Veteran chef Mark Best on the big lessons he's still learning

Myffy Rigby
Mark Best, Australia's human IED.
Mark Best, Australia's human IED.  Photo: Louie Douvis

Discordant, disruptive, divisive. Love or loathe the chef and cookbook author who gave Australia grilled sea foam and crab custard with frozen foie gras, he knows how to get people talking. Mark Best, the former electrician from South Australia (he can still swap out globes and jump-start a car) started his culinary career in 1990 at Macleay Street Bistro in Sydney's Potts Point, went on to win the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award in 1995, and opened his first restaurant in Balmain in the same year.

But it was Marque, which he opened in 1999, that garnered critical acclaim. He had the restaurant for 17 years, holding three hats for 10 years running, before closing the doors midway through 2016.

In that time, Best employed a roll call of talent, including Dan Hong, Dan Puskas, Lauren Eldridge (all three won the Josephine Pignolet Award under his tutelage), Pasi Petanen, Dan Pepperell, Karl Firla, Brent Savage, Jowett Yu and Victor Liong. The star power was real, and the legend lives on. "Dan Puskas at Sixpenny," says Best, "is maybe where I would've gone if I was more mature."

Singular vision: Mark Best.
Singular vision: Mark Best. Photo: Stuart Scott

Best set the bar high for the chefs he hired. They needed to be inquisitive, intelligent, skilled. "In my mind, I had a base level that they should already be at," says Best. "I thought they were just fundamentals. I had no time to spoon-feed people. 'You don't know how to do that? Go and f---ing find out.' And that was it. It sounds hard, but in that way we were able to have a far more elevated conversation."

In his kitchen, Best expected quality at every turn. "I don't find stupid attractive. If people are standing next to me for 12 hours, trust me, they'd better either bring a prodigious work ethic, some good chat or both."

Best was an early adopter of the movement that favoured thinking over thuggery. He believes he was on the cusp of change from old guard to new. "I think that you'll find that kitchens operate like that now. The tired old tropes about kitchen life no longer apply. So when I see constantly the job being blamed for all sorts of different emotional pathologies, I sort of get the shits because it's not really like that."

I don't find stupid attractive. If people are standing next to me for 12 hours, trust me, they'd better either bring a prodigious work ethic, some good chat or both.

A very singular vision drove Best to create what became a restaurant with food that was widely considered genius, and at times, really awful. "I cooked what I wanted to cook," he says, "and I think the cult of celebrity was enough to drive people there to take part in it. I think that's what drives [the sharp] end of the industry. A segment of the audience understood completely what I was doing. A lot of people thought it was shit, and came anyway."

A voracious teacher and student, he still phones his former proteges from time to time for advice. Having taken on the contract to run a restaurant for Dream Cruises with a mostly Chinese clientele, Best has had Victor Liong, executive chef of Melbourne's prog-Chinese restaurant Lee Ho Fook, on speed dial. 

"I guess it's a bit of my white-myopia that I thought I knew a lot about the culture because I had a lot of Chinese guests at Marque," says Best. "But going to China and cooking for a mainland Chinese cruising market is ... I had to completely completely relearn. That's been very difficult."

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His European cooking skills have never been in doubt and he'd always assumed he was no slouch with other cuisines. But he's had to question everything he knew about flavour, texture, that balance between sweet and savoury. "It was a complete shock. I first went on [the ship] and thought, 'I'll make this clever East-meets-West fusion'. Totally f---ing patronising."

It's fundamentally changed his perspective. "Cooking on a cruise ship has made me focus completely on the customer. But the trouble with that is, I'm now looking back at my career and thinking I could've done it better if I'd been more focused.

"I think I was, perhaps, cooking for a very narrow audience; the 1 per cent – my peers, the Good Food Guide. Cooking for hats, cooking for stars. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. Part of me also knew that that was the wrong thing to do.

'The tired old tropes about kitchen life no longer apply': Mark Best.
'The tired old tropes about kitchen life no longer apply': Mark Best. Photo: Michele Mossop

"Restaurants are not meant to be this didactic experience; people need to enjoy it. You can tweak things without diminishing your vision to get them on board, you know? I think that's more the approach that I have now." 

The experience of closing Marque and taking on other projects ((he's also the spokesman for home appliances producer AEG and recently wrapped Netflix cooking competition series The Final Table) has forced some introspection. That's a challenge for most people, let alone a chef who held three hats for 10 straight years in a restaurant that often pushed more boundaries than sense.

Best has been known to say in the past that 50 per cent of people love him, and think he's a genius. And the other 50 per cent think he's a f---ing idiot. "I was happy with that ratio. Now I'm not so happy. I could've pitched things much better.

'Cooking on a cruise ship has made me focus completely on the customer.'
'Cooking on a cruise ship has made me focus completely on the customer.' Photo: Nic Walker

"Anyway, it's a new day, and I get to learn. I can't reinvent what I was before, but I can change my outlook."  

Quickfire corner

What was in your lunchbox growing up? Cheese and tomato sandwiches. Tomato always made the bread soggy. I liked cheese and pickled onion sandwiches. If Mum was lazy, it would be Vegemite sandwiches. It was something about the heat of the plastic lunchbox inside my brown satchel that always made it taste slightly off.

What was the last book you read? The Tartine Bread Book by Chad Robertson.

What's your signature dish at home? Currently, I enjoy dissecting a chook and cooking it with sesame oil, a whole head of garlic and a big knob of garlic (which you don't even bother peeling, putting it on the old box grater, grating that over the top), Korean chilli flakes and Sichuan pepper and cooking that at quite a high heat, about 190 till it's nice and golden. Then, I have a big old Creuset heavy-based pan that I cook sebago chips in. I don't deep-fry them, I parboil them in salted water. Then I put them in a very hot pan and spray them with the spray olive oil. It makes the best chips ever.

Late-night snack? My latest late-night snack is Greek yoghurt, fresh pomegranate, currants and pine nuts.

What's in your fridge right now? Lamb leftover from my Big Green Egg. A few different types of cheese. Ginger and lemon kombucha in little tins, which I like.

Calling chefs under 30

Entries for the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef Award 2020 close on June 17, 2019. Applicants must complete a questionnaire and an essay describing their food philosophy. Shortlisted finalists will be interviewed by a panel of food industry leaders. Along with the prestigious national title, the winner will receive a cash prize of up to $20,000, a return overseas flight, help with placement at an overseas restaurant and a set of Shun knives valued at $3000. To enter, visit goodfood.com.au/youngchef.