Marcus Wareing: The Great British ChefBy Tracey Llewellyn
“The kitchen’s the only place I’ve ever felt like I really belong. I love every minute of it – the heat, the pressure, the violence…” These are the words that Adam Jones – brilliantly played by Bradley Cooper – uses to explain his passion for cooking to Helene (Sienna Miller) in Burnt, the 2015 movie that follows the story of a disgraced chef as he tries to reassemble his former kitchen staff in an attempt to gain his third Michelin Star. And those words have a certain resonance for one chef that feels particularly close to this particular film.
In order to make the kitchen scenes in Burnt as realistic as possible, writer Steven Knight would visit two Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing – the genius behind Marcus at the Berkeley in Knightsbridge, The Gilbert Scott in St Pancras and Covent Garden’s Tredwell’s – with a list of questions. Although he also spoke to other chefs over the seven years the film took to create, it was Wareing that he came back to, Wareing who was allowed to read the script, and Wareing who was hired by director John Wells as a consultant.
As Cooper says: “There are no cooking doubles in Burnt. Everything you see in the movie, that’s actually us doing it. The people in the background are real cooks. Imagine, you have six actors in a real kitchen that is functioning around you and behind the monitor is Marcus Wareing, who created all the dishes and made us look believable. That’s a lot of pressure and, because of that, we all did a lot of homework to make it look real.”
So does Wareing feel invested in Burnt? “Of course,” he nods. “I was involved in every element of the food in it, from kitchen design and plates, to food and recipe writing – every single piece of food in that movie came from me. It was an absolutely amazing experience.”
And Wareing’s respect for the actors he worked with is immense, especially in their ability to look, absorb and reinterpret in their own vision. “I’ve got to say I’ve never seen a skill quite like it,” he says. “Because Bradley is the head chef, he actually didn’t need to do much cookery. He did a little bit, but his job was mostly plating, it was all those behind him, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy and so on that I had to really get looking like they were chefs.
“Because John Wells shot the film only with one camera, every scene was done over and over again and you could pinpoint things that were wrong. Bradley would make sure that he was looking at things in the right way, holding the spoon correctly – we even made sure that he pushed the food across the hot plate properly. Anyone can push a plate across a table but, when you’re a Michelin-starred chef, you make sure that the waiter knows how to carry the plates, how to place them. The details had to be right when the camera caught him. And, of course, Bradley got it right – he’s one of the best out there.”
Although aware of the eternal nature of film – “my children will grow up and will be able to say ‘my father was part of that movie’” – Wareing says that it was really just a welcome distraction to everyday life. “For me it was almost like the circus had come to town,” he laughs. “But my team and I realised that once the show was over, it would pack up and go on to the next village. So there was no point being star-struck, we had a job to do, and we had to do it right. Then we had to get on with our lives once the circus had buggered off.”
To The Kitchen Born
With a fruit and potato merchant for a father, and a brother who worked as a chef, Wareing’s early years were dominated by food and cooking. “My father was so particular and so precise with his produce and it just felt like the natural thing to do, to go into the kitchen, especially as that was what my big brother did,” he explains, adding: “There wasn’t much to watch on TV when I was young – we only had four channels after all – but there was a show called Take Six Cooks about six top chefs in London and I was hooked.”
After school, Wareing went to catering college in Southport where he was spotted by a lecturer from South Trafford College who was judging a competition. He happened to know the chef Anton Edelmann, he liked what he saw and that’s how Wareing ended up at the Savoy. And, although he has worked in America, France and the Netherlands, the majority of his working life since those early days has been in London.
“I met Gordon [Ramsay] when I was 19 years old in the kitchen at La Gavroche and then went to work for him at Aubergine when I was 23,” Wareing remembers. “And, as they say, the rest is history. At the age of 25 I became head chef at L’Oranger. Gordon and I both finished our restaurants at the same time and we became partners – he launched Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road and I launched Pétrus on St James’s Street. Five years later Pétrus moved to the Berkeley hotel. I ran it for 10 years and then Gordon and I had our split, and, at the age of 39, I was alone.”
Wareing credits sheer hard work with keeping him grounded and focused, plus a lack of mobile phones and social media in the late-1980s. “There was nothing, I might as well have been in a bubble just floating through life, nothing could penetrate that bubble, not my family, not my girlfriend [now wife], no one. It was just my job and no matter what came to burst my bubble I wouldn’t allow it.
“In the early days, I was so selfish, I was more important than anyone in my world and I felt I really just had one focus and that was to be the best. Right now I don’t care if I never get there – I probably never will; there are too many other more talented chefs than me. I have a wife and three children, I’ve got my property, I’ve got my three businesses, I have a TV career, I write cook books, so that’s quite a diverse life and that’s what makes it so exciting.”
A New Age
As we sit talking at the Marcus chef’s table, Wareing’s attention is never far from the kitchen beyond. I ask him if everyone is on best behaviour today as the atmosphere is unexpectedly cool and calm, a million miles from the explosive hellhole I expected. “You are thinking about the kitchens of yesterday,” he smiles. “In the past they were closed spaces and my contemporaries and I went through a lot to get where we are. Mark, my head chef is a little over 30 – 15 years my junior – and he won’t need to be the way I was to be successful, because kitchens have changed and so have customer and staff expectations.
“You hear a chef screaming and shouting today and I guarantee you 50 per cent of his team will disappear immediately. My current kitchens are quiet, but when I was running a kitchen at Chef Mark’s age, there was no talking at all, there was complete focus and if you fucked up you were screamed at. There were times when customers would come in to Pétrus and want violence, they would sit at my old chef’s table like they were at the cinema, staring at the kitchen waiting for it all to kick off. Then one day I stopped and asked: ‘Do they really want that? Because it’s not very nice.’ I would look at the person I was giving a hard time and see that it was becoming entertainment. I decided that I had to change.”
But despite changing his focus, his vision and his management skills, Wareing says that he still always get labelled as “Mr Nasty”, especially in his TV roles. “I had to judge The Great British Menu in 2015 with Tom Kerridge [owner of The Hand & Flowers gastropub in Marlowe] because he can’t eat fish,” says Wareing. “Afterwards I said: ‘Fucking hell Tom, they call me harsh but you’re as hard as nails.’ He said, ‘Marcus the difference between me and you is that I say it with a smile on my face, you don’t.’ You know what, he’s spot on – if you tell someone off with a big grin, it makes it better.”
And this is a lesson Wareing has carried into his latest TV role as a judge on MasterChef: The Professionals. “I love MasterChef,” he says smiling. “It’s the only cooking show I ever wanted to do – I didn’t want to stand in the kitchen, cooking in front of cameras, I wanted to critique, I wanted to judge, I wanted to guide and educate people. To be honest, I never really wanted to be on TV at all. I grew up with Gordon and that was his territory. I wanted to do what I was best at and for me that was running kitchens.
“So years later when MasterChef came into my life I was ready. I’ve learnt a lot being on that show – how to project myself, how to talk openly, how to explain my passion for food and I bring that right back into my restaurants, which is why the kitchen is as calm as it is. Plus it shows me as I am today – not unkind, but honest because I care and want to nurture and grow the young talented chefs on the programme.”
As the talk turns to timekeeping and how chefs today are rarely photographed without their watches, newly-appointed Omega ambassador Wareing remembers the days when he had to rely solely on a “cook’s virtual clock” in the kitchen. “We knew that at midday the curtain went up and when service began we were no longer on real time, we were cooking. Basically you have a five-minute window to get 15 to 20 chefs in sync. It’s not counting real time, it’s counting what the chicken’s doing or what the beef’s doing and if the chef says ‘four minutes on the pass’ but then says it’s another four minutes, everyone else has to sync to this – cooks live by this virtual clock. But about 10 years ago kitchens went timing mad and chefs really started to focus on timers, phones, clocks and watches – nearly every chef wears a good watch now.”
When I ask about his watch preferences, Wareing is clear: “I don’t like bling but there’s something about metal that I love. Leather straps, on the other hand, remind me of sitting in front of the fire with a pipe and a cognac and I’m not quite ready for that yet.” Interestingly he prefers mechanical timepieces to quartz as he finds them easier to maintain. “I mean who wants to change a battery? An automatic just continues going if you keep wearing it. Getting the battery changed for me is one of the most inconvenient things I could ever wish to do. Taking it to a watch shop is a waste of my time – I would never get those two hours back.”
The chef says that his only interest is in aesthetics and accuracy, leaving the mechanics to the professionals to worry about. “I know there’s a lot of skill involved but I don’t indulge in it. I like a watch that does one thing: tells me the time, I don’t need it to do anything more than that, I don’t look at the date on it, I just look at it moving – the small hand, big hand, that’s it, I don’t sit and study it, it’s an extension of me. When I choose a watch, it is not about value, it is about how it feels and whether I enjoy looking at it.”
But for someone who wears a watch for practical purposes only, Wareing has quite an impressive collection. Just counting the ones he talks about today: a TAG Heuer Kirium Automatic (“My first real watch was a TAG that I bought when I was about 25. I’d seen it on TV as a timekeeper for lots of cool events and I loved the solid metal look. I gave that one to my brother and upgraded to this one instead.”); two Breitlings – a Chronomat and a Superocean (“I got my first one in Heathrow airport and I bought it on the spot. I saw it and thought: ‘Fuck, I’ve got to have that.’ I’ve never done that in my life before”; a Rolex Cellini (“It was a 30th birthday present from my wife, Jane. I never expected it and I never went looking for it, it came to me.”); and his current wear watch – a beautiful Omega Speedmaster ’57 Co-axial Chronograph.
“I looked around one day and it was: ‘Shit I’ve got a collection’,” he says, feeling like he needs to explain his passion. “It’s quite rare for me, I don’t really collect things – apart from wine – but then it started to dawn on me that these are special things and one day I’m going to pass them down to my sons and daughter.
“This is my latest addition,” he says, looking at the Speedmaster on his wrist. “Tom Manger, the Marketing Manager for Omega UK, helped pick this one out for me and when I first put it on I just wanted to wear it. There’s something special about people getting it right and this watch will probably be worn all the way through my life. It is even more special to me because it wasn’t one of ten that I wanted – it was just this one. I kept looking at it, trying it on and it was only when I got home and woke up the next day put it on that I thought: ‘Yeah, I’ve got the watch I really want.’
“This may sound a little cheesy, but I really love James Bond. When I watch a Bond movie, I just disappear for two-and-a-half hours with this extraordinary, quintessentially British man – the car, the watch, the suit, that’s what Bond is and Omega is such a large part of that look. In Casino Royale, when he points out his Omega it is so cool, and that was what led me to the brand – boom, sold, brilliant! Watches for me represent a place and time in my life and at the minute that is Omega. There may well be another watch somewhere down the road, but all the ones I have now, I will have forever.”
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in Revolution UK8 (December 2015).