Years of self-discipline and graft have paid off for the steely-eyed chef from Southport. He tells Mark Sansom about the importance of putting in the hard yards to reap rewards
‘Driven’ doesn’t do Marcus Wareing any justice. His blue eyes that lock on with the authority of a bear trap are the first clue that he’s a man of intensity. The second comes in the graft he has put in to get him where he is. The third comes from his schedule: 18-hour days and enough shoe leather burnt trotting between his restaurants – Marcus at The Berkeley in Mayfair, Tredwell’s in Covent Garden and The Gilbert Scott in King’s Cross – to reupholster all three, ten times over.
In person, he’s not the polished pro that you see on the BBC. Two minutes in his company reveals a North-West accent that’s as thick as the fog on the Mersey and a syntax punctuated by expletives that would make Auntie blush. He’s true to his roots and makes no bones about what made him the man he is. ‘Graft was at the core of everything we did growing up in Southport,’ he says. ‘My old man is the hardest-working bloke I’ve ever met. He would do 14-hour days and then get home for his lunch at 6pm on Sunday – the only meal we would have as a family.’
It’s not the idyllic dinner table tableau you hear from many chefs. ‘Dad wanted everything overcooked. The veg was cooked to fuck. Meat was incinerated. Mum was a decent baker but the rest was horrible.’
Ironically, the Wareings were at the heart of the North-West’s food scene. The family business bought and sold potatoes by the lorry load. They supplied restaurants, greengrocers and schools in the area. At lunch, the young Marcus would sit down to his father’s spuds and feel proud, though all he really wanted to do was be in his factory earning a crust. ‘I’d get in from school, throw my kit off and go to work sweeping, washing up, selling, having fun on the wagon, swearing with the workmen. I loved it,’ he says.
Aged 11 on the barrow, he was unwittingly starting his chef’s education. ‘I was learning principles such as food storage, reducing waste and quality control.’ From the day he was old enough to haul a sack, he’d planned to take over from his dad but aged 14, found it wasn’t to be. ‘I remember standing on the wagon and Dad said: “Marcus, the job’s done.” It stopped me dead.’ The early Eighties and Thatcherism saw the supermarket boom and large suppliers take over.
Chastened times for the family meant Wareing had to move fast. His brother Brian was a chef at the Scarisbrick Hotel. ‘If I can’t do Dad’s job, I’ll do my brother’s,’ he thought. If his logic wasn’t so basic, there’s a good chance Britain would have missed out on one of the best chefs of its generation. ‘It was an epiphany for me,’ he says. ‘I was only a buffet chef but I felt natural. My brother spotted I had potential and packed me off to catering college. It was the best two years of my life.’
He was spotted by a scout who had connections in London and was sent to work under Anton Edelmann at The Savoy faster than you can say ‘Merseyside derby’.
Cue more graft: ‘I came to this city on 4 July 1988. I’d never been to London and I hated it,’ he says with a wistful look across the beautifully styled mezzanine level of Tredwell’s. I venture that the city hasn’t been too bad to him since. ‘Oh no, it’s been good. It rewards hard work in any walk of life and I was ready to put it in.
‘Failure was at the back of my mind. There were times I could cry I was hurting so much. I was exhausted, missing home, hated London and my hands were septic from filleting fish. Every chef ran back home. I was never going to be one of them.’
Going straight from the factory to the kitchen, Wareing had no free time and no vices to spend his money on. He saved every penny, which proved handy for what was to come: ‘From the day I started work, I put everything into savings,’ he says. ‘Thanks to Thatcher, interest rates were at 13 per cent.’
Within six months he was heading up The Savoy’s fish section and moved to the then three-star Michelin Le Gavroche under Albert Roux. In 1992, he got a job offer from Gravetye Manor in Surrey, where he met his wife, Jane. Then things started to get really interesting.
He started with Gordon Ramsay in 1993 when they launched Aubergine. Though in 1996, after a stint in Paris, Wareing was given a kitchen of his own at L’Oranger in Mayfair. ‘l was at my most intense. I was full-on,’ he says with the same steely eye contact that I can imagine his line chefs receiving. ‘I wanted that star and would do anything to get it. I don’t think it was fun for anyone.’ But he got what he wanted. Seven months into his tenure and aged just 25 he was awarded the star he craved. However, it took its toll on him and his staff. Walk-outs became a regular occurrence. Something had to give. ‘I struggled like hell but I needed to take a long, hard look in the mirror,’ he says.
He vowed to take a step back – not easy for a 25-year- old chef full of testosterone – and it paid off. He progressed at a rate, avoiding any serious confrontation (or breakdown) and began his magnum opus, Petrus, in 1999. He kept his head down and created one of the best restaurants on the planet. Nearly ten years and two Michelin stars later, he needed his nest egg, after a disputed with Ramsay over autonomy led him to purchase the lease in November 2008.
He didn’t have time to bask in the glow of his first restaurant. Overnight, the financial crisis bit. ‘As I took the keys, I saw guys carrying out boxes from Lehman Brothers across the road. “What the hell have I done?” I thought. Corporate expense accounts were closed and takings went down by a third,’ he tells me.
Wareing is one of a rare breed of restaurateurs who have no financial backers. All the money that went into it was his own. ‘From that moment, nobody could breathe without my say. I knew profit and loss, I knew a balance sheet, I knew about margins. It was challenging but it was the beginning of the new restaurant scene. It meant good food and a reasonable price.’
Since 2008, we’ve seen a seismic shift in restaurants. The burger boom, barbecue explosion and ramen rumble have seen millions in mid-market food sales and the price of high-end dining has come down. ‘Everyone from burger bars to three-star Michelin changed their way of working,’ he says. ‘Margins came down; we thinned out staff. It made me look at who I employed and if I could afford it.’
Wareing has stark views on the kind of chef he employs. ‘I have a core of long-serving people ranging to 11 years. I create a productive place of work for people who are committed. Too many look to change jobs too quickly. If you’re prepared to leave after six months, what are you going to do for me?’
He employs 190 people across his three sites and a shining light of his structure is Chantelle Nicholson, who has just been rewarded with chef patron at Tredwell’s.
When I ask if the cheffing market is being infiltrated by a situation like agents in football clubs, it strikes a nerve: ‘A complete nobody calls you up and you bite that hook; are you bloody mad? You become a CV with no substance.’ One can only assume he’s had his fingers burnt. But as we finish our conversation, he gives a piece of advice that sits in any walk of life: ‘You can get a new job, buy a car, shoes, a holiday, but you can’t buy experience.’ From a man 30 years into a career with eyes like those, it’s impossible not to sit up and take notice.