Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The West Australian: December 2011

Photo: Stuart Scott

Making His Marque
From working on the mines of Western Australia to becoming one of the most feted and sought-after chefs in the country, Marque restaurant’s Mark Best has come a long way, baby.
Best was in Perth recently to promote his new cookbook ‘Marque: A Culinary Adventure’, where he took time out from his schedule for a chat about gold, submarines and grief. The book, his first, is a collaborative effort with Marque’s head chef of seven years, Pasi Petanen.
“I like writing,” says Best.
“I’ve written pieces and submitted articles for Gourmet Traveller and I’ve enjoyed the process of being interviewed over the years. So to actually sit down and put it into a cohesive and interesting package was a real process. You understand that chatting like we are now is very different to putting things into words, and writing 6,000-7,000 words is quite difficult. But once I got into it I actually found it a cathartic process. As I mention in the book, my sister was killed when she was seventeen. Long time ago now, but there were memories such as these that came up which made writing a very, very emotional experience. You have to really analyse things, and I loved that part of it.”
Marque has always been a favourite with the critics, and in recent years it has won a slew of accolades, including Gourmet Traveller’s Restaurant of the Year 2012 and listing 70th in S Pellegrino’s World’s 100 Best Restaurants, arguably making Marque one of Australia’s most illustrious and important restaurants. And after twelve years in the game, it was high time to put pen to paper.
“I think it was about building up a body of work that you could write about,” says Best.
“In 2010 I was really gagging to write a book, but it took Hardie Grant (the book’s publisher) to have the balls to say ‘just do whatever you want and we’ll provide the resources’. Before that, everyone wanted to change what we wanted to do, to dumb down the recipes or make them home-style recipes, which I didn’t want to do. To say a keen home cook can make the recipes when it takes seven of us days to produce a recipe is silly. So the recipes are quantified as working recipes from Marque restaurant, and you can take what you want out of that. People will be able to glean lots from it, particularly about the process of cooking at Marque.”
Things weren’t always so rosy for the self-confessed late-bloomer. Back in the 80s Best was not a particularly happy camper. After re-locating West with his family from the lush farming fields of Murray Bridge in South Australia to the somewhat harsher climes of Norseman, he began the hard slog as an electrical apprentice on the North-West gold mines.
“Sparkies are considered the intellectual trade,” says Best with a wry laugh.
“Working on the mines was hard graft back then, and it was a very basic apprentice wage. I remember spending most of my wage at the pub every fortnight because that’s what everybody else did.”
With feet itching, Best moved to Sydney to re-fit submarines on Cockatoo Island for the Australian military. But still something was amiss, and it was during a stint working at a friend’s restaurant at the ripe age of twenty-five that Best finally found his calling.
“It really struck a chord with me,” he says.
“I mean, people see me as some sort of life-change guru, but it was reasonably haphazard with a bit of design. I sort of got pushed towards cooking and found I had an aptitude for it. And I loved the whole French thing.”
By this stage Best had already met his future wife Valerie and a whirlwind romance ensued. The pair decided to make a go of hospitality and opened a modern French eatery. But despite the restaurant enjoying early critical success, Best felt frustrated by his lack of culinary knowledge and went to work in France. He worked at the legendary ‘L’Arp├ęge’ in Paris, followed by a stint at ‘Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons’ in the UK. On his return he and Valerie opened Marque, and the rest is hospitality folklore.
“We are coming into our thirteenth year at Marque now,” says Best.
“And the difference from when we first opened is like night and day. At first you’re your own boss with immature talent, so you start emulating your heroes and gradually, if you’re lucky, you are able to start to define your own style and create a language with what you do. I think we hit our straps in 2004-05 – that was when things started happening. We started to win accolades and we were able to get more staff and became busier. There was a momentum, and we were able to create something unique.”
‘Marque: A Culinary Adventure’ by Hardie Grant is available bookstores now, RRP$79.95.
Marque Restaurant is at 4/5 355 Crown Street, Surry Hills in Sydney.
Mark Best’s new eatery, Pei Modern, will open in Melbourne in February 2012.