Marc Wilkinson Chef Patron Restaurant Fraiche Oxton The Wirral

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th January 2011
Marc Wilkinson is the chef patron of Fraiche, a Michelin star winning restaurant in Oxton, The Wirral. It won a Michelin star in 2009 and has retained it ever since. Marc’s first job in the industry was at a restaurant in a three star hotel in Anglesey, North Wales when he was fifteen. A visit to a Michelin starred restaurant when he was eighteen opened his eyes to fine dining and as result he got a job at a French restaurant in Yorkshire. After this he spent two years at the Michelin starred Arkle restaurant at the Chestor Grosvenor hotel, followed by time at Winteringham Fields, Lincolnshire, which had two stars at the time. He also spent time in Canada, working at the five star Relais Cheteaux. He worked as head chef at the Latymer, in the Pennyhill Park hotel in Surrey, before opening Fraiche, his own restaurant, in 2004. Marc’s training gives his cooking a French classical basis, but his food is described as ‘Modern Cuisine’. He constantly strives to be original with his food and is highly influenced by the scientific approach to cooking introduced by people such as Hervé This, as well as his travels to famous cities such as Barcelona to try their restaurants. Marc, first and foremost thank you for your time today it's great to meet with you, perhaps we can start with an outline of Fraiche and your role? Fraiche has been open for six years ...we've survived! (Laughter)  Has it been a tough six years? The first year was incredibly tough - it was the opening, which I did single handedly and I would not recommend that to anyone.  Seriously, don't ever do it on your own. You look at it from a cooking point of view, and you think to yourself how difficult can it be? But suddenly you need to be an accountant, a licensee, a plumber and electrician all rolled into one.  I needed to do these roles, just to survive. How many covers can your serve at Fraiche, Marc? We can do sixteen, in one service. Sixteen Wow? Yes sixteen, doing sixteen nearly kills me though. Marc, is it just you in the kitchen on your own? Yes, when it comes to service I'm flying solo. This has meant that my food style has really had to change from when I was Head Chef at The Laytmer at Pennyhill Park, where I had a team of five chefs. I've had to stop playing around with food on plates simply because there isn't the time. If I'm plating up and faffing around then I'm not cooking, it's a simple that. Not name dropping, but when we interviewed Shaun Hill he said the same, when he was at The Merchant House in Ludlow - he had a domestic four ring burner. Yes, I saw his kitchen.  He built his whole menu around that right down to the number of pans, is that how you approach it? I think at first I fought against it and continued to look for geometry when I was plating up.  I wanted to continue the style that I had developed. It didn't last long, when you're working on your own it's impossible, I had to change the way I approached what I did, and how I plated it up.  Because I don't have staff, we use modern kitchen toys to help us, such as Water Baths. How are you using them to help, Marc? They extend the window of opportunity and reduce the margin of "buggering it up".  If I'm working in the pastry on a dessert, and have pigeon cooking in the oven and leave it two minutes too long it's going to be ruined - I lose six quid, but also I've completely buggered a table up and they have to wait. If I leave it in the water bath for two minutes too long, I know I can still serve it with confidence. Using the Planche has really helped me also, it's lowered the temperature in the kitchen by some three to four degrees and it gives a better environment - the fridges work better and this saves money. Marc, what were the goals when you set up the business?  You are one of the most passionate foodies that I know, so were you accolade driven? No, no, I was when I was younger, and I think, that is the key when you stop chasing accolades and start cooking what you believe in"¦ So you didn't open Fraiche with goal of achieving a star? No, I didn't.  Yes I have in the past, I've wanted stars; I've wanted rosettes; the Good Food Guide, I would get really upset "Why hadn't I got a star? Why hadn't I got this and that"¦." No doubt you had a smile when you got a star here at Fraiche though, Marc? Yes, it is all good, but it comes with a cost and added pressure. In what way? Well, it puts pressure on me to keep the star because, for me, if you lose it (The Star) it's game over and time to sell up. Has it added more value to the business Marc, has it increased the number of diners? Yes, it has, so there is a value to having it. Yes, it has increased our covers by around twenty percent. That's fantastic, well done. We've seen no increase through the AA guide"¦.  What about the Good Food Guide? The Good Food Guide probably brings more people through the door than anything else. Because it's a customer/consumer driven guide? Yes, it gives you something to read. I mean Michelin, I don't buy the Michelin Guide. Let's be honest , whilst it's the most recognised guide it's not really user friendly to read, is it? (Laughter) I read the Good Food Guide and the Harden's Guide, I don't read Michelin or the AA Guide, you know who has a star, and who doesn't. No, fair play. One thing the star has done, it has broadened our customer base - people come from further afield - London, Hull. When I decided to change my outlook on the guides, I removed all references to the guides from the restaurant. What do you mean Marc, you removed everything from the restaurant? There's no mention of any awards in the restaurant - in the windows; on the menus or the website. OK. There's no AA rosette plates on the walls. Are accolades prohibitive to business?  Do they discourage local trade for fear of the restaurant being too expensive? No, I removed them for me. I just woke up one morning and removed them.  I hoped that it would encourage people not to have a preconceived notion of what the restaurant would be; to give them a chance to make up their own minds. But we were seen as expensive even before the star, so that wasn't the reason. Marc, many people will know you from your time as Head Chef at The Laytmer Restaurant in Pennyhill Park, but since then, you've moved home, back to your native North-West. How difficult has the change been in terms of finding staff, sourcing suppliers and building a customer base? Some things are extremely hard, staffing is a complete nightmare, where do you pull them from in Liverpool.  In London there are a number of Michelin Star restaurants, and therefore a pool of staff. There's only really the Chester Grosvenor up here. How far is that from here, Marc? It's about a twenty minute drive. Marc, you mentioned that you've had to change and adapt your food style since opening Fraiche, if you had to pigeon hole your food style what name would best describe it. I don't know really......... It's fairly modern style, Marc, wouldn't you say? My food is modern, I'm not afraid to use modern cooking techniques, but equally I'm very happy to cook something that is braised along side something that is cooked in a water bath and vac packed. I'm certainly not saying that I only do modern gastronomy because I'm classically French trained. But everyone is classically trained, surely? Well yes, hopefully otherwise there is no structure; no foundation, and this is often the problem, when people start playing with foams and jellies - it's about technique and not flavour, which is totally wrong. But isn't there a real danger with Modern Gastronomy, Molecular, what ever the term that you wish to give it, that people look to Heston, who is a genius at what he does and has mastered his craft at the Fat Duck, and for people to think "I can do that?" And not do a very good job? Things get diluted and they start to become main stream.  We can see it happening - we stopped doing Chocolate Fondants a couple of years back, they just became too main stream, and started popping up in pubs, which is at the point we went "No, we are stopping them!" The same with Caviars sphereisfication and reverse sphereisfication, I mean if you're still doing Caviars, then it's time to stop and the reality is you're not that forward thinking. We don't do any emersion or blender foams anymore, in fact, we haven't for a couple of years now. I'm always looking for new ideas and want to keep pushing forward that is something that really drives me, and motivates me. Marc, where do you take inspiration? (Pierre) Gagnaire always, he just blows me away - always. So which of his restaurants would you consider to be the best? Paris, yes Paris,"¦when he's there.  OK. I enjoy El Bulli, I've eaten there a couple of time. Roca is my favourite in the world. El Celler de Can Roca, yes  - my favourite restaurant in the world.  The food is amazing, the whole package, the guys that run it are just so humble, for what they are  But for a mentor, then its Gagnaire , it blows me away, his palette, he's not technique safe. If you look at his food, it's all about flavour combinations and textural changes. For me, if you compare Gagnaire to Ramsay (Gordon), Gagnaire, keeps pushing, pushing, pushing and sometimes some of the tasting menus may not work. In the ten course Tasting menu, you may have nine courses that make you go WOW and one that won't work, but I would rather have that, than having something that whilst beautifully cooked, great ingredients, but is totally safe, no WOW and mental palette memory. You walk out of Gagnaire and your mind is going mad, WOW I never thought of putting Rabbit with that, this flavour with that - my mind is buzzing. Sweetbreads with that, my mind is jumping for about three days. You walk out of Royal Hospital Road, and the service has been great, the food very good, but I'm in the taxi and I can't remember, what I've had. Marc, you've been here six years, you refurbished the place, you did the plumbing, the wiring, you cook, you answer the phone, you wash up, you have one person that does front of house. You do sixteen covers, how can I put this without sounding blunt"¦.Umm"¦It's not the best business model ever is it?"¦Sorry! It's not (Laughter) It's really not easy to say that Marc, without it sounding like I'm having a go and I'm not. Every time that I talk to you, you are one of the most passionate food focused people that I know, you eat, sleep and breathe it. But what does the future hold for you, Marc?  Sadly as my Dad would say, I'm not money driven, I'm just not. No, that's fine Marc, but we all need money to survive, there's money driven, and there's making ends meet. No, I know and if I had a family, then I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now, I'd have to get a proper job, and Fraiche wouldn't exist. Marc, we are none of us getting any younger, and surely there must come a time, when you just won't want to do this on your own? No.  Never.  I mean what happens to Chefs as they get older?  Where do they all end up? Rehab?! (Laughter)  Yes rehab, or in a chefs office in a hotel, sat rocking in a chair"¦(Laughter) How could you generate more revenue -  is it rooms? a second operation? what is the plan?  It has to be a second operation, Fraiche can't make enough money. Are you actively hunting? Yes I am, rooms is the best options. There's huge profit in rooms. There is, after the initial investment. Yes, of course, but the daily turn round on a room is low compared to the price you can charge. Yes, and at the moment it's lost revenue, we are attracting people from further afield, who ask "Can we stay?" "Where can you recommend?", so we are losing revenue, and that's really frustrating, when you know that it would boost Fraiche's turnover. Or a second operation, that has to be a money driven operation rather than a passion driven operation. Which Fraiche obviously is? Yes, it is. Fraiche is my passion driven machine, when I speak with my accountant, he advises me not to get involved in it. They tell me that if it was a Pastry Shop then I'd want to make everything from fresh - import the best butter from France, start using Valrhona Chocolate and not make any money. Let's be honest Marc, Joe Public probably wouldn't even know that you're using 80% coco butter? No, they wouldn't and the prices that we'd have to charge would make it too expensive.  Most people round here simply want a pasty or a scone. That's why Greggs is doing so well"¦(Laughter) Marc, thank you very much for your time.  I wish you every success with Fraiche and any new venture that you may take on. Thank you!    

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th January 2011

Marc Wilkinson Chef Patron Restaurant Fraiche Oxton The Wirral