I knew when I first ate at Mark Greenaway’s restaurant, he would be ‘The Man to Watch’. A year down the line, even if I do say so myself, I was right, which makes a change. Mark has just gone from strength to strength, gathering awards like a like a forager in a forest. He is one of the most approachable chefs I know and I was delighted when he agreed to let me interview him after his stupendous appearance on this year’s Great British Menu. So let’s crack on and hear from the man himself and what he thought of the show.
Mark and I sit in the sun filled private dining room at his Edinburgh restaurant. There is a boyish charm and cheek to him, eyes glinting with mischievousness as we sip a coffee.
How did you become involved in the Great British Menu?
I did a screen test two years ago. I’d obviously watched the show, so I contacted them and said are you making another series and I’d love to be involved. They asked for a bio, any web links or reviews I could send them, which I did. They called me back to do a phone interview. On the back of that, they came up to Edinburgh and did a screen test. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a no; it was the year Tony Singh was on the show. That was two years ago, but three years ago when they did my screen test. Last July they phoned me and asked, “Where are you now? We think this year’s brief would fit you perfectly. Would you mind us coming to see you?” It took me about three seconds to decide – yes! They came back up to do the same rigmarole as last time, went away. I got a call two weeks later and they said, “You’re in!” I had no details of the brief or who I was going to be up against.
Once you got the brief, how did you decide on your menu?
There is a slight pause before Mark answers.
It took me ages to decide on the menu. What you see on the TV is completely different to how I thought it would be when I started out. Because I didn’t know what the brief was, I couldn’t plan for it, you can’t plan for it. You can’t say, if I get on the Great British Menu, I’m going to do A, B and C, you’ve got to start from afresh. So it took ages to decide.
You’re described as a molecular chef; is this a fair description of your style?
Without hesitation, Mark replies, not at all! The brief this year was pushing boundaries; reaching new heights; pushing yourself; pushing food to new levels. And the menu, I believed at the time and still do, is what I delivered and what they wanted. Something as humble as a terrine, I made a pork cheek wrapped in beetroot; something as humble as a crab salad, I elevated to new heights; all these words I’m using were in the brief.
Do you think this label hindered you, as Jeremy Lee, Alan Murchison and Colin Buchan, as well as the narrator were always commenting it on?
Not really. Alan’s style is extremely modern. Colin has a somewhat older style. We were all there to cook and deliver a menu for that brief and some of us stuck to that more than others. We weren’t there to showcase our restaurants; we were there to cook for the Great British Menu.
Local ingredients are important to you, where did you source them?
All of my main ingredients came from Scotland. My beef and pork was from John Gilmore. The crab came from Welch’s and I used Perthshire strawberries for my dessert. Sea buckthorn, scurvy grass and all the other wild herbs I got from Ben the Forager. You’re allowed to get ingredients from wherever you want. I chose to use all my Scottish suppliers because I know the products and trust in being supplied with good quality ingredients.
How disruptive was it considering you run a small brigade while Alan and Colin come from bigger kitchens?
It wasn’t disruptive at all. I’ve got a really good team downstairs and when I had to go down to London to film for a week, I brought in another chef who worked for me for about four years and who I could trust. Therefore, he came and covered for me for the week.
On Twitter, there were grumbles of only one Scottish based chef on the Great British Menu; do you think it fair that you were the only Scottish based chef?
The other two chefs I was up against are as Scottish as I am. I went to Sydney for five years, I was still Scottish. So just because they aren’t based in Scotland doesn’t make them any less Scottish. I think the show looks for the best chefs that they feel will work within their criteria. As to how they source their chefs, I have no idea! I went to them.
Having had your starter along with 50 others, we thought it was cracking. Why do you think Jeremy marked you so low?
I think with a lot of these things, if you have a preconceived idea in your head, it’s very hard to break that mindset. So coming from the background he’s from, which is very traditional, pork cheek would probably be braised served with an onion marmalade on a bed of mashed potatoes. So just the mere thought of it coming to you cold would probably be incomprehensible to Jeremy. The dishes aren’t scored against each other, they are marked individually. He judged every dish on its own merits. Food is very subjective; if he didn’t particularly like that dish, he would have scored it low. He obviously didn’t like mine, because if he loved it, he’d have scored it higher.
And the predisposition that it is something that shouldn’t be served cold. In that case, is he the right person to judge?
Mark laughs, it’s no for me to say. The thing with the pork cheek is it’s not just pressed pork cheek, it’s braised and then 10% fat is added, 10% of the braising liquor is added so it’s almost like a very rustic pâté. It’s not blended in any way. But you’ve got the fat and meat juices running through it to keep it moist.
It’s almost like a rillettes.
Yeah that’s exactly what it is.
With your fish course, Jeremy picked on the fact that you were using a jar of bought mayo rather than you having made it. Nothing was mentioned about Alan using beetroot juice, apple juice and a jar of horseradish sauce; what are your thoughts on this?
The reason I used a jar of mayo for the crab dish is because you partially freeze it when you roll it in clingfilm; you then wrap it in the butter and allow it to defrost. If you do that with homemade mayonnaise, when you defrost it, it splits – simple as that. Because of the gums in the bought stuff, it emulsifies so it doesn’t split when it defrosts. The mayo that I used was an organic, free-range egg mayonnaise, as good as one I could make. So it was perfectly reasonable for me to use it. They didn’t ask me why I was using it and I didn’t say why. Alan was questioned on his use of ingredients in the box chat. The apple juice was from the orchard outside his restaurant; the beetroot juice was organic, high in antioxidants and vitamins and the horseradish because it was a constant, stable product.
Would you change anything?
Mark answers almost before I finish the question with a resounding, no! The only thing I would possibly change is my pork cheek. I took it out the blast chiller, then wrapped it, then plated it and brought it up to room temperature. Had I known they found it too difficult to eat cold, I’d probably take it out sooner giving it longer at room temperature.
How did the experience affect Nichola and the rest of your team?
They are all immensely proud that I was chosen to take part, purely because if you represent a region, it’s just that, you represent that region. If you represent Scotland, we are actually representing the whole country. It’s a little bit different, so national pride comes into it. So yes, they are proud of the fact I was representing Scotland as a country and not just a region.
Do you feel you were fairly portrayed?
I’ve watched the shows back on Iplayer and I think I was, yeah. Except for the molecular chef comments, from the narrator. However, there are a lot of molecular elements, if you want to call it that, in my food, because we do use a lot of modernist techniques, but we also use a lot of the older techniques. So braising meat is not modern but the hot apple jelly is, but pork and apple is a classic combination. So the fact that I slow cook in a water bath is not really that much different from my granny cooking with her slow cooker. I think I was portrayed well.
Do you think Alan has more to loose this year and that, perhaps, affected the outcome?
I think the two chefs I was up against had far more to loose than I did. Alan has been a chef on the show twice; a mentor once. Colin has been a head chef in numerous Ramsey properties; he’s worked for Gordon Ramsey for ten years. Other chefs like Jason Atherton and Marcus Wareing have done extremely well over past series of the Great British Menu. There was a massive amount of pressure on Colin. I was going down there as a total unknown with nothing to prove to anyone, but they had everything to prove!
Your main was very simple. Do you think it was too simple?
No. Because of the brief and because you had to elevate food to new heights, push the boundaries and everything else, that’s what I tried to do with the main course. By the time you get through your starter and fish course you’re waiting on your main; you want a bloody main course. You know there’s no point in giving someone a bowl of foam with some chives sticking out. What I was trying to do was elevate the humble ingredients to be something quite special. So turning potato and beef shin into a terrine is different, albeit in someone’s opinion it didn’t have enough colour on it. But if I hadn’t of coloured it at all, what would have been their comment then? You don’t normally colour terrines, do you? You normally slice them and put them on plates. And using the beef rump as well, trying to elevate that to a dish that’s worthy of a banquet, I believe I met and stuck to the brief. I could’ve gone with fillet, but it wouldn’t have fitted the brief.
We were all waiting on the outcome of pudding. Were you surprised by the score for your dessert?
I wasn’t so much as surprised, I would’ve liked to have been scored more so I was level with Colin, but then how would they have put one of us through if I had scored one more? I would’ve liked to have got more for my other dishes, otherwise I wouldn’t have entered the dishes I did.
With your dessert, Jeremy said it’s just an Eton Mess, yet he scored you higher than the other two. How does that equate?
I think because I did fulfil the brief. I took it to new boundaries; I introduced elements to it that were true to its original flavour; I didn’t just throw in kiwi fruit just to push a boundary. I stuck to the same flavour profiles of an original Eton Mess but pushed the dish as far as I could and I think he appreciated that.
I loved the sneaky way you let it slip that you were a pastry chef.
That was a bit of fun to keep Alan and Colin on their toes, but it paid off didn’t it?
What was your favourite dish and why?
My favourite dish from the whole week had to be Alan’s fish course. His mackerel dish was just stunning! Texturally, flavour-wise – amazing; every element on that plate was just outstanding.
And from your own menu, what was your favourite?
Either the pork or crab, which Jeremy didn’t agree with but that’s his prerogative.
The Edinburgh twitterverse didn’t agree with him, Team Greenaway was definitely on your side there.
The pair of us giggle about the Twitter following known as #TeamGreenaway.
Team Greenaway was disappointed that you didn’t get through to cook for the judges and Alan, not only got through, but also won over the judges. So my question is, which of his dishes do you think should go through to the final?
Mackerel, definitely. It deserves to get through without a shadow of a doubt! It was an amazing dish, even though there were issues with the skin, the judges made the right decision regarding his fish course.
Would you do it again?
Hell yes! It was a great experience and to work in the kitchen with that calibre of chefs is an amazing thing to do. You learn something new everyday. And we’re all still great friends and part of an exclusive family, which is fun.
Who would you like to see represent Scotland next year?
Mark pauses before answering this question very diplomatically. I don’t really have an answer if I want to keep friends with our Scottish chefs. There are some people doing amazing stuff with food in Scotland – amazing things. From the Highlands and Islands right down to the farthest corner of the Borders and anyone of them could proudly represent Scotland. So I can’t really name them individually, it wouldn’t be fair.
What did you enjoy most from the experience?
Probably working with the production team and working with Alan and Colin. It was a great experience. I never thought I’d be standing in a kitchen with the likes of Alan Murchison and cooking at the same level as him. Regardless of the scores, when you put your apron on we’re cooks and anything can happen. To be standing as an equal to someone like that is unbelievable. I lost on the starter; scored the same as Colin on my fish course, the same as Alan on my main and beat both of them on dessert.
You just needed one point.
Yeah I just needed one point.
Life is so unfair.
Yeah they say it’s not about winning, it’s about taking part. That’s rubbish, it’s about winning. And on that note, it’s about time you got out of my restaurant and let me get back to my kitchen!
(C) Lea Harris, Off the Eaten Track. 2012