Interview: Mark Greenaway
“Chefs are like magpies. We’re hybrids of everything we’ve eaten and we aren’t programmed to ever stop!”
Mark Greenaway arrived in the dining room as lunch service drew to a close. I had been late for our chat, waylaid around the corner at a bistro whose head chef had been taking me through his version of a classic peppercorn sauce, but I was relieved to find Mark in typically good spirits despite being kept waiting as he settled down opposite me with a cup of tea.
This was my second visit to Restaurant Mark Greenaway, my third visit to Edinburgh and my first audience with Mark himself. I was not surprised to see that there had been quite a few changes to the menu since my last visit, with Mark the type of chef not to rest on his laurels and to always strive to look for something new and better.
“We're pretty modernist here. Progressive British, I'd call it,” said Mark. “I wouldn’t want to make a simple apple pie, for example. It’s more about looking at the apples and seeing how we can get a better flavour out of them.
“But we don’t like to change the core ingredient too much and having excellent produce allows you to do that. It’s the garnish that we can flower up as much as we like. You might look at one of my dishes and think we’ve changed the whole concept, but that core ingredient remains.
“And really, if chefs didn’t progress dishes, we’d all be sitting round campfires eating goat!”
Restaurant Mark Greenaway is one of the best in Scotland, with Mark himself possessing of decades of experience. Honing his skills in Sydney, where he spent five years after moving to Australia as a 22-year-old, Mark is known across the land as a seasoned TV chef, with his critically acclaimed first cookbook "Perceptions" released in July of last year.
But while Mark is one of Britain's better known chefs, he remains most at home in the kitchen - and his passion for cooking is as strong as ever.
“A chef should never stop tasting,” explained Mark. “That’s a fundamental principle of any kitchen, of being a stagiaire, and also of being passionate about food. So if you’re an English chef coming to Scotland for a stage, don’t just sit on the sofa during your time out of the kitchen –pick up a guidebook and go and explore!
“Your stage shouldn’t end once out of your whites. There’s always something you haven’t tried. It’s discovery that makes us better chefs.”
But what of staging with Mark in his restaurant?
“We take one stagiaire at a time as we operate out of a small kitchen, with seven making up my brigade at any one time,” Mark said. “Our stagiaires stay from anything from a day to nine months. Our longest was a Chinese chef who stayed for eleven months. Our oldest stagiaire was 38, incidentally.
“On your first day it’s prep and either one or both services, moving round the kitchen as you go. You’ll learn to work every station if your stage is long enough, as everyone in my kitchen from commis to sous knows how every station works. That’s how it has to be in a small kitchen."
And what advice does Mark have for a young chef just starting out?
“Staging is so important. My advice for a young chef is to pick five of the best restaurants and do a one or two week stage in each. Not only will it be great experience in the kitchen but, if you choose different types of restaurants, you should gain a realisation that some restaurants haven’t the right style of food for you, or it’s just not the right restaurant altogether.
“Not everyone wants to learn Italian or classic pub food, for example. Some chefs want to learn fine dining, or work in a larger brigade, or work under a different type of head chef. And until you’ve been there, you won’t know.
“Do as many stages that you can until you find the type of restaurant you want to work in. Then be patient. It’ll be long days and hard work. For some apprentices or commis chefs, it may seem like a thankless task some days, but someone has to do it and you’ll be constantly learning and honing your skills.
“If you have to relentlessly brunoise bags of carrots, for example, your skill will eventually be amazing. You can’t learn it again and you won’t have to. It’s good to remember that if you take the easy route and you don’t put in the hours, everyone will overtake you.
“I always took a demotion with every chef job I went for before head chef. I’d take junior sous rather than sous, commis rather than DCDP. This can help as you tend to move up the ranks quicker as your skills shine out in comparison to your colleagues, as well as showing your willingness to be good enough for the kitchen and your desire to push yourself.”