“Every plate is its own entity,” Mark Best asserted as he added the finishing touches to his unnamed dish of eel, deconstructed Parmesan cheese and translucent pumpkin juice during a masterclass session at Savour 2014 last week in Singapore. In short, no two plates should look exactly the same as he doesn’t believe in “robotic placement” of the food and garnishing.
That may sound odd coming from a former electrician who worked in the gold mines of Western Australia. But Best, whose interest in cooking was sparked when he helped out at a friend’s restaurant, has been a professional in the kitchen for about a quarter of a century now. His Sydney restaurant, Marque, is a two-hatter in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) Good Food Guide 2014 and has consistently been ranked among the top establishments in Australia in the last decade.
It was this relatively late discovery of the stoves that brought out the best of his innate talent. Four years into his apprentice, he won the Josephine Pignolet Award for Best Up & Coming Chef in New South Wales; he was awarded the double honours of Chef of the Year by SMH Good Food Guide and Restaurant of the Year by the Restaurant & Catering Association of Australia in 2006 and again in 2010.
Creativity is undoubtedly a driving force in Marque’s — and Mark’s — kitchen and a necessary ingredient in the team’s approach to bringing cuisine to the “point of unnatural expression”, a phrase that has repeatedly come up in past interviews. This showed up strongly in the eel dish, where grated cheese was turned into liquid, had its fat separated, whisked in a pan over fire and piped out into an ice water solution to become ‘gnocchi’. Similarly, pure pumpkin juice was transformed into a translucent liquid by mixing in agar agar roughly 1% of the total volume. Your brain tells you pumpkin soup and soft cheese, but your eyes and tastebuds protest to no end.
Yet, he acknowledged that his cuisine “doesn’t have general appeal” and “it’s not for everyone”. But at the end of the day, if half of the diners like a new dish, that’s good enough for him.
Quotient: If you had to describe your culinary creations using three adjectives, what would they be?
Best: Delicious. Insightful. Intelligent.
The dish you shared during the masterclass, that was amazing — how the end product can look so simple but the amount of effort that went into it was mind-boggling. Are all your dishes like that?
To a greater or lesser degree, yes. There’s always some twist to it.
Did you start off like that?
It was more classic (early in my career). The people I worked with, like Alain Passard at L’Arpège in Paris, they were people looking for purity in ingredients. Not only in the sourcing for ingredients but what they do with it.
So when you started Marque, the direction was already to be inventive, creative?
Yeah, because I hadn’t really trained as a chef — I was an electrician originally — so I didn’t have that technicality. I was always making things up anyway. I didn’t have an understanding of how to do something so I’d work around it and come about it in a different way.
Interesting that you mentioned your background. You were kind of a ‘late bloomer’ in that you started cooking when you were 25. Was that late start a hindrance or spurred you to achieve faster?
My first career as an electrician was chosen for me, not by me. When I decided to go into cooking, I certainly hit it wanting to be engaged fully, and passionate about what I wanted to do. I didn’t see it (starting late) as a disadvantage; I had a fairly quick rise to the top after that because at 25, I was very focused — I always had the feeling that there was no time to lose, that I really had to get to the ground running.
What is your most memorable dish or creation?
I’m always in love with the latest dish. It’s like new girlfriends. So I’m totally in love with this one at the moment, and I’ve got fond memories of the others.
How do you get inspiration? Do you have a routine that you follow, like looking out for what’s available out there or going to new places to try new cuisine?
It’s never about going to other places. I tend to only eat out when I go overseas. I’ll probably get far more inspiration going to the hawker stand than to a fine-dining restaurant. It’s about seeing how very different people use ingredients — in fine dining, people tend to use things the same way, using the same ideas, so you need to stay out of that and look elsewhere.
It’s good to be interested in photography, architecture or whatever; you’ll find more inspiration in disciplines that are not associated with cooking.
What are some places in the world you enjoy visiting for food?
I like going to Japan, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Italy, Paris. I love my hometown Sydney.
Where is the next destination you are looking forward to visiting?
I’m going to do a tour in Burgundy in May, with a group of 10 people. We’ll be based in Dijon in a chateaux and we’ll go to the markets and we’ll choose ingredients, and everyone will cook together for the evening meal and we’ll go to different vineyards. So that’s going to be pretty nice.
And we’ll go and do a dinner with Mauro Colagreco from Mirazur in Menton, south of France. We’re going to do a four-hands dinner with him.
Marque has remained rather low-key all these years. Why?
That’s the style of the restaurant. I do dishes that suit my idea — I’m very particular you know. I don’t compromise so they have a smaller audience. So that’s why it’s never really grown or gone international because I don’t reach a broad audience. A lot of people hate my restaurant…because they don’t understand. Their best reaction is they get angry. They say “This is disgusting, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
For me, put out a dish and 50% hate it and 50% love it, I think it’s a good result.