Mark Best - From Mentor To Mentee
In choosing to create a progressive kitchen culture, mark best ended up shaping some of Australia’s finest chefs. But he’s also just as happy swapping his mentor role to play the part of mentee.
As a master of marrying diverse flavours from Australia, Asia and around the world with classic French cooking techniques, delivered with gallery-worthy aesthetics, Mark Best has had a lasting impact on the contemporary Australian food scene.
But it’s as a mentor at his closed-but-not-forgotten restaurant Marque, in his bistros on board the Dream Cruises network, and through his partnership with AEG, that Best’s legacy has been rendered most indelibly.
For setting Best on a path that would lead him to nurture the creation of almost a whole generation of hatted chefs, including Dan Hong, Victor Liong, Brent Savage and Dan Pepperell, Australia owes a debt to a rack of lamb, cooked in a UK kitchen in 1998.
Fresh from a gig at L’Arpège – Alain Passard’s Michelin-starred Parisian institution – Best was demonstrating his culinary skills for Raymond Blanc at his Michelin-starred Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saison in Oxford.
For his culinary audition, Best had elected to cook a dish from L’Arpège’s menu: rack of lamb served with a fondue of tiny onions. After hours of effort, Best presented the dish to Blanc who praised the flawless execution, but derided it as a ‘bistro dish.’
“That was my breaking point,” Best reflects. “This was a dish by one of the truly iconoclastic chefs, and [Blanc] was dismissing it. I realised in that moment what road I wanted to go down. I wanted the new road.”
Best was determined to do things differently. A key tenet of his preferred ‘new road,’ modelled by Passard, was the abandonment of the notion that professional kitchens had to be hostile, aggressive spaces like those he had seen early in his career.
“I never had anyone come up to me and say, ‘I will be your mentor.’ You just had to sit there, be observant, not be obtrusive, do the work and ask the right questions at the right time.”
CHEF TO MENTOR
Returning to Sydney in 1999, Best won the Josephine Pignolet Award as the city’s ‘best young chef,’ and opened Marque.
The restaurant quickly gained widespread recognition, including being awarded three Chef’s Hats for ten uninterrupted years. And while diners and critics fawned over the food coming out of the kitchen, there was something just as special happening inside it. Best was establishing himself as a mentor who actively encouraged young talent.
Through teaching young chefs how to live up to their potential, Best’s employees were empowered as collaborators, a distinction to which Best attributes Marque’s longevity.
“To be a conductor of an orchestra, you need everyone to play at their full potential, and as a leader in a restaurant, that’s what you are. You’re delegating the jobs out, but you’re also delegating the creative process out. Being the only person coming up with ideas is finite. In that process of bouncing ideas off each other, you’re both learning.”
Even in his post-Marque life, collaborations define Best’s work. The chef, as part of his partnership with premium kitchen equipment producer AEG, has worked closely with former MasterChef contestant Brendan Pang to deliver cooking demonstrations, dinners and other showcases of the AEG range.
“The beauty of meeting people like Brendan is that we’re coming from very different worlds. Being a good mentor is about tailoring your knowledge, not bludgeoning someone with your experience or your skill. You’re there to communicate. Learning to teach is an important part of being a good mentor.”
While his teaching also continues in bistros on Dream Cruises, the approach takes a necessary shift in form.
“It’s a whole other level of mentoring,” he explains. “There are a lot of chefs on the ships with a lower skill base. They really struggle with Western cuisines and concepts, so I ask them what their mother would cook when they go home. Then I ask if they know how to cook it, and I tell them I’ll have it for dinner. You should see the technique, the confidence, the craft, the balance; they just nail it. It’s absolutely fascinating for me as well. I’m learning so much.”
Despite Best’s recent career largely keeping him from the daily rigours of a professional kitchen, the desire to propagate the industry with mature talent remains. The key to his continued success as a mentor? Best believes it’s the same trait required of a successful student: humility.
“To be a good mentor, you also have to be a good mentee. It’s an ongoing process. I don’t think there’s ever a point where you stop learning. You continue to pass that knowledge on so, in a way, you’re just a conduit for the knowledge you receive.”