Chef features and interviews
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Mark Poynton, Alimentum, Cambridge
Mark Poynton, chef patron of the Alimentum restaurant, started his culinary career at 15 working part-time as a waiter in the Queen Hotel Chester. However, within six months he had quickly moved into the kitchen under executive chef Ian McDowall. He then worked for 18 months with Paul Kitching at the Juniper restaurant in Altrincham, followed by seven years with two Michelin-starred Daniel Clifford at Midsummer House in Cambridge. Mark then moved to Restaurant Alimentum becoming the head chef in 2009. A year later, he took over the business. Alimentum currently holds a Michelin star and three AA rosettes. Mark cooks seasonally, adjusting his menu as new produce becomes available.
Thank you very much, Mark for seeing us today. The first question I would like to ask is - How long have you been here in your current role?
My current role started on February 5th 2010, as Chef/Patron here Alimentum in Cambridge .And before that?
I was Head Chef from April 2009.
And what brought about the change, for you, from being Head Chef to becoming Chef/Patron?
I was invited to become Chef Patron by the new owners who came on board in February 2010. It was a great opportunity and the restaurant has gone from strength to strength since the changes took place. I'm delighted with how well the business is performing.
So has that changed the way you operate? Not as a business but you as a person? Do you look at things differently now?
No, not really because I always tried to run it as if Alimentum was my own restaurant, anyway. It does mean more now, if somebody breaks a something - it hurts me more!
(Laughter) It's more personal.
Yes, and it hurts the bank account more, but no I don't really run it any differently - the customer is the focus and we are committed to delivering seriously good food and seriously good value.
OK, Mark, what are the goals of the business? Commercially and accreditation wise?
Well, commercially - it's to continue on the profitable track we're on and not get complacent about quality, standards and value for money. As for awards - we would like as many as we can, naturally, but we are not going to chase them at the expense of commercial success. That is the main thing - if we don't make money we are not going to be a restaurant... and without the money we are never going to get any awards - so we have to remember that.
Has your focus changed? Are you more driven by the customer than the guides now you are Chef/Patron?
Well, I have always been customer driven, and seasonality driven and food driven anyway, so yes, it's always going to be about that. Especially from my background; I've worked in restaurants that don't make a great deal of money but have a lot of awards.
Mark, how would you describe your food style?
Seasonal; British produce cooked with love and care ... and attention to detail.
And how many menus do you run?
We run three menus at Alimentum: Pre-fix Menu, which is £16.50 for three courses; a la carte menu which is individually priced and a seven course Tasting Menu for £55.00.
OK. Since becoming Chef/Patron, what has been your biggest learning curve?
How to run a business. Nobody teaches you that. They don't teach you at collage and not a lot of Head Chefs will teach you how to work out percentages and staff costs and how much cleaning chemicals cost and stupid things like that. You just buy it without thinking, so that was a big thing for me and something to learn. I've been lucky in the sense that the new owners have provided a supportive and professional framework for me to develop these skills and gain the knowledge.
That is very true, a lot of Chefs become Head Chefs because they are good cooks and then they have to learn to run and manage a business - it's not an easy transition.
Yes, it's a massive thing. If someone could sit you down and say "You are a really good cook but you need to learn to manage the books", then more people might be better equipped to make that move.
What has been your greatest success within your role, let's say since you came here?
I want to say about the Good Food Guide!
Yes, well done 6/10 is an excellent score
Apart from this year's good food guide, for me, the biggest achievement is just keeping the business profitable and actually making money whilst still keeping customers happy.
What have you done differently, then? What's put you into credit?
We buy more responsibly; everything we do we look for the best price; we look at different suppliers.
......without changing the quality.
I have got to ask then, why were you not doing that before?
We've had to be sensible about the ethical considerations that were driving the business in the early days. The were commendable and you don't win an RSPCA Good Business Award just by paying lip service to animal welfare matters, but the procurement side of that was causing a real problem commercially.
You can't have an organic accreditation for everything and still hit a good GP with the affordable menu prices that we have. It's a difficult circle to square!
Buying a whole carcass or half a carcass, takes more time to prepare and you need more chefs, which means the wage bill goes up. We actually have a greater need to get more bums on seats and given our slightly out of centre location in Cambridge we have to market the value for money proposition and great food angle ahead of ethical consumerism..
What has been your biggest frustration since becoming Chef/Patron?
Educating leisure and business diners in Cambridge that dining at Alimentum is a fabulous experience - the food, the service, the cost: we are doing something totally different in the locality and when I hear about people paying similar or more for rubbish food in theme restaurants it is so disappointing to think we could have given them a much better experience for less. The foodies love us but we need to reach out to wider audiences and so we market the restaurant hard to achieve that. We're getting there!
OK, now as Chef/Patron, and even as Head Chef, how important is it, to you, having a good team in place?
It's vital, there is nothing more important than your team. Without a good team you're not going to send out good food; you're not going to give good service and your customers are not going to be happy; and you are not going to make money.
OK, and last, but by no means least ... you are now Chef/Patron; you have your name above the door - congratulations. Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
In 5 years - Alimentum in Cambridge will be very successful. We have some plans to take the brand into different formats too but I cannot say much about that now.
Plans to roll it out?
We would like to open maybe one or two more in similar sort of areas because we know this works. As soon as we start to see a profit, we can use this as a model.
Mark, you have been an absolute star. Thank you very much.