michelin star, Wareing has grown and developed into one of the abiding forces of the British hospitality industry. Emily Hourican met him.
Marcus Wareing has the face of a medieval monk; the high forehead, sensitive features, and blazing blue eyes. He has a similar sense of inherent right and wrong, and a burning desire to be a force for good in the lives of young people – although not necessarily in a way that they will initially understand. “I get very annoyed at kids, young boys and girls, who come into my office at the age of 18 or 19 and give me some bullshit opinion of where they think they should be,” he tells me, with restrained annoyance. “Social media is destroying a generation. These kids are too savvy, they know more than they need to know. But they have no common sense. My ethos is, come and learn a trade in order to grow into something really good and blossom.. But that takes time. And commitment. I never fear talent. You can take the iPad off the pass, for example, and take it home with you, but it won't make you successful. I dont care what you take from me – my recipes, whatever - it's about growth. If you're good enough, come and take it.” Its a theme he returns to several times during the interview – the sense of entitlement and lack of work ethic that is ruining young people – and seems willing to be as hard on his own children (he has three, aged 10, 7 and 4, with wife Jane) as he is on other peoples'.
We meet at Gravetye Manor, in Sussex, where Marcus worked as second chef for a time, where he met Jane, who was working on reception, and where the couple spent their wedding night. He is due at the opera later on, meaning that he has taken a rare day away from his eponymous restaurant, Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley. Which is a bit of a mouthful, but a mouthful Wareing is justly very proud of. Initially, Wareing worked in the restaurant when it was Petrus, and was part of Gordon Ramsay Holdings. Originating in St James Street in 1999, Petrus moved to the Berkeley in 2003, and in 2008, after some fairly bitter and public wrangling between Ramsay and Wareing, Wareing took over with his own restaurant, in which he won two Michelin stars, while Petrus moved around the corner to Kinnerton Street in Knightsbridge. It all sounds very complicated to us, but in the world of the celebrity chef, such shennanigans are fairly run-of-the-mill.
There is no doubt Wareing has given an enormous amount of his life to achieving the kind of success that is encapsulated in two Michelin stars and his own name above the door of one of the world's most prestigious hotel dining rooms. Such success comes, naturally, at a price. “It takes a long time to make a balance. My ethos, ever since I put on a chef's jacket, at the age of 15, has been all about that jacket. I'm very selfish in that sense, I wouldn't deny it. I built my family life around my job – our dating time, courting time. It was all about food for me, I couldn't care less about anything else at the age of 19, 20, 21. I was young.” With a different partner, such single-mindedness may not have worked, but Wareing is lucky to have fallen for someone who understands his particular type of drive. It wasn't chance, however. “One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from my father, who said, 'if you get married, marry someone who understands your trade, who has worked in your industry.' My father was a fruit and potato merchant. He had a wife, my mother, who never really understood his job, and that made his job even harder. He was a workaholic, he worked seven days a week. Those were his words of wisdom to me.” Happily, in Jane, Wareing seems to have found someone who not only understands his drive, but contributes greatly to his success. “These days, though, I do care,” he says. “My wife and my family are a massive part of my life and of where I am today. We've worked together so hard, our children have been brought up around our careers.”
The very fact that he is sitting in Gravetye on a Tuesday afternoon, rather than working in the kitchen at the Berkeley, is proof that his attitude has mellowed somewhat. “I'm getting a little bit older – I'm 42 – and one of the things I've been dedicated to was my kitchen, my job, my business. I've given my whole life to building great people around me. That's why I can be sitting here today. Because I have the best team around me. I first became a head chef at the age of 25, and it has taken me until now to be able to do that. Even so,” he admits, “my wife has to bend my arm to get me to do this. Its been in the diary for nearly a year now.” Does he worry that clients of the restaurant will feel short-changed not to find him behind the stove, as it were? “Customers expect me to be there,” he agrees. “And 99% of the time, I am there. I've taught my team to be totally transparent and honest. If my customers arrive in my restaurant and I'm not there, staff will tell them I'm away. Never lie to the client, is my ethos. And if the customers are disappointed, I'll have to try and make it up to them in some way. Disappointed is a lot better than feeling lied to though.”
However, that said, he is adamant that his absence makes no difference to the quality of what Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley offers. “There's only one thing missing from the restaurant today – and that's me. Everything else is the exact same. The food doesn't taste any worse or any better. I put a huge amount of management into my kitchen. I have an executive chef, a head chef, a sous chef, a junior sous chef and I have a pastry chef. There are five managers in that kitchen, for a restaurant that only seats 60 people, and that only does 100 covers a day. That's a serious amount of management, but I have managed the business to be able to afford that.” Ultimately, he insists, “The customers don't come to the Berkeley for me, they come for the level of expectation. I want the customer to come for the whole experience, not just for me. I don't schmooze round the room, I don't walk the floors and greet the tables. If they want to see me, they can come into the kitchen and say hello. I've lived with the celebrity chef. I've watched customers in awe of the celebrity chef, and I've watched customers go, 'oh. He's not here... That's ruined our meal. We really wanted to meet Gordon Ramsay, we thought it was part of the deal...'”
This is not a trap Wareing wants to fall into. “Its not a good feeling if someone thinks they own you. Right now, I'm 42. At the age of 52, you wont go to my restaurant and expect me to stand there every day. I have a plan, I want to see my children grow up, watch them on the rugby pitch. I want to guide them, I want them to feel a sense of me.”
The flip side of this insistence that he doesn't want to be a God in his own restaurant, is a belief – not all that common among chefs at the highest end – that the customer is always right. “Its their money,” he says. “If they want tomato ketchup, they can have it. If I ever get three stars, I'll be the same. The customer just wants their food. If they want salt, or ketchup, or something well-done, I'd do it. If I stand there and go, 'f**k this, I'm Marcus Wareing, tell that customer to f**k of...' Well, that's what we used to do. And wow, you so can not do that anymore.”
So how much actual cooking does he still do? “Every day. One of the things I believe in is, you must wake up today and realise what you're good at. Be successful at what you're good at doing. My best attribute is being in the kitchen, wearing a chef's jacket and a blue apron. So what I need to do is surround myself with people who are good at all the other things – marketing, accounting, running the office – which my wife does. I grew the company through great people who work for me. Although I tap into a lot of emails, I don't contribute to a lot of business emails. I contribute to business decisions, decisions that I know are crucial. As for the rest, I let everyone else do their own thing.” It is a hands-off technique that, he says, he learned “from the master”. By which he means Gordon Ramsay. “No matter what I say about him, he is a master at allowing people to do what they are good at, express themselves. I wouldn't be sitting here today like this without his ability to allow me to be free.”
Its an interesting tribute to the man who was his mentor, his best friend, best man at his wedding, but to whom he hasn't spoken for about five years. Did he feel any twinge of sympathy for his former patron durning Ramsay's recent trials, I wonder? “No, actually. Gordon himself has never failed. I can guarantee you one thing, Gordon won't be sitting at home thinking he's failed in life. He couldn't care less what people necessarily think of him. He's achieved a hell of a lot. Three stars from Michelin, created some of the best restaurants in the country, created some of the best chefs in the country who have gone on to be their own bosses in their own companies. He's still got the company he built and is now 100% owner of his own company. He's a TV chef in the UK, he's even bigger on Fox TV in the States, has property in the UK and States, he doesn't fly anything except business class or first class, he's incredibly wealthy, he's sold a lot of books over the years, so let's not kid ourselves ... he doesn't worry. Trust me, I know the man better than anyone.”
Okay, so does he regret in any way the falling-out between them? “We were friends. Best mates. He was my best man at my wedding. We've had some great times together, but we needed to be separate. He needed to move on, was already moving on. I needed to make the break, I needed to be the person who cut the umbilical cord. And God, I love being my own boss. I love not being in the shadow of Gordon Ramsay, but I admire the man for what he has achieved. He's not slowing down for anybody. And neither am I.” And no, he says, there is no communication between them. “We had the most amazing roller-coaster ride together, and I have the most amazing memories. I wouldn't swap that for anything. The most fantastic times – fun, laughter, tears, blood, sweat, hard graft, wondering, questioning... it was special.” It seems almost like a version of 'each man kills the thing he loves;” or, perhaps even more elementally than that, a modern, human, version of the old wolf pack mentality, whereby the young challenger must take on and defeat the old leader. Except that Ramsay and Wareing in the end resolved to go their separate ways rather than fight to the death.
During his career, Wareing has been instrumental in championing young talent, including Angela Hartnett, to whom he gave her first job. It is an aspect of his role that he takes very seriously, but that clearly causes him severe irritation at times. “Young people today, young workers of today, they haven't got a clue about where they think they are, and where they're going. Today may be a different time, but we're not old fashioned, and we're not behind the times. I sometimes feel sorry for the youth of today, in the way they approach their thought processes and where they think they should be in life. They believe that life owes them a favour. They're dreamers.” He blames the parents - “Mums and dads have to be responsible for their children. They brought them into the world, and they need to feel responsible for the way those children think” – and it isn't a responsibility he shirks in his own life, telling a story about his 10-year-old son at school speech day recently, as illustration. “My son is lucky enough to be at a great private school. I work incredibly hard to put him there, but what I can't buy him is success, no matter how much money I have. He has to earn it. Yesterday he stood up and picked up an award for all-round sports achiever. His prize was for being a humble all-rounder, who made a massive effort, was involved in everything, cared for people, thought about other people. That one trophy is the one that shows him, effort means everything.” It is, Wareing believes, justification of the effort he has put in over the years, to ensure his son doesn't develop the kind of entitled attitude that so annoys him in other kids.
“All the crap I've given him over the years – standing on the sidelines of the pitch, pulling him off the pitch, whatever. This is what its for.” Ah, I say, you're that father. The one who roars from the sidelines rather than let the coach deal with it? “Yes,” he says proudly, “I am that father. Why should I leave my son in the hands of a referee or a coach that I don't think is correct? I'm double the age of those coaches. When my son or his team mates start mouthing it off and the coach doesn't do anything about it, then I, as a father, will drag him off that football pitch.”
And then, quite suddenly, Wareing switches into angry mode, giving me the benefit of the kind of dressing-down he doles out to cocky youngsters: “I don't give a shit who you think you are. What you're not going to do is represent what you see on telly. You're going to be humble. Let your feet do the talking. Like a cook, let your food do the talking.”
Does he believe that generally, that hard work is more important than genius? “I do. The genius who is erratic, rude, difficult... no. I have one in my kitchen at the moment. He drives me insane. I smack him hard, I smash him hard. I won't break him, because his arrogance is far greater than his talent. I'll take him as far as I need to take him, if he fails, it's not my problem. He's not going to become a problem child for me. Either you take on board what I'm saying, or f**k you, I couldn't care less. I'd rather work with someone with less talent, who puts in more effort, has more humility, than the natural talent. I can turn the other person around. I can't turn arrogance around. Experience is what you need. It counts for everything. Living, learning, failing, teaches you an enormous amount.”
The kind of learning curve that Wareing himself has been on has taken in a considerable quantity of hard knocks. "I was part of a generation that was treated that way, and I also treated people that way. When I opened Petrus in St James's street 14 years ago, I was a 27 year old. I never had management experience, I didn't know how to talk to people, I certainly didn't know how to manage them, so I attacked them with aggression." However, through experience he has learned that there is another way. A better way. "Slowly but surely you start to wonder, 'Why is no one staying? Why are my staff leaving all the time?' And one day you look in the mirror and say 'The problem is me. I need to change.' The problem, he insists, is always oneself. "I have built this serious kitchen of discipline. There is no conversation in my kitchen, no idle chit-chat, its very military. I am very, very disciplined with my team, but there's no one more disciplined than me on me. You have to lead by example."
And suddenly, he gets cross again. “These guys around me, boys and girls, are practically kids. There’s a very fine line with me between right and wrong, respect and disrespect. You go on the disrespect road, and you will see a lunatic come out of me, who is uncontrollable. He’s a very unusual character. But I will go nose to nose with you while you’re in my house – you’re working with my produce, in my business. You think you know better, even though I’ve shown you the right way? I don’t give a s**t where you’ve come from, or what your CV says, and I don’t care what you think is right or wrong. You’re going to do it this way, whether you like it or not, and if you don’t like it, I suggest you take your knives and you get out of my house right now. That is the only approach. I’m not looking for an opinion. I’m not looking for their guidance. I’m not looking for their help. All I’m looking for is for them to do their job the way I tell them.” Presumably the “lunatic” that Wareing describes as being inside him is even more alarming than this kind of proxy dressing-down, in which case, I have no doubt whatsoever that he is perfectly terrifying.
As well as his eponymous restaurant, Wareing is involved with the Gilbert Scott at the St Pancreas Renaissance Hotel, although he is careful to explain that this involvement is limited. “I have one name, it sits on one door. In the days of the noughties, pre recession, you could put your name on lots of doors and customers would go to all of them and were happy to spend money, because they had it. Today, since 2008, people sit back and think, 'woah... I'm going to be careful how I spend, I want to have value.' So my ethos, and it has worked very well for me since I took over my business in 2008, is to have one name on one door. I spend 95% of my time at the Berkeley. It's where I base myself, where my real baby is, the place that represents me as a person. The Gilbert Scott is an offspring of my desire to expand, my desire to see my team take a piece of the action, enjoy a piece of the cake that we create together; to see young people grow in business with my guidance. The Gilbert Scott is based on people who have given sacrifice to the cause, the kitchen of Marcus Waering at the Berkeley. So I don't cook there, I don't spend regular time there. I've never claimed to. My involvement is via the guidance of it. I can't be in two places, why would I want to kid you?”
As for the future, he has no interest in the traditional path of the celebrity chef. “TV series, endorsements and so on? No. My plan is a business plan. My two biggest role models are Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, neither of whom are chefs. They're front-of-house men, quintessentially the best restauranteurs in the land, who have created the Caprice, the Ivy, the Wolseley, the Delaney, Zidel... What I like is that they get it right. They get the front-of-house right, the client recognition. Everyone is treated equally, celebrities are recognised when they walk in, but so are mums and dads coming for a celebration and they've been the year before. There is this amazing all-roundness, it's about more than just the chef. I think the future of restaurants is about more than the ego of the man in the chef jacket. I'm being very hard on my craft as a chef, but the chef isn't always king. He or she needs to get down off a pedestal and realise that restaurants are about more than just food. I think people's expectations have changed. People are expecting more.”
This feeds right back into his on-going bugbear about the expectations of young people - “Food is rock and roll these days. Chefs are on TV, writing cook books, doing demonstrations. Young people see that, and they don't see the craft. Its very dangerous. Because that celebrity is not the reality for the vast majority, and it is the wrong reason to go into anything.”
And yet, he has no trouble understanding the allure of the trade for young people today - "Once you become a chef the world's your oyster. You can travel the world with this job. You have skills that you bring with you, that transcend language" - and, unlike so many chefs, he actively would like his children to follow in his footsteps. "Yes, I want them to go into catering. What a great industry! In catering you can be what you want to be, express yourself, be your own boss. There's a huge amount of wealth in it if you want to work for it. Competition is tough, but wow..!"