Mark Best: Why I’m closing Marque
Author: Interview by Pat Nourse
Photography: Petrina Tinslay, Styling Geraldine Munoz
Why close Marque now? Seventeen years is enough, I think. I like the craft of restaurants and I like the art of it, and I like the customers. (Generally.) But when you've spent most of that time pushing against current trends, it's tiring. I've come to the point where I'm happy to move on. I'm 50 years old and I've got a lot left to achieve and I don't want to repeat myself. I can honestly say that looking back over 17 years at Marque, I've stuck to my guns.
My approach at Marque has never been a good business model, certainly. I've said that 50 per cent of the diners think I'm a genius and 50 per cent think I'm an idiot, and I think that's a good place to be, but it's a bit of a reductive position.
But, then again, I enjoy that space. I enjoy my version of what Australian food is, and I don't like to be defined by anyone or pushed into corners. I like to do my own thing. It's a hard thing to measure until you can look back on your body of work, but when I look back now on a body of unique dishes, I'm proud of them. They're mine. They hold up.
Marque was meant to be a much simpler place than it was. I got ahead of myself with the design of the place. I had a bit too much money and the architect was a little bit too clever and then suddenly I had to retrofit a menu to fit the design of the restaurant. If I'd opened with bentwoods and bare tables I might've cooked differently. I also credit my tiny shoebox of a kitchen with my success. We made do, and the ideas that I had needed to be sharp. We had nowhere to hide, so they had to be good, and that's how our aesthetic there developed.
I'm proud of our accomplishments, of being Restaurant of the Year, of being part of the World's 50 Best restaurants - meeting so many like-minded, idealistic people from around the world was very comforting. Being able to travel the world cooking has been enormously gratifying, too.
But the thing I'm most proud of is the talent we've had through the doors. They're too numerous to mention here, but among them I'm very proud to have worked with Pasi Petänen, Brent Savage, Nick Hildebrandt, Daniel Puskas, Hong and Pepperell, Karl Firla, Victor Liong, Joachim Borenius, Lorenzo Cogo, Alex Munoz, Adam Wolfers, Lauren Eldridge, Jacob Davey, Chris Boersma, Mette Brink Søberg and Nobu Lee, and I'm really excited about what they're doing and will go on to do.
I'm not sure what made Marque an attractive place for ambitious young people in the restaurant trade, but we taught many of these people to cook. We took them on as young people who had been in very good larger kitchens, but working in very specialised roles, and we rounded them out. When I was a kid in the country in South Australia we'd occasionally find a chicken that had blown off the truck on the way from the battery farm, and you'd have to try to teach them to be a chicken again. We'd have to drag them out from hiding under the coop, put their head in the water, pour some grain down their throats. Eventually they'd get the use of their legs back. Working with young chefs was often a lot like that. That's what we did at Marque.
For all its avant-garde aspirations, the kitchen at Marque was quite traditional, and I expected, when we had only six people in the kitchen, that they'd be able to do everything. I saw that young chefs were coming through and saying, "I don't do pastry", and I'd say, "guess what - you're the new pastry chef". And off they went. I wanted to push them to achieve their potential, and I'd badger them, really badger them to not just come up with half-arsed ideas and have me applaud them, but really make a contribution.
Marque has always been difficult. I didn't allow it to be easy. When we opened in 1999 I didn't know what I was doing, and there was a certain cushion of ignorance there that kept me smiling, and from there on in I was too busy learning how to run a restaurant and everything that went into it. It's always been a challenge. I've had a lot of travel, I've had a lot of those things, the trappings of wealth, if not actual wealth, and at the end of it all, you're still running a very small business inside a small economy, and you have to do everything yourself, from handling media to cleaning the toilets to acting as a psychologist to your staff, a father, mother, confessor, whatever. It's an impost on your life.
But is running a fine-dining restaurant in Australia truly any more difficult today than it was in 1999? I don't think so. If you ran a proper profit-and-loss statement on a fine-dining restaurant, it'd make you want to run for the hills, and your accountant would be a mile in front of you. That's not what it's about. Marque evolved into what it is now organically.
I was very lucky to find a group of customers who didn't just applaud Marque but pushed me and demanded more. You'd get those nights where you'd have a room full of those people and the energy would just be electric, something palpable. Those rare times would make me say, "This is what we're in it for," that connection with the kitchen. And then there would be the opposite. Without that audience of people who were up for it, I'd have never made 17 years, and not just from a financial point of view - you need that support, that occasional moment of validation. Cooking professionally was a happy accident. I found something that I happened to be good at that people wanted to pay me money for, and for that I am tremendously grateful.
The idea that me closing Marque is somehow evidence of the death of fine dining is something I reject completely. I'm sure the same tired tropes will be rolled out with this announcement, but this is a personal business and it's a personal decision.
I feel optimistic about the state of dining in Australia. Restaurants are still where I want to be. I have the Pei Moderns, successful vibrant restaurants in themselves that are very different to Marque, and I want to do other restaurants as well. Marque was a great flagship, but I don't need that flagship any more because I think my personal brand is now something that stands apart from Marque.
If I ran into 1999 Mark Best in the weeks prior to Marque opening back then, I think I'd tell him not to lose sight of the customers in the years to come. But 1999 Mark Best would probably tell me to go shove it, and carry on his merry way.
Marque's last service will be an alumni dinner on Thursday 30 June; details to follow. Marque, 4/5 355 Crown St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9332 2225, marquerestaurant.com.au
Photography by Petrina Tinslay, styling by Geraldine Munoz.