The third interview in our Best Female Chefs Series, in partnership with Champagne Ayala, is with Marianne Lumb. She tells us about working as a private chef, the challenges of cooking in one of London’s smallest kitchens, and what the future holds since she left Marianne the restaurant.
What’s in a name? If you’re an ambitious chef about to open your first restaurant, pretty much everything. Marianne Lumb says that she wrote down the name of every restaurant she could think of and put them into columns. “There was St John, named after the street, which I always found quite boring. There were cool, quirky names like Le Gavroche, which I love; it makes me think of a naughty boy. Then there were places like Daniel, in New York, named after chef Daniel Boulud. I copied that.”
Marianne’s quick bites
Favourite cooking gadget?
A mandolin. I love the consistency you get from slicing with it.
Favourite thing to cook at home?
I have a bachelorette fridge: just eggs and Champagne. So boiled eggs or scrambled eggs.
Favourite London restaurant?
Hide. All the cooking is so beautiful.
Favourite food destination?
Either Tel Aviv or Nice. Both have fantastic Mediterranean markets.
Guilty food pleasure?
Ottolenghi does a millionaire shortbread made from caramel and halva. It’s so good.
Describe your cooking style in three words
Passionate, elegant and delicious.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
A photographer. I love taking photos.
In recent months, Lumb the chef has become more of a household name than Marianne the restaurant. In June, she announced live on Saturday Kitchen that she was leaving the restaurant that bears her name. Then at the beginning of September, she won the Central England heat of BBC Two's Great British Menu and will appear in the final of the competition.
Lumb was born in Melton Mowbray in 1975. The East Midlands town is famous the world over as the home of the pork pie, while Long Clawson, the village where Lumb grew up, makes Leicestershire’s other most famous foodstuff, Stilton cheese. Food was part of Lumb’s landscape. Her father owned the village butcher and Lumb would collect the ingredients from him for that night’s supper on the way home from school.
“I always had a massive urge to cook,” she says. “I remember watching my mum making dinner and thinking, I can’t wait until I can do it all myself.” But while school holidays were spent cooking the family meals – “pigs in blankets with cheese and potato pie, very healthy” – when the time came to leave school, Lumb headed to University College London to study for a degree in architecture.
She lasted a year. A ski season spent working as a chalet cook made her realise that she wanted to be a chef and she applied for jobs in the restaurants that her father had supplied meat to, before spending a year in the kitchen of Gravetye Manor.
On her days off from the Sussex hotel, Lumb would head up to London to cook for private dinner parties. “And I was very lucky that the first party was incredible. Elton John was a guest, and I handed out my business card to everyone, and I left Gravetye to become a private chef.” Her first full-time job was in Courchevel 1850 – “it was called Millionaire’s Row then, now it’s called Billionaire’s Row” – before becoming the private chef to Lady Bamford, of Daylesford Organic fame.
It might not have been the most conventional preparation for opening her own restaurant, but Lumb insists it gave her a training every bit as valuable as stages in Michelin-starred kitchens. “One of the most important things that I learnt as a private chef is that the person you’re cooking for is basically your head chef – they will tell you what they think of everything. When I cook, I can tune into customers’ palates a lot more easily than many restaurant chefs. They cook what they want to cook, and they’re not as bothered by what the customer wants.”
Lumb didn’t open Marianne until she was 38. Why wait so long? “I didn’t really feel like my cooking was ready for it. I’m a perfectionist. It takes a long time to get good.” She chose Notting Hill because she knew the area from her dinner-party days and she was renting a flat a short cycle ride away in Bayswater.
She admits that she laughed when she first saw the 25 sq ft dining room of what would become her 14-cover restaurant (pictured). But the miniscule dimensions weren’t without benefits. “If I was cooking a soufflé, it didn’t have to go upstairs on a tray. It was straight out of the oven and straight onto the table, which was a joy.” But the even smaller kitchen was claustrophobic and had no air conditioning. “I love making pastry but on a hot summer’s day, there was no chance. And there was no walk-in fridge to stick your head in to cool off. It was hard.”
Lumb is understandably proud of what she achieved in five years at Marianne. Everything in the tiny kitchen was made from scratch. When she opened Marianne, the restaurant had three staff members; when she left, there were 12. Most importantly of all, the restaurant made money. “Just probably not what Scott’s does,” she laughs.
Lumb describes leaving Marianne as “a heartbreaking decision” but says that she had taken her food as far as she could. “I couldn’t grow anymore, so it was time to move on.” But she also acknowledges the high profile that opening one of London’s smallest restaurants has given her. “Marianne got me noticed very quickly and it got me a very, very good reputation. I have learnt a lot from having a small place; there are lots of upsides, but there are lots of downsides as well. I would love a bigger restaurant.”
Marianne’s perfect match
The dish: Soufflé of strawberries and cream (pictured)
The Champagne: Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2010
“I absolutely love Champagne and it pairs well with my asparagus and charcoal potato dishes. But I didn’t think that either was elegant enough for Ayala. This soufflé of mara des bois strawberries, elderflowers and cream, with pink pralines around the edge and wild strawberries on top, is one of my signature dishes. It’s a very elegant, feminine pudding, but it’s not too sweet, so it balances perfectly with the Ayala.”
Since leaving Marianne, Lumb has been in Western Australia for a truffle festival as well as appearing on Great British Menu. At the end of September, she is fishing in Norway. She would love to cook in Asia and do the backpacking around Vietnam she missed out on when she dropped out of university. “It’s been a very tough five years and I have never really had any time off. This is going to be an unusual six months for me.”
While Lumb describes her current career plans as “top secret”, she admits that she is looking at restaurant sites in Leicestershire and London. One thing is certain: we haven’t seen the last of her. “Fundamentally, I love having a restaurant. I love looking through the window in the kitchen and watching people having a lovely time and drinking beautiful wine. It’s awesome.”
Read our first two interviews, with two Michelin-starred Hélène Darroze, and Monica Galetti of Mere restaurant and Masterchef: The Professionals.
Portrait images by Laurie Fletcher