What lies ahead for someone who has it all – money, acclaim, success – and who isn’t even 40 yet?
Marlon Abela, founder of MARC (the corporate acronym stands for Marlon Abela Restaurant Company, a private investment firm), who owns a group of high-end restaurants, is such a man. He’s a seasoned and sophisticated restaurateur who brings a unique sensibility to the culinary world, linked to his upbringing in Lebanon, Southern France and London.
In addition to owning six restaurants and a private club, Abela has partnered with renowned pastry chef and cookbook author François Payard in a chain of four FPB bakery/casual eateries in Manhattan, owns MARC Fine Wines which sells to the trade and to wine lovers in the UK, and also has a catering arm, Bespoke Events, which is run by his wife, Nadya.
Five years ago, Abela was quoted as saying he planned to open 30 restaurants in London and the US over five years. It was then that the recession nudged such plans aside, or at least scaled them back temporarily.
However, Abela was undeterred from looking to the future. When asked what he’s targeting, he replies: “We are always open to new opportunities, but our primary focus is on New York and Boston in the medium term.
“Immediately on the horizon, it is our goal to open an Umu in New York City. It will truly be the jewel in the crown and a great addition to the city’s extensive list of Japanese dining options.”
He’s looking at opportunities to strengthen MARC’s position in Boston, which traditionally has not had many high-style French restaurants, he adds: “We are exploring opportunities in Boston with our Executive Chef Robert Sisca, so watch that space.”
Talking about the concepts he’s created with MARC in London, Abela recalls developing Umu from scratch, focusing on Kyoto-style cuisine with European influence across service, ingredients and a beverage programme. “Then we purchased The Greenhouse but gave it a brand new identity,” explains Abela, “where the food philosophy is classic meets avant-garde.”
MARC then acquired an old private club, Morton’s, and fully refurbished and updated it, relaunching it with what Abela calls “the best restaurant of any members’ club in London.”
In New York, meanwhile, he developed two successful Michelin-starred Italian restaurants, A Voce Columbus and A Voce Madison, in what he calls “arguably the most challenging and dynamic gastronomic environment in the world”. New York is also where Abela and François Payard are collaborating on developing bakery cafés and Abela says: “New York continues to hold a lot of promise for us.”
MARC has many platforms, he explains, “but always with the same DNA, whether for casual dining, bakeries or anything else we choose to do. It will always be classic meets avant garde, focused on the excellence of experience and food. We see a lot of opportunities and scope to expand our existing brands and launch new concepts.”
The group’s restaurants all have extensive wine lists, reflecting his love of wine, which he enjoys sharing with his team and hosting tastings for guests.
“Wine is a fantastic thing to enjoy,” says Abela, whose father introduced him to it in his mid-teens.
The son of a billionaire airline catering company founder, Abela been quoted as saying he was already into fine dining at the age of eight and looking back to his childhood he says he was “born with an epicurean excellence in my blood, and growing up, I found I had a deep passion for food. Luckily, this was nurtured by my family.
“Having been raised in the South of France, much of our food was grown in our garden. Using seasonal produce and only the freshest ingredients remains a cornerstone of what food is about for me. I still really enjoy walking through our kitchens and talking to our vendors about the produce that goes into our food. In many ways, it was a case of do what you love and you never have to work again, so it was natural for food to drive my work.”
Being the child of a father involved in airline catering and hotels meant travelling extensively as a child, both with his father for work, and as a family. What his father did was, he says, “not only about marrying all sorts of cuisines in a culturally sensitive way, but also about remaining focused on using the best ingredients. MARC is proud to have inherited this legacy.” To that end, Abela calls his father his greatest mentor, describing him as “confident and dynamic, a true connoisseur of all things epicurean. And in many respects, a pioneer in the businesses and markets he entered.
“I would say,” he adds, “that his two greatest lessons to me were not only to strive for both excellence of experience and food, but also to be a real entrepreneur and pioneer.
“From when I was young, he involved me in his global foodservice company Albert Abela Corporation (AAC). He was the toughest boss I ever had because he was so firm, but he was also fair. He inspired fresh ideas and nurtured our entrepreneurial creativity; all of us who worked for him are better for it today.”
These days, he sees people going back to the basics of simple, perfectly executed food. “People are bored with the gimmicky and passé that we are presented with in so many places.”
Asked for his advice to aspiring culinarians, he replies: “A lot of it is about love and passion, sometimes even obsession. If you want to be in this business, you must understand how much knowledge and time go into food and beverage repertoire. It is hugely laborious, iterative and time-consuming, and the results reflect the effort.
“Know your food, where it’s from and how it is produced, and know how it’s been prepared, where it’s used, the costs and the profits.
“In short, passion is key, but you must also know where passion ends and where business sense begins. To achieve epicurean excellence, you must work with and surround yourself with people who love and know food, and listen… a lot.
“I am very fortunate that my work and personal life are one and the same. I often obsess over ingredients in our kitchen and call people in the middle of the night to try new things.”
In Boston, where he teamed with his Manhattan A Voce Columbus partner, Ken Himmel of Himmel Hospitality Group, to open Bistro du Midi, Senior Vice President Christopher Himmel is quick to praise Abela’s approach to the industry: “Marlon has demonstrated incredible vision in building his restaurant company while surrounding himself with talented individuals, like chief operating officer Patrick Willis, who have made it possible for him to expand from London to the US. My family and our Boston-based restaurants [Grill 23, Harvest and Post 390] have a great amount of respect for what they have accomplished.”
Abela, Himmel says, is impressive for his “incredible taste in the design of each restaurant he is involved with”.
He adds: “Time and again, he’s gone to great lengths and makes significant investment in bringing incredibly talented people into his company and supporting them to set high standards in every facet of the restaurant experience.”
Existing restaurants pose own challenges
MARC Group’s ventures into the US, as in the UK, have been in existing restaurants with their own layouts, flow and venting, all of which led foodservice consultants involved in the renovations to face a few challenges.
At A Voce Columbus in Manhattan, Jimi Yui FCSI, principal at YuiDesign, Takoma Park, Maryland, recalls that the group was “easy to work with”, and brought Chef Missy Robbins into the process early so he could work with her in making the kitchen more pasta-focused.
“I got A Voce because I did the original Café Gray kitchen (in that space at Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle).
“When taking over an existing kitchen, one must immediately assess whether the existing hoods will work for the concept. In this case, A Voce wound up with an island cooking suite because of the Café Gray configuration,” he recalls.
Similarly, at Bistro du Midi in Boston, John Sousa, principal in charge, Crabtree McGrath Associates, FCSI, Georgetown, MA, was brought in to evaluate the space to see what could be saved and to specify new equipment.
“We put in a new bar and a small station. We were limited by the chase in the building so had to stick with similar types of hoods. We changed the flow in the kitchen staying within a tight footprint and got rid of the existing tandoori oven. We also replaced a very temperamental hearth oven with a Wood Stone hearth oven.
“It was a fun project. There weren’t any big issues. They wanted to make more use of the view of Boston Common from the upstairs dining room.”