The man who transformed Claridge’s: Mario Lesnik

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th June 2014
It’s a sunny day on the beach, the kind of day you only seem to get a handful of a year these days – clear blue skies, the smell of hot tarmac from the promenade and the sound of people having fun. Beside me a line of people queue for ice creams at a snack hut attached to a modest-looking eatery called ‘Bistro on the Beach’. The man serving the cones looks to be in his sixties but with a slim frame, a cheeky smile and a mischievous intelligence in his eyes that belies his age. He could be the archetypal jolly ice cream man. But he isn’t. He is Mario Lesnik, former Maitre Chef de Cuisine at Harrods and Claridge’s and something of an industry legend. So why is he serving ice creams to teenagers on a beach in Southbourne, a sleepy suburb of Bournemouth? That’s what I’m here to find out. Once Mario has finished serving his customers we sit down on one of the tables that line the outside of the bistro and eat New Forest ice cream. Mario has the pleasantly lined face of Mediterranean types who have spent much of their lives in the sun. This presumably is because he comes from Slovenia, not because of his time in Southbourne. He speaks English fluently with an Eastern European accent that slips occasionally into sounding like French. He gestures at the red brick edifice of the bistro behind us. He would like to put up an awning across the front he tells me but it would cost £25,000, money he doesn’t want to spend. It becomes clear almost immediately that he has a bit of a love / hate relationship with the building. It is indeed surprisingly ugly, looking almost like a council building which, I soon discover, is because it is a council building – Mario leases it from Bournemouth Borough Council who still own the bricks and mortar hence his reluctance to spend money on it. As Mario continues to list the problems with the bistro’s outward appearance, I begin to wonder if the love / hate relationship doesn’t lean more towards the hate end of the spectrum. Bistro on the beachThe Bistro on the Beach is in fact a “café-bistro” combining a daytime beachside café offering with a more upmarket table service bistro. In the evenings the day time operation switches to a smart-casual candle lit dining venue, offering contemporary British and Mediterranean Cuisine. I have a quick glance at the menu displayed on the wall behind me. There are bistro classics like Caesar salad, pan-roasted duck breast and minute steak but there are also fish and chips, nachos and jacket potatoes with baked beans or tuna. The menu seems to sum up the spilt personality of the place – one with its head in the clouds of top class cuisine and the other dragged firmly down to earth by accidents of position, place and clientele; a chef who wants to serve great food to discerning customers and a building that wants to serve fish and chips to people who… well… who want fish and chips.  Again the question arises – why? The answer arrives via a whistle-stop tour of Mario’s career. Born in Jeruzalem (yes, that’s right) in Slovenia, Mario, or Marjan, came from a culinary family. His parents ran a restaurant in Slovenske Konjice; his mother came from a line of great cooks and his father was a wine-growing expert. As often in such families, Mario didn’t want to be a chef. He first wanted to be a chimney sweep then the captain of an ocean liner. He enrolled into a training academy for seamen but soon dropped out because of poor eyesight. His true calling only became apparent when helping out with the food for his grandmother’s 70th birthday. During the birthday speeches his father mentioned that young Mario had found his calling in the kitchen and the idea seemed to stick.wed-recept-canapes20-11-10-001 After a four-year apprenticeship and a brief stint in the army, Mario’s career took him to Vienna then Germany then the Channel Islands where he met his wife, and finally London, where he started working in the Hilton, Park Lane. After a year he moved to the Connaught where he worked under the legendary Michel Bourdin working his way up to senior sous chef in his seven years there from 1976 to 1983. It was then that his career really took off with his move to Claridge’s as Maitre Chef de Cuisine. Mario was still young blood at 32, and was tasked with sweeping out the cobwebs, a job he took with “open arms but also trepidation”. He was given a colossal £5M budget to physically renovate the food operation but also had the unenviable task of convincing a largely older and more experienced brigade of chefs to follow a newer, more modern vision for the future. “Out of about 120 chefs, 40 to 45 of them were within a year or two of retirement,” says Mario, “and old enough to be my father.” It was a tough assignment but one that he was up for. Within a year he had steered an ageing ship onto a new course. It was a ship he would continue to steer for the next 12 years until the attraction of a new challenge finally lured him away – the position of Maitre Chef de Cusine at Harrods under its new and ambitious owner, Mohammed Al Fayed. bistro_taway“Al Fayed was making massive changes at Harrods,” says Mario. “There were four restaurants and when I finished they had twelve and another four on the way.” But it didn’t last long. Al Fayed, who Mario describes as a “persuasive man who would put his money where his mouth is” started acting strangely. He wanted Mario to act as a kind of internal spy reporting on the actions of other key players. When Mario refused Al Fayed began making demands on him that weren’t exactly within the job description, including things like medical tests of a personal nature. Again Mario refused and after just eight months he left the company. This was 1996 and for the next decade he acted as a consultant, travelling around the world working with the likes of Greek shipping magnates and hotel owners, the owner of lingerie company Victoria’s Secret and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen on his super yacht, Octopus. After more than a decade he decided to call it a day and return to the UK and, finally, a little known Bistro on the Beach of a little known seaside suburb on the south coast of England. “I didn’t need a lot of persuading to take it on.” He says about the bistro. “Probably if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have jumped into it quite so quickly.” Mario tried to disentangle the running of the restaurant from Bournemouth Council; he managed to get a 15 year lease after asking for 25, for which he paid a sum he now considers, “a bit too generous”. A lot of Mario’s conversation is devoted to complaining about this building that seems to hang around his neck like an albatross (or maybe a seagull) – customers who want to come into a table service restaurant half naked and sweaty from the beach, the exorbitant cost of renovations, the less than salubrious workings of local government, the difficulty of finding the right quality chefs to do the food he wants to achieve, the vicissitudes of the weather. “I feel no easier or less busy than when I was running Claridge’s with 120 chefs and 300 staff,” he says at one point. However the more you listen to him, the more you begin to change your mind about the love / hate ratio, with the scales tipping back towards love. The restaurant, you feel, is like an old partner; it might annoy him sometimes but he basically couldn’t do without it.bbb-daytimefromabove-049 Perhaps Mario was able to put the annoyances into perspective when, on 6th July 2011 his head chef the “gentle giant” Glynn Helliwell was stabbed to death. “He was an old-fashioned gentleman,” says Mario. “He left the pub one night and two young lads stabbed him in the back. All they took was his mobile phone; that’s how they got caught; they went to the shop to hand it in the next morning for a tenner.” Mario is now 65 years old with two sons, one of whom, Oliver, is a very successful chef in his own right heading up the dining operation at L’ Escargot in London. So does he see himself spending the rest of his days settled by the beach with this long-term partner of a building? Mario considers the question for a while, looking out across the hot sand and the blue sea stretching out to the horizon. “For a little while yet, for as long as I feel strong and enthusiastic and we have a few good seasons.” Looking at the glint behind his eyes I think that will be a few more seasons yet and a few more services in the beachside bistro that occasionally annoys him but mostly he couldn’t do without.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th June 2014

The man who transformed Claridge’s: Mario Lesnik