'There's a lot wrong in the industry, but I don't think there needs to be'

The  Staff Canteen

Oli Marlow did not arrive onto the set of Great British Menu 2021 unprepared.

The executive chef of Roganic and Aulis in both London and Hong Kong did his research, consulted his friends who had already been on the programme and accepted the input of his boss, Simon Rogan, and last year's main course winner, executive chef at L'Enclume and Rogan & Co, Tom Barnes

Quick-fire Q&A

If you were an edible item, so if you were the personification of an edible item, what would you be?

Probably just a really boring chocolate bar, a straight up Dairy Milk. Bland and delicious.

When you were a kid, what film did you watch to death? 

The Blues Brothers. I knew that I was way too young to watch it and I loved the action. It's a great film, the original of course. And it's got great music. I love music. I wasn't strictly allowed to watch it, my mum went out to do line dancing so I watched it at least once a month. 

If you had to choose between having to shave your head or your entire body and keep it shaved, which would you choose? 

Shave my head. I'm getting a receding hairline anyway so it's probably time I lose it anyway. 

Have you ever considered just disappearing from a job like you sometimes hear chefs do? 

I once served an oyster to someone who was allergic to shellfish. I just thought, 'I've got to go now' because I thought I was going to get the biggest bollocking. I think I got halfway down the stairs when I got called back. She could've died and I thought I was going to die as well. It wasn't a funny one. 

Who was your famous crush as a teenager?

Probably Emma Watson. 

If you had to lose one of your five senses? 

Probably my smell, I'd lose my smell. 

It would affect your taste though. 

Yeah, it's fine. When you say it. I don't want to lose my vision, I love listening to music and podcasts, taste, I'd be jobless. Taste, you can probably blag it for a little bit. 

Drink of choice

Gin and tonic with lots of elderflower cordial - if it's payday, Monkey 47, if I'm buying bottles of it, something simple like a Gordon's. 

"I'm lucky in that respect in that I know so many people who've done the show and who've given me advice," he said. 

"The guy who made my props, I used to work with at The Fat Duck, he's essentially a scientist and makes all of that sort of stuff happen."

Elaborate props or not, he didn't walk in expecting to win. 

"It is stressful when you go in there and see who you're up against," he said,  because they - Kim Ratcharoen, Tony Parkin and Ben Murphy - "are all really, really good cooks with very different styles."

Doing well meant the world though, he said, as he was aware that it could make or break his career.

"So many chefs have done it and opened restaurants on the back of it, or it fills your restaurant up. It opens a lot of doors that programme, whether people like it or not." 

And though the necessary (and often costly) glitz and glamour draw up some criticism among professional cooks, he said, "the chefs can see through all the gimmicks but the hundreds of thousands watching it, they want to see that element of fun. 

"You have to be open-minded about that as well and say, 'yeah, it's something I would normally never do,' but if you want to do well, you've just got to bite your tongue and do it." 

Whatever your thoughts on the show, it paid off for Oli; he beat the record for points from the veteran chef judge Paul Ainsworth and from the critics in the judge's chamber, beating both the big boss Simon Rogan and Tom Barnes.

Though they would never have let him live it down if he hadn't, he scoffed, it "was a miracle in itself." Another feather to his hat. 

But where did it all start for Oli? 

Chefs sometimes say they've always known they wanted to be chefs. But when Oli says always, he means it. 

"I was never interested in school," he said. "Never." 

"I liked moving around, doing stuff with my hands. I always loved food, all my childhood memories are about food. On my birthdays I worried about where we were going to eat, Christmas for me was what did you eat, not what presents did you have." 

He started work as a potwash and always knew he wanted to work in a kitchen later on. 

"That was crystal clear. I don't know how it's come about," though he suspects that the cooks in his family and his mother's proficiency in the kitchen had something to do with it.

In any case, he considers himself fortuitous that he found his way so intuitively.

"I was just super lucky that I knew," he said, lamenting  young people are asked to choose what they want to spend the next 50 years doing when they are just 15.

"How can you expect someone to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives? It's ludicrous."

And after fifteen years of working in the world's most prestigious kitchens, the executive chef of Aulis and Roganic in London and Hong Kong seems to have found his sweet spot, heading multiple kitchens around the world. 

He has no doubt that he has been shaped by his experiences, from the unwaveringly strict rigour at Eleven Madison Park to the calm quiet composure at The Fat Duck and the knowledge and craftsmanship at Noma. 

"Jonny Lake was very calm, he very very rarely lost his temper. Everything was always very thorough, there was never a random decision. I think that's very important for planning, business development and team building." 

Eleven Madison Park, he said, "is just unreal. The organisation, the planning, how everything is just immaculate. If it's not the best, he [Daniel Humm] will do it again.

"Sometimes that's demoralising when you think you're doing a good job," he said, "but to get to that level you have to be absolutely ruthless."

"For me, it's about finding a balance between all the places I've worked at and taking a little bit of this, a pinch of that, a sprinkling of this then making my own perfect environment." 

With Simon Rogan, he has found an environment in which to flourish and come into his own - not to mention that's it's a lot quieter than many of his previous jobs.

"I don't think I've ever been shouted at by Simon, which is actually a miracle because I've done some crazy s**t like setting the pasta machine on fire by leaving it on the induction, things like that. With him, it's like, 'you know what, it's fine,' but in other places I know for a fact that you'd be out of the door straight away."

A work in progress

Even among the world's most renowned, it takes time to forged a unique culinary style. Oli has an idea of were his might be going, but he's still getting there.

"It's very hard - I turn 31 this year - to say 'oh what's your style of cooking.' You don't really know because you've only worked for other chefs. I was in Scandinavia, where everything is raw and acidic, then you go to America and it's all big, rich, classic French flavours."

Within the Rogan restaurant group, "you're naturally going to be cooking farm to table British food. But I do like classic flavours.

"Imagine places like Belon in Hong Kong, which is almost like a brasserie-fine dining vibe, very fancy flavours done very simply. I think I'm heading towards that sort of style, but the longer I work for Simon, the more there's a chance that I get to show what I want to do and have my input." 

"Over the next few years, hopefully it will start to stand out more." 

Whatever the case, Oli feels he fits in as part of the Rogan empire, not only because he has the freedom of being a restaurant owner minus the strings, but because there are inherent characteristics of working for such a company that he wouldn't have access to elsewhere.

"The knowledge that people have is unreal, and tapping into their brains for ten minutes to ask them about certain things, all the life experience they've got that you can tap into."

Plus, he said, "working with friends as well is really important. People you actually like. It's so underestimated, how important that is."

"People say to me all the time, 'oh I hate my job,' and I'm like 'well why are you doing it then?'"

"That is such an important part of looking for a new career, firstly, am I going to enjoy it? Do I like this person who's going to teach me things? Is it worth it even if it pays me an extra £2,000? No? F**k it. Not worth it." 

'Special Delivery' Oli's main course and banquet dish
on Great British Menu 2021 - recipe here

Turning the page

As many have over the course of the past year, Oli has given some thought to what the industry's challenges are and what can be done to address them. 

Responding to a statement made by Clare Smyth, where she compared high-level cookery to being an athlete of sorts, he said: "100% it's like that. You get into work and you have a list longer than your arm of stuff that you have to get done everyday. You have to be so physically and mentally fit." 

"I've seen chefs being sacked because they're too fat. I'm not even joking, it's horrendous. You have to be physically fit or mentally know that 'I need to get this done,' or you're going to get shouted at. It's super challenging." 

"Why does it need to be like that? Nobody's ever told me and I don't know the answer. But why should we not be allowed to go in and take the time and make it nice?"

"You go to the hairdresser's and spend £40, you're buying their time for half an hour. There's no outgoings, they've bought their scissors. But you go to a restaurant and you eat three courses and £32 is too much." 

While he sees it as there being a lot wrong in the industry, "I don't think there needs to be. You should be able to be 50 and work in a bakery, it shouldn't have to be physically and mentally stressful. No-one's able to tell me why it has to be like that," he said, other than the fact that businesses have to run on a shoestring. 

"But why should it be stressful for cooks? I just don't know." 

Speaking to his own experience, he said: "I'm not a dreamer, it definitely helped me grow as a chef to put myself in situations where we were getting nailed every day.

"I've worked in Michelin star restaurants for 15 years and I've pretty much seen it all when it comes to the bollockings and you name it. Has it made me a better chef? 100%. Because unfortunately it's a sink or swim type of thing. But I'm one of the lucky ones that has swum. But the hundreds of chefs I've seen sacked or walk out, it's like, what are they doing now?" 

"It doesn't have to be like that. It worked for me, but it doesn't work for everyone." 

"To be an athlete you do need to put yourself under immense pressure - but not everyone needs to be a three Michelin star chef." 

What's next

Not short of ambition, Oli is still one of the rare chefs who openly says he doesn't care to open a place of his own.

"If I look at the bigger picture, I don't want to risk throwing this in the air to set up my own thing," he said.

"I'm happy to work for someone else. There aren't very many people in this country who have the sort of luxury to work on their own terms, to change the menu, hire people and design a restaurant how they want." 

"I love working with a good team," he said, "but I feel like I don't need to go out and find my own restaurant or find an investor. I don't want to be a famous chef, I like working for a big company and I feel like I get all of that off Simon."

Looking ahead, "we're hopefully going to do some different things, bakeries, restaurants abroad. Maybe being part of a successful business is more important to me than having my own restaurant and just enjoying it. As long as I'm enjoying my cooking and enjoying my work, I'm happy." 

"I don't need anything else. That's more important. I've got lots of other things to keep me busy on my days off, and I'm enjoying myself."

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th May 2021

'There's a lot wrong in the industry, but I don't think there needs to be'