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Interview: Marc Wilkinson, Fraiche, Oxton

5 years ago

In a tiny fourteen cover restaurant in Oxton which he lovingly calls ‘The Shed’, Marc Wilkinson has been quietly weaving threads of magic through his fairytale dishes for fifteen years. He has held a Michelin star for twelve of them and, apart from a temporary blip last year (in which he closed the restaurant with the intention of moving to bigger premises and then ended up staying put), things have been comfortingly consistent – but never predictable – from Fraiche.

For a chef who only started cooking because he wanted to buy himself a bike, he’s done pretty well. And you can consider yourself to be doing well if you manage to bag a table here. Many a trembling finger hovers over that ‘book now’ button on the first of the month when new tables become available. He has even resorted to Willy-Wonka style golden tickets to give more people a chance. If you miss out, there is always his Instagram page, where you can salivate over his avant-garde handmade chocolates and dream.

We caught up with him to talk about his travels, his hatred of selfies and his love of DJing, as well as getting some insight into that miraculous one-man kitchen.

“If I want to put a Tardis in the middle of the restaurant, I can do it, because it’s my restaurant”

You’ve been at this game for a long time, which is an achievement in itself. You’ve also hung onto that Michelin star for twelve years now. What’s the secret to your longevity?

MW: “I’m cheap! So Fraiche gets cheap labour. It’s also consistency because it’s me cooking everything so that never changes really. I mean we all have good days and bad days but there’s always a level that you never drop below and that’s mainly why. Plus, I couldn’t afford me. I couldn’t afford someone with my background and experience. So that is another reason why Fraiche has survived fifteen years.”

What did you learn from the experience you had in top kitchens like The Chester Grosvenor, Mirabelle in Eastbourne, and Latymer in Surrey?

MW: “You learn something everywhere you work. Even if it’s not the best establishment, you always learn something. Obviously, some are better than others for the learning process but you take bits from everywhere. It’s like a patchwork. Eventually, it comes together and you create your own style, dipping in from various experiences you’ve had in the past.”

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What’s changed in both the way you work and the restaurant scene in general in the time you’ve had your own restaurant?

MW: “I think the industry’s got a huge shortage at the moment of actual people to work in it. Maybe the stigma from old is still lingering because it was kind of a military-style operation in a lot of the big kitchens. It’s a different ball game now. I think it’s getting a lot kinder to employees. For example the staff out front here, they do a four day week. They don’t do a five day week any more, to get a quality of work-life balance.

It’s not so much for me because I’m here anyway but it’s for the staff. It’s quite important… (Marc pauses here for a moment to weigh something. He’s multi-tasking even during this interview). Apart from that, cooking is cooking. There’s not really anything amazingly new in the world of food. We have styles and fashions that come and go. It’s the work ethos and that balance of life outside the kitchen that has changed dramatically.

There are some pockets of places still doing brutal hours but on the whole, it’s a lot better environment to be in. But I think the stigma is going to linger for a while before people realise that actually, you don’t have to do six days a week, eighteen hours a day. You can actually have a little bit of a life now, but if you wanna be good you’ve still got to do the hours. There’s no shortcut I’m afraid. I haven’t found one anyway otherwise I’d be doing it!”

Could you ever go back to working for someone else?

MW: “No. It’s too long now. It’s fifteen years now so you can’t really can you? It’d be alien to me now. Plus the reason I did it in the first place was not financial gain, it was to do my own thing, to be my own person. You know, if I want to put a Tardis in the middle of the restaurant, I can do it because it’s my restaurant. I don’t have to go and speak to management and say, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea, boss. Can I do this?’ And they’d just be like, ‘Marc, shut up and go away.’ I can just do what I want. So that freedom is great.

Obviously, it comes at a cost, just trying to survive, trying to break even and all that rubbish. But I do to a degree. I’m quite able to do a lot of things I wouldn’t be able to do underneath someone else because they’d just think I’m nuts. Which is probably right.”

“We do bingo for the tables”

It clearly works for you, because people rave about your food.

MW: “Yeah, Fraiche is very personal because it’s me, it’s the decor. You haven’t got a collective of people involved in the process. You haven’t got designers coming in. You haven’t got a PR machine. You haven’t got directors to be responsible to. It’s just you and ‘The Shed’ – The Shed is just a catchphrase because of the size, not because of the interior design. It’s just a size thing because of people’s perception that it’s a Michelin star restaurant so it must be all fancy with chandeliers and driveways and all this malarky. The reality is far from that.”

Is that intentional?

MW: “No, I couldn’t afford it. The style’s modern-ish. But it’s just me expressing myself because I couldn’t afford interior designers so I just do what I want and I use nature as a theme. There’s only so much money in the pot, so I can’t have that grandeur. It was a case of, pre-empting people’s preconceptions. So they’re not coming expecting this fancy, dandy place, because some are, Chester Grosvenor for sure has the chandeliers. They spent more on their last refurb than my whole building’s worth. It’s a different ball game. But this is me. I do the best I can with the money I have.”

That stuffiness can be off-putting for some. But it’s not like that at your place.

MW: “Oh no. Jesus! Well, to be honest, I ballsed up when I first opened. I came straight from a five-star hotel. So being a chef I thought that for front-of-house, that was the correct way to be. To follow those guidelines as if I was still in the Grosvenor for example. But it wasn’t right for here which I soon found out. It was a case of having to adapt. I was getting slated! For service and seriousness and decor issues. Yeah, it was rough. I had to take it on board. As a self-employed person, you have to take your cheffy head off and put your business head on and say ok the food’s ok but the formula’s not working so I have to look at this. I have to address it. So I did, and then DJ chef was born.

It started off as a parody. But I actually went into Europe to a couple of restaurants, a two Michelin star and a three Michelin star restaurant that employed DJs and met up with them and talked about playlists, music and the environment of a restaurant, even a Michelin star restaurant. How you create a better atmosphere etc. They were very kind and gave me playlists from the restaurants so I brought them back and started experimenting here. Then I looked at lighting as well, creating mood lighting to change the effect. Then I did a refurb as well, to try and make it more relaxed. I worked hard on that side of it. As well as the food it’s kind of the package.”

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You are a one-man operation, apart from a part-time KP. Would you ever consider adding a second chef?

Yeah, I’d love to. I’d love to have someone to do the cooking and then I can just go and play with chocolates and stuff, but the reality is time. I don’t have the time to do it as much as I want to do it. It would be amazing to have someone to take the reins and do some of the cooking at least, but I can’t find anyone that would want to work for peanuts. We can’t match what people are going to earn if they apply for a job at The Chester Grosvenor or Moor Hall. It’s just a different world. Financially, I can’t compete. For me, it’s a labour of love. I’m not money driven – fortunately.

You lived in Canada for a bit, how was the food scene different there?

I was in Ontario, just North of Toronto. It was great. It’s an amazing quality of life over there. The food is getting a lot better now but when I went it wasn’t that great. I struggled to find places that would inspire me as much as some of the restaurants and hotels we have in Europe. I went for the excitement of living in a very different country because I’d done some work in France. With the skill set I have, you could apply for jobs in hotels and restaurants and be taken seriously. You could get a lot of help with visas. So I got a permanent residence for Canada so even if I didn’t like the job I could leave and go to another job.

I love Canada, I miss it. It’s an amazing country. When I first got there I thought, ‘What are they up to?’ I came from Scouseland and all of a sudden you’ve got these strangers being really nice to you. I was like, ‘What do you want?’ ‘What’s going on?’ ‘He’s being nice to me! I don’t know him!’ After a while you think yeah it’s pretty genuine. You can go into a coffee house and people don’t seem to think about the welcome. If you’ve been to America it feels a bit fake but in Canada, it did feel like they were genuine. I miss it and I don’t get to go back there enough.

“I had the best oyster dish I’ve ever tasted there, it was orgasmic”

But you came back to Liverpool. What drew you back?

MW: “Well, it was two-pronged really. Firstly, my father was still here and he was deteriorating. My mother’s not up here, she’d moved down south but my father stayed here. Secondly, no-one had ever achieved Michelin stars or three rosettes or four rosettes or ‘cooking: 8’ in the Good Food Guide, or any of that, ever, in Merseyside. I was the first star in Merseyside and the first person to get four rosettes here. There are Merseyside chefs that have gone on to do things in other counties but not actually at home.”

Yes, there is a dearth of Michelin stars in both Liverpool and Manchester. Which other chefs in the North West do you think should have one?

MW: “I think Oli Martin should have one without a shadow of a doubt. I dined at Hipping Hall a couple of months ago and there’s no way on this planet he’s not a Michelin star chef. It was a superb meal. I feel for Adam at The French as well. I did a pop up there along with Adam. He’s a nice guy. He’s a bit vain with his selfies. I rib him about that. He does like his photo opportunities, all backed up with great food though.”

Are you not a selfie man, Marc?

MW: “No, I hate selfies. Hate them. There are very few pictures of me out there. Pictures of chocolate and food but never me.”

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Last year you closed the restaurant with plans to move to a bigger place, and then stayed put, to the delight of the locals in Oxton. What made you change your mind?

MW: “It got changed for me. It just basically fell through. I was kind of like, whoa. ‘Ok, what are we going to do?’ It was taken out of my hands really. So I refurbed the restaurant, worked on new menus and relaunched. It was a costly exercise so it’s going to take a while for me to bounce back. But these things happen, don’t they? Sometimes it’s a house, it falls through on you, you’ve invested money and time. It was the same with me with the business, it just fell through. It’s an expensive learning curve. But we always learn from these things hopefully. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that ‘The Shed’ is a safer option because the move was increasing pressure on me financially and work wise as well because it’s a bigger establishment with staff. So it was riskier. You just have to put it down to experience. But it made me think about the food at Fraiche differently as well, while I was off.”

Yeah, a chance to step away from it for a bit?

MW: “Yeah, it was the first time really that I had managed to actually just step away and think about the food and where I’m going and where Fraiche should go as well. So it has changed this year. The food has changed.”

Do you think this wobble was the reason behind Fraiche slipping out of the National Restaurant Awards top 100? Do you worry about things like that these days?

MW: “I’ve been in and out of that list for years. One year we’re in it and then the next year we think we’ve pushed further and to a different level and then we’re out of it again, and then we’re back in it. I’ve been here a while, so I’ve been in and out of that list. So you’re kind of like, we’re out of it again so we’re out of fashion again now. Ok. If it was the Good Food Guide one I’d be devastated because that is based on your own clientele voting for you. That one matters to me. If your customers aren’t happy then they’re going to show it aren’t they? That one is still to come out this year so fingers crossed.”

Your customers love you. They’re really passionate about you.

MW: “They’re the people that keep it going. They are the reason why fifteen years on I’m here. The very kind support that we get from the very affectionate, loyal, core regulars. I don’t know why they don’t get fed up of The Shed but they are very kind to us. When they heard that The Shed was back it was very touching, the feedback I received from them and the support I got from them.”

“Vegetarian week is interesting for me because it makes me think in a different way.”

Your food is based in French technique but you also take inspiration from your travels. Where have you been recently that’s given you a few ideas?

MW: “Earlier in the year, I went to Amsterdam. The food in Amsterdam is amazing. I’m not just saying that. It’s really is very good. It’s not just a weed haven any more. The food is stunning. There is so much going on in Amsterdam at the moment and it’s so cheap to get there. You can fly for lunch and come home the same day from John Lennon airport. It’s brilliant. And I try to get to Barcelona once a year to see what’s going on. I’ve got a couple of chef friends over there and it’s interesting to see what direction they’re going in and what the style is for the Spanish because it happens in Barcelona and Madrid pretty much first and then it filters through.

If you go abroad you just see a different perspective. If you go to London all the time or you go to Manchester, it’s a similar vibe. If we’re going through a foraging fetish it will pop up in a lot of places. I get excited by seeing something different. Something out of the box, because I’m not just going there to have my tea. I’m going there to be inspired or because I love food. To enjoy someone’s totally different perspective on it.

Copenhagen as well, Kadeau in Copenhagen, the ethos and everything is just stunning. I had the best oyster dish I’ve ever tasted there. It was orgasmic. It put the hairs up on my arms, it was that good. That’s the fun side to the trade that I love.”

Your cooking is very much shaped by the seasons. What is your favourite season and why?

MW: “The way I think is: What’s coming next? What can I play with next? It’s just an evolving machine. It’s just: Ooh strawberries are coming in. Great, what are we going to do with strawberries? I don’t sit back and think, ‘I can’t wait for Autumn’. I just roll with it. In Winter it’s root vegetables, but you can do something amazing with celeriac. You can do something cool with artichoke. It’s just another dimension.

It’s nice that we have such differential seasons in England. In California, it’s pretty much sunny all year. The style of food doesn’t really change throughout the year. They don’t do richer dishes as Winter approaches. I don’t love or hate any season, I just cook with what’s around me. The only good thing is our gardener’s bringing produce in during the other seasons. In January he’s on his deckchair! (laughs) He can’t grow anything at all. So we have to buy everything in during that period. So I feel the difference in quality. That’s the only negative. But he has to have his holidays.”

Do you do a lot of preserving?

MW: “We do a little bit. As long as it’s beneficial to do the dish we’ll do it. Not for the sake of fermenting things just to be in fashion.”

What was the first dish you cooked that made you feel like your ability had transcended the realms of the standard chef?

MW: “I’ve not cooked it yet! I don’t feel I’m there yet. For me, it’s part of my drive. I want to create something better. I know I can create something better. It does drive you around the twist a bit.”

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Are you still working on a cookbook?

MW: “I am. The forewords are done. The pictures are all done. Three photo shoots. The dishes are done. The recipes are there. It’s just time. Time is always a problem for me. My priorities changed pretty dramatically earlier in the year when everything fell through and I realised that I had to reopen The Shed. The financial cost of doing that put the book on the back burner because I’d had two months of no income.”

Are you doing all that yourself as well?

MW: “Yeah. Well, we’ve got a photographer.”

Are you doing all the writing?

MW: “Yeah, we’re just getting someone to translate it into English for me.”

From Scouse?

MW: “Yeah (laughs). ‘Make sense of that will you please?’ Because the problem with chefs is we talk gobbledegook to the outsider. I might just throw in a technical term and it makes no sense to the layman so I’ve got to get somebody on the outside to say, ‘Marc, what the hell do you mean? It makes no sense at all.’”

What can we expect from it?

MW: “It’s just Fraiche, as it’s evolved through the years.”

Am I going to be able to make the recipes at home? Or is it more of a coffee table book?

MW: “A bit of both. I mean we do a cook-alongs on Instagram. ‘Cook Along At The Shed’. Over the last few weeks, I’ve started doing it. As I’m making something I start photographing it and just uploading it onto Instagram and we share some stuff. Because I work on my own it’s quite nice to actually share things with young cooks that might say, I’ll try that, or, Ooh I didn’t know that. It’s always nice to share some knowledge.”

You recently announced a special vegetarian event in August. This is a new thing for you, tell us more about it. What other new ideas do you have up your sleeve?

MW: “I’m doing a collaboration with Eddie Shepherd (Of The Walled Gardens plant-based supper clubs – Ed). It’s exciting because you get another dimension of vegetarian food from an outside source. So that’s good for me, and he gets to be spoilt with cups of tea at the Shed, and Eccles cake. It’s half his menu, half mine. It’s nice that we can do different things here. Vegetarian week is interesting for me because it makes me think in a different way. I have to forget about my proteins and my fish for a week and go plant-based.”

They say constraints are sometimes good for creativity.

MW: “Yeah. Also, it can lead on to other things. For example, they’re taking gelatine away from you for a week so you have to find a substitute but that substitute might end up being a better mouthfeel than the gelatine was. It’s a very interesting process. I’m looking forward to that. It should be good. We’re so small that, with the dietary and the allergies, we try and group them together. So we do a fish week and a vegetarian week etc. Just to try and accommodate regulars who have allergies or dietary requirements. If I’m doing it for everyone then it’s a lot easier for me than trying to do four different menus.”

Yeah, I can imagine. Chefs get a lot of stick sometimes for not doing dietary requirements But it’s not always possible when it’s just you.

MW: “No, when it’s one man and a Shed it’s tough. One night I had 5 tables and I had 6 dietary requirements. So I couldn’t cook a normal menu for anyone. I was like, ‘My head’s wrecked now. I can’t physically do this.’ Someone says ‘I’m lactose intolerant’ so I have to cook everything without butter and cream and milk, and then someone’s vegetarian, and then someone else says I’m pescatarian, I’m allergic to nuts…”

Has it been popular though?

MW: “Yeah, it was quick to sell out. We do events now and then to get things off my chest.”

Have you got some other things coming up?

MW: “Yeah, we’re doing a pastry project in October, so we’re working hard on that at the minute. It’s through the FB group so it’s filled already. We do bingo for it.”

Erm, Bingo?

MW: “Yeah, we do bingo for the tables. It’s just a bit different and a bit more light-hearted than everyone scrambling for the first of the month trying to get a table reservation so we just try to break it up a bit. We do it through the Facebook group. It’s a collaboration with a champagne house and hopefully, it will be very different from our normal week. We’re always doing mad things here anyway. Things like ‘It’s a wonderful life’ (Marc’s take on a Christmas menu – Ed.) and things like that. Expressing things in different ways.”

And which restaurants in the North do you like visiting on a night off?

MW: “Time’s precious so I like to do somewhere serious when I have got time off. I don’t just go out to eat my tea every week somewhere. I’m excited to see how The Freemasons changes, because they’ve just had their refurb. So that’s exciting. I’m looking forward to going up there to see what he’s doing. Sosban, in Menai Bridge. He’s a great cook. I really enjoyed going down there to eat. Hopefully, we’ll be doing a dinner together, touch wood. We’re just sorting out a date at the moment. But that’s a great place to eat that I would go back to. I still have to try a lot of places in Manchester I haven’t got to yet. I haven’t tried Tast or Mana. I’ve not even tried Wood. I don’t get out that much, there are a few places I need to try.”

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