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22 July 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Mark Sargeant

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Mark Sargeant 2013 - Mark_Sargeant_2013.jpgAfter four years away from the capital, during which time he put Folkestone on the dining map with Rocksalt and The Smokehouse, chef and restaurateur Mark Sargeant – one of Gordon Ramsay’s most famous protégés – has returned to London to take the reins at the Great Northern Hotel’s bar, deli and flagship restaurant, Plum + Spilt Milk. Now that Sargeant is officially on board at the restaurant (which launched in April), Square Meal caught up with him to find out more.

What persuaded you to take on this project at the Great Northern Hotel and return to London?

I got a call in early April to ask if I was interested to come on board, which I definitely was – especially given its great location and its proximity to King’s Cross station, which is only 50 minutes from Folkestone. Also, the space is incredible: it’s lovely and light and fresh during the day, but at night time it’s dark, romantic and atmospheric.

I’ve been working in the background since June, finding chefs and training them, tweaking the menus, and changing the existing system. It’s been a very different sort of opening for me: normally you’re working up to a big launch for six months, and you employ all your own staff. Here we were taking over something that had already been set up, and changing things while the place is still running.

It’s been a bit of an enigma because the restaurant has already opened, the building and the decor are amazing, but because they’ve been ironing out a few problems they haven’t been able to say ‘Ta-dah!’ yet.

The name of the restaurant is quite a mouthful – do you like it or did you want to change it?

I’ll be really honest about this: when I first heard the name, I didn’t get it at all. I said we needed to change the name but it was made very clear to me that they weren’t going to do that because a lot of time, thought and effort had gone into choosing it. It was the nickname given to the livery of the dining coach of The Flying Scotsman, which was one of the most famous trains coming into King’s Cross in the 1920s and 30s. The colours were plum and cream; hence the name.

Now I’ve got used to the name, I like the idea of keeping the heritage of the hotel intact – it’s exactly what we did at Rocksalt by decorating the modern structure with old photos of the harbour area as it was in Victorian times and in the war, and the fisherman who worked it. It’s nice to give a nod to the old, rather than rip the soul out of a place.

But I think the name will divide the public a bit, and I’m sure there will be a few critics who can’t resist writing, ‘There’s no point crying over spilt milk’ – I can just see it now.

rocksalt_2011 - Rocksalt4.jpgWhy did you choose Folkestone for your first solo restaurant?

Until Rocksalt (pictured, left), I’d been living and breathing London for 20 years and I’d only ever opened restaurants for other people. If you open a restaurant in London and you do well then you’re guaranteed a footfall of customers, but there’s also lots of competition and more scrutiny – whereas if you take on a restaurant in somewhere like Folkestone you don’t have as much competition but there’s less footfall. It was a new experience.

There is a Folkestone saying that you don’t choose Folkestone; Folkestone chooses you – so if you believe that saying, then it was always fated. The people who were building Rocksalt wanted to find an operator originally from Kent. I grew up near Maidstone, and when I heard about the project I had just left Gordon Ramsay Holdings and was working at The Swan, in Kent, so I met up with the investors and we hit it off. I’d always wanted to end up back in Kent, because it’s a much nicer lifestyle for my kids – I absolutely adore London but Kent has stunning countryside, coastlines and brilliant schools, so it’s a nice place to bring up kids.

What were the positive and negative lessons you took from your time working with Gordon Ramsay?

Gordon’s influence on me was huge: working with him, there were huge positives and some negatives as well. I had something in me that would never have been brought out if it hadn’t been for Gordon. When he shouted at me in the early days, it would get my blood up and I would really enjoy it. And once you’ve won Gordon’s respect, like I did, he pays you back in incredible ways. When I opened Claridge’s, I was only 28 years old and – bearing in mind this was the first restaurant Gordon had opened aside from his three-star restaurant – the pressure and responsibility were immense.

I had the most exciting 13 years of my life working with Gordon, and during that time we were joined at the hip. But those kind of intense relationships always fizzle out eventually. Since leaving Gordon Ramsay Holdings I haven’t had any direct contact with Gordon, and in a way that gave me the chance to grow up. Working so closely with him was like having a very overbearing father – I was always looking for his permission and approval. Once I left the fold, if I had called Gordon to ask whether I should open a restaurant in Folkestone, he could have had complete sway over my choices. It was good to have a clean break and get on with things and be myself. There are some people who become carbon copies of Gordon, but you have to remain a person in your own right.

I didn’t ever want to do things just because Gordon had – I wanted to be very much my own person. But obviously if you’ve been tutored in one way, it can come out of you in other ways. What I’ve learnt is that you need to take time to explain to somebody how to do something they’ve done wrong. Then, after five times, if they’re still doing it wrong, you can tell them off a bit. My two head chefs at Plum + Spilt Milk were with me at Claridge’s, and I still get phone calls from other people I worked with at Claridge’s – so I can’t have been too awful to them.

Was there any sense of competition in you opening a hotel restaurant so close to Marcus Wareing (another Ramsay protégé) at The Gilbert Scott?

No! I honestly never get bogged down in all that politics, it’s too boring getting involved in all that and life is too short. It’s healthy competition: we all work hard, and we all deserve to be successful.

Plum & Spilt Milk - Plum_Spilt_Milk_2013_-_daytime_web.jpgDo you see yourself as a chef, a restaurateur or a businessman?

I’ve been a chef for 20 years, but since opening Rocksalt I’ve stepped completely out of the kitchen. I used to make excuses about that, but there’s so much more to me than being a chef, and I want to develop and learn a different skill base. However, I’m a chef, always a chef at heart. I always look at things from a food perspective first, but when you run a business it’s not just about the kitchen, and I wanted to be hands on in running my business.

Also – and this is not a dig at anyone – I don’t want to pretend that I cook in all these kitchens. My name doesn’t go over the door of any of my restaurants because I want them to have their own identity. People know I’m linked to the restaurants, the menus are created by me, I’m involved in tastings, but the fact that I’m not head chef anywhere allows me to do something like Plum + Spilt Milk (pictured, right) without any guilt.

I will always be food-focused but that doesn’t meant to say I have to cook in kitchens any more. Mark Hix is a prime example: he gets really stuck into things like menu development and staff training, but no one expects to see him in the kitchen.

Do you have a five-year plan, or a professional bucket list?

My life is more about 10-year plans. In my 20s I wanted to win a Michelin star, so I ticked that box. In my 30s I had a lot of personal and professional ups and downs. When Rocksalt came along it really grounded me at a turbulent time in my life.

Now I’m approaching 40, Rocksalt and The Smokehouse are going really well, and I’ve got an upcoming project in Singapore – a restaurant called Oxwell near the Central Business District that’s going to be quirky, contemporary and quintessentially British. I’m also getting involved with a global catering company, developing their menus, working with their chefs, and training their teams.

I hope all these new projects in my 40s will contribute to my retirement – before I retire, I want my kids to have money in their accounts, I want to have a nice house, and I don’t want any money worries or debts.

What do you tell young chefs who are just getting into the business?

I’m an ambassador for the National Young Chef of the Year award, which I won in 1996 – I met Gordon at that competition, so it helped carve out my career. I also own a chef recruitment company in Kent and we do our own training. I’m a massive fan of my industry as a whole, and I want to leave a legacy and know I’ve really given something back to this industry.

I tell young chefs that it’s not all about being in magazines and on TV, cooking in fancy restaurants, making money and driving Ferraris – all the things you see chefs in the spotlight do. There is so much that you have to do to get to that stage, and there’s so much more to being a chef than that anyway. Between the ages of 20 and 30, you change so much, you can think you’re better than you are, and you can easily go off the rails.

You have so many choices to make and there’s a lot of luck involved in making the right choice. I tell young chefs to stay grounded, take their time, and not think that the be all and end all is becoming a head chef by the time they’re 25. Just listen, try not to get too big-headed, and stay true to yourself. There are so many people who try to be Jason Atherton or Gordon, but those guys are one-offs, so it’s pointless trying to emulate them. You need to learn from them but still be yourself.

Claridges_1.jpgWhat has been your biggest kitchen disaster?

Burning down Claridge's (pictured, left)! It wasn’t actually me – one of my chefs was flambéing some chicken-liver parfait and some of the flames got sucked up into the ventilation duct. The chef came over to me as white as a sheet and told me that the whole ventilation shaft had caught fire. I looked up and I could see this glow and a roaring sound. I gave it a blast with the fire extinguisher, but you could still see flames up there. I felt like a kid who’s done something naughty and just wants to hide, but I knew that if I did that everyone was going to die. So I had to raise the alarm. It was the night of the Oceans Eleven premiere, and the cast was staying at Claridge’s, so I ended up standing outside on the street with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, who had been evacuated. There was smoke pouring out of the hotel’s chimneys – luckily, the dining room got away with just a bit of smoke damage, but the kitchen was a mess and we had to close down for the whole of August to refurbish it.

What’s your idea of food heaven and food hell?

I love all food, and I go through obsessive phases with what I cook at home. At the moment my food heaven is Asian flavours – anything with lots of chilli, garlic, spring onion, fish sauce, and soy sauce. The only food I can’t enjoy – and I have tried – is tripe. I want to like it – I’ve eaten testicles, heart, tongue and loved them all. But the texture of tripe and – let’s face it – its bummy taste, mean that unfortunately it’s my food hell.

This interview was conducted in July 2013.

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