Eternal flame

It may be hard to imagine, but one of Australia’s most acclaimed chefs used to work as an electrician in the mines of Western Australia. These days Mark Best brings electricity to the kitchen of his award-winning, French-influenced restaurant, Marque. Located in the hip, inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills, the sleek dining room of Marque is a far cry from the searing temperatures and dusty, ochre landscapes of outback Kalgoorlie.

So how does a humble electrician go from working in a remote gold mine to creating and running a world-leading, fine dining restaurant in Sydney? After working in the mines for four years, Best spent a period of time refitting submarines for the Australian Government before finding his feet working with food. Despite this somewhat odd-yet-inspirational career trajectory, Best doesn’t consider himself a sea change guru. “I simply found myself working in a job that I didn’t like. I was working under quite arduous conditions, so I escaped. At that stage I was looking at doing anything to escape and food was it, and it just happened that I was good at it as well,” Best comments adds: “…being a chef is obviously a stressful job and I went into it with an awareness of that. I went into it for the love of cooking and that’s still what drives me today.”

While Best’s culinary journey has taken him around the world, his time spent in France proved to be the most influential. The iconic restaurants of Paris certainly held an allure, yet Best recollects his time travelling through regional France as a formative experience. “I fell in love with regional French cooking. Driving around, staying at small farm inns and experiencing local cooking… things that people cook for themselves… that was transformative for me,” says Best.

After working with the inimitable Alain Passard at L’Arpege, Best returned to Australia with a keen interest in French cooking traditions. “With Alain, it’s not just about technique – it’s the entire philosophy. The attention to detail and the irreverent attitude he has towards the industry is important. Alain follows his own path and that experience still sticks with me today,” remembers Best.

Yet, while Best returned to Sydney with an arsenal of French cooking knowledge and expertise, it took a while to get Australian diners up to speed. “I’d say that Australians are still mostly ignorant of French cooking. Having said that, I love the French cooking tradition, but it’s not what I follow. It’s the philosophy behind it that I love. I follow a certain group of chefs, like Michel Bras. It’s a bit like art… there are traditionalists, then there are people who are more modernist, some people are more figurative or abstract, it’s all art,” Best explains.

Despite being influenced by some of the world’s best chefs, these days Best likes to keep to himself rather than go to others for inspiration. “I tend to work in a vacuum deliberately. I eat in simple, local restaurants” comments Best, citing that being overly influenced by other chefs can be damaging to the creative process. So while Best has been happy to be influenced by some of France’s culinary greats, he’s also a staunch individualist. Marque’s menu is as contradictory as Best is, in that it appears to be simple, yet is no doubt quite complex to create. It’s this ability to seamlessly merge unexpectedly perfect flavours, ingredients and textures that has seen Marque become known as having one of Australia’s most innovative and interesting menus.

After operating Marque for more than 15 years, Best has seen the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills change significantly due to gentrification. “When I started [in Surrey Hills], the pub up the road was a bikie pub, with a heroin deal if you wanted it. Now it’s The Clock Hotel (an upscale pub and bar), so it’s changed a lot,” Best comments.

Best believes that Australia is world-leading when it comes to produce, and like many chefs, Best treasures the strong relationships he has with local producers and suppliers. “The quality of produce is very high in Australia. I tend to use small local growers and local divers who fish for sea urchin,” says Best. Marque’s menu is brimming with the very best of Australian produce from fine cuts of Wagyu sourced from the Northern NSW area of Rangers Valley (a world-famous premium beef producing region), to Spanner crab from Queensland’s Fraser Island. Best believes that this access to superior quality produce has helped Sydney become such a vibrant dining city. “Sydney is now one of the great restaurant cities of the world, and I only see it improving its status in the next few years. In Sydney, you’re really spoiled for choice and international guests are often amazed at the depth, breadth and quality that the Sydney dining scene offers,” Best comments.

Despite being at the forefront of fine dining for more than 15 years, Best speaks of the ‘eternal dissatisfaction’ that he carries with him every day. “This is where the art part comes into it. It’s a pursuit of something that just sings. You put different ingredients together and you have this Eureka moment, and you think ‘that’s it’. But you can never really rest on your laurels, because that feeling evaporates almost as soon as it arrives. There’s that feeling of always want to do something more, or different. It’s just the nature of me, and the nature of a lot of other chefs I know,” muses Best, adding “…as soon as you start to rest creatively, you’re left behind. I like to keep my foot on the creative pedal.”

It’s this ‘eternal dissatisfaction’ that has no doubt led Best to reach the great heights he has and to continue to seek out new projects. Recently, Best has been involved in the creation of two new restaurants. Bringing quality bistro dining to luxury hotels, Pei Modern was opened in Melbourne’s Hotel Sofitel in 2012, followed by a Sydney equivalent opened in late 2014 within the iconic Four Seasons Hotel.

With running restaurants a financially risky business, operating three at the same time is a bold move that Best carefully considered before making. “Cooking is only a small part of it. The business side is a major part of it. You spend a lot of your time running and promoting the business. Sometimes I wish I could be a simple cook, but that’s just not how it is. To be a restauranteur, you have to be a businessperson, first and foremost,” Best explains. With the rise of the celebrity chef, it seems that money is on the minds of many chefs and while some have branched out into television, cookware labels, and sponsorship deals, Best’s focus remains firmly on the food. “I like the stardom, don’t get me wrong. But the industry keeps you humble so you’re never allowed to get ahead of yourself. Let’s just say, I won’t be putting out a range of clothing anytime soon,” Best laughs.

Despite having received an avalanche of awards and accolades, Best has kept a level head. “If you’re working at a high level, then the awards will follow. There’s no point becoming completely unhinged in your pursuit of an award, but it’s certainly good to receive one. It’s nice – but not essential,” Best says. While receiving recognition from his peers is gratifying, it appears that at this stage in his career Best is purely in competition with himself, saying, “I cook for myself, and Marque is a reflection of me.”

“…as soon as you start to rest creatively, you’re left behind. I like to keep my foot on the creative pedal.”

Images | Portrait photography by Tim Bauer and feature photography by Stuart Scott