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20 August 2014

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Interview with Marianne Lumb

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Marianne Lumb 2013 - Marianne_2013_-_APR_Marianne_Lumb.jpgMarianne Lumb’s self-titled restaurant, an intimate 14-seater tucked away in Notting Hill, is the chef’s latest step in a career that has seen her cook for private clients including Elton John, José Mourinho and the Sainsbury family, write a cookbook and even make the final round of the 2009 series of MasterChef: The Professionals. Lumb talks to Square Meal about her unusual route into the cheffing world, her artistic streak and her brushes with Ab Fab’s Joanna Lumley.

You studied architecture – why did you give up your studies to become a chef?

I’ve always really loved cooking, but at the time, as a woman, my options seemed limited to either becoming a home economist or writing cookbooks. I was encouraged by my family to do an academic degree; I chose architecture, but I left after a year to pursue a career in food. Cooking just felt like my destiny. I thought about knocking on the door of The Savoy and asking for a job, but I didn’t dare – I thought it would be a really harsh environment to plunge straight into. Instead, I went back home to Leicestershire, got a job peeling potatoes at one of the restaurants my father, who was a butcher, used to deliver meat to, then I worked at Rebecca Mascarenhas’ Nottingham branch of Sonny’s. I would work 90-hour weeks in the kitchen and spend my days off in London cooking for private clients’ dinner parties.

Marianne’s size is intended to mirror the experience of having a private chef. Do you intend to hire out the dining room as a private space for small groups?

I definitely feel most comfortable cooking for small groups and Marianne’s small size is it’s USP, so we’re certainly going to do things like that. We’ve only just opened, and we’ve already had requests for bespoke hire for birthday parties and business lunches. I’m sure at Christmas we will have lots of requests for parties, too. It’s very rare in London to find somewhere this intimate. But it’s a tricky balance – we will have to direct the private groups to quieter times. Lunchtimes in Notting Hill tend to be quite quiet, and Sunday nights aren’t as busy.

What are the main differences between cooking for people as a private chef and being a restaurant chef?

As a private chef, I wouldn’t cook the same thing for my employer twice, whereas in the restaurant I will have to produce the same dishes over and over again. That’s really exciting for me. Also, I have to keep an eye on how much I spend on ingredients in the restaurant, which is something I’ve never really had to worry about before, because I was cooking for people for whom money is no object.

Working for well-known figures including Elton John and the Sainsbury family, were you ever star-struck?

It’s inevitable that you will bump into famous faces from time to time when you’re working for people who have a very high income – although 99 per cent of the time, it’s not a glamorous job. I cooked for José Mourinho a few years ago but I didn’t realise who he was! I was most star-struck when I used to cook for a family who was friends with Joanna Lumley. She used to come round all the time and she’d sit in the kitchen and do Patsy impressions for us.

Was your private chef experience, your cookbook, and your appearance on MasterChef all part of a grand plan leading up to the launch of Marianne, or did you have a more organic approach to your career?

I think it was quite strategic, to be honest. While I was writing my cookbook, I had a moment when I thought, ‘No one’s going to buy this because they don’t know me.’ The next day, an email about MasterChef: The Professionals landed in my inbox – it seemed like fate. I knew that TV is a really powerful tool and a really exciting industry to be in.

Considering your experience at Michelin-starred restaurants such as The River Café and Le Gavroche, will you be working towards a Michelin star for Marianne?

I’m not going to mention the M word! I don’t know a chef who doesn’t want a Michelin star; it would be amazing to achieve that. But the main thing for me is to build a world-class restaurant that’s a sustainable business model and serves really beautiful food. Michel Roux Jr told me not to chase the stars – they should come to you.

Marianne Lumb 2013 - MARIANNE_LUMB_2013.jpgWhat are your plans for the future?

I would love a massive empire of course, but I’m taking it one step at a time. Marianne is going to be a very special restaurant. If in eight months’ time we are doing really well, my business partners will suggest we open another restaurant, perhaps in New York. But at the moment, my focus is on the restaurant.

What has been your biggest kitchen disaster?

There were a few touch-and-go moments during our soft launch but we made it work. On Thursday night, the oven wouldn’t turn on and the pan company had delivered pans that wouldn’t work on our induction hob, so I had no oven and no hob. It was a really hot day and felt like the hottest day of the year in the kitchen. It was pretty stressful but we turned it round. When you are working on your own, it’s a lot easier to have a kitchen disaster. At Marianne, it’s just me and a restaurant assistant who works front of house as well as helping out as a kitchen porter.

How would you describe your cooking style?

My dishes are quite delicate. My cooking style is really evolving, but at Marianne it’s going to be full of soul, with beautiful flavours. Some dishes don’t have a consistent look – in other restaurants every dish would look the same at the pass, whereas mine still look different from each other. I’m perfecting things all the time. My menu will change with the seasons, but some dishes will stay on the menu for longer than others. With such a small restaurant, I have to be very careful about managing stock.

You seem to have quite an artistic temperament – does this influence your work as a chef?

I think that’s true – my cooking definitely stems from that. If I don’t feel good about the dish I’m cooking at the start, if the ingredients aren’t perfect, then that generally means the finished dish is not going to be as good as it could be. I do have an arty nature – instead of architecture, I nearly studied sculpture, and if I couldn’t be a chef I would get into fashion design or photography. But cooking feels right.

This interview was published on 10 September 2013.

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