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Still Making His Mark
MARK BEST IS not defined by his restaurant.The chef-owner of the now defunct Sydney restaurant Marque has spent most of his career at the top of the country's dining scene, where his name and "Australian cuisine" were practically uttered in the same breath. His multicultural approach to his country's cuisine has won him every food accolade worth winning, from the highest three hats in the Sydney Good Food Guide to a "Breakthrough Restaurant" award at the 2010 World's 50 Best Restaurants awards. Some of the hottest talents in Australia, such as Brent Savage, Nick Hildebrandt and Dan Pepperell, came out of Marque's kitchen, something he is very proud of.
But after 17 years of driving Marque, he announced its closure in 2016, deciding that, at 50 years of age, he was ready for the next chapter of his life - not as the chef-owner of Marque, but as Mark Best, period.
Now 52, building his personal brand has brought him varied opportunities to fill his post-restaurant life, and he certainly doesn't miss the business aspect of it. "I love the idea of restaurants, but I don't particularly like employing people," he laughs wryly in the dining room of Nouri - the Michelin-starred restaurant where he did a recent four-hands stint with chef-owner Ivan Brehm. He shares how his old restaurant space was taken up by mainstream chef Bill Granger and "I had a pang of jealousy at this beautiful space, until he said it cost A$1.3 million (S$1.3 million). You know what, I'm glad I'm not paying that off."
He has, instead, found himself a range of gigs that appeal to his different interests. He is a culinary consultant on the Singapore-based cruise ship Genting Dream, where his namesake Bistro by Mark Best is one of the luxury liner's F&B outlets. He comes onboard five or six times a year and was also in Singapore as part of a series of cooking tours for passengers where he leads tours to local markets and conducts cooking lessons and discussions about local cuisine.
Back home, chef Best is also a brand ambassador for AEG kitchen appliances and he is also involved with a company called Terroir Hospitality, which organises international symposiums in upcoming tourist destinations such as Berlin and Warsaw, to promote the local culinary culture.
He sees his role as that of a mentor, and engaging younger chefs. In an industry fixated with youth, cooking trends and social media, "I've been around long enough to see all these fashion cycles and I'm well-placed to offer some advice."
Says Nouri's chef Brehm of his brief cooking partnership with chef Best: "His outlook of the industry comes from one who has experienced all that it has had to offer, and I found his perspective on the industry to be of extreme relevance. He's a role model who's managed to keep his integrity and focus on the guest as a priority, in an industry that's overshadowed by marketing and PR needs."
As chef Best puts it bluntly, "There's too much bull**** now. Social media - it's not real. But not everybody recognises that. I don't like chefs getting into and talking about emotion. It's all rubbish. I like people who are involved in their cooking and in their customers. And trying to give people a delicious experience.
"That's the part I like. What I ended up not liking was trying to differentiate myself from everyone else (to the point) that I was spending too much time on the marketing and social media and not enough time in the kitchen. Unfortunately, that's part and parcel of running a business."
While chef Best fully accepts that things are now a lot different than when he first started out in the business, he's nonetheless worried that at the rate restaurants are opening and with the financial pressures involved, a shakedown is inevitable.
"The issue with a lot of the chefs now is that I wonder if they know who they are cooking for. Do their customers even exist or are they looking for approbation from their peer group, which is like a small echo chamber you can bounce ideas around in but are not meaningful. There's a lot of cooking for Instagram these days and not enough cooking for actual customers."
His advice? "Embrace your customers, listen to them and don't always kowtow to what they say, but what you do is take them along for the delicious ride." And for the second phase of his career, we can look forward to the same from him.