Marcus Wareing’s Secret Weapon – Chef & Restaurant Director Chantelle Nicholson
In 2004, Chantelle Nicholson, swapped her career as a lawyer in New Zealand pursued her passion for cookery, and landed a job in Marcus Wareing’s kitchen. 12 years later Chantelle still wears her chef whites, but her official title now reads Group Operations Director; doing everything from looking after every aspect of all three of Marcus Wareing’s restaurants, to co-authoring Marcus’s upcoming cookbook, Marcus at Home.
Despite qualifying as a lawyer, Chantelle says cooking was always her passion, and felt like something she just “couldn’t let go of”. The dramatic career change came about quite casually Chantelle says: “initially, I just called into my favourite cafe in the city I was studying in, in NZ, and gave them my CV – I said I had zero experience but loved to cooked, they gave me a job.”
Applying for the Gordon Ramsay Scholarship, Chantelle proved she had the skills to match that passion; beating 13 other candidates she made it to the final, and was offered a job there and then by Josh Emett, head chef at the time in Marcus Wareing’s kitchen at The Savoy Grill, London. Moving halfway across the world was a big move for Chantelle, but the bigger stage gave her space to grow.
“I missed my family and friends and the familiarity of the place I had grown up in, and going from working 7/12 hour days to 18 hour days took determination, but London was so exciting and gave me the opportunity to do what I loved to the highest level,” she says.
After 20 months working at the Savoy Grill, Chantelle took the leap with Marcus when he opened his own restaurant, coming out from Gordon Ramsay’s shadow after 15 years of working with his former mentor. “Marcus and I had a very good working relationship and at what was a very tough time for him, I was able to take some of the pressure off by getting things organised for the independence,” Chantelle says of the opening of Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley in 2008, now called Marcus. “It wasn’t really a question, we all were at the then Pétrus for Marcus, therefore we all wanted to support him to be able to move forward.”
With Chantelle’s support, Marcus went on to open a second restaurant in 2011, The Gilbert Scott, in the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and in 2014 opened Tredwell’s, in the heart of the West End’s Seven Dials. “It is coming up to 12 years, my role has grown over that time considerably,” says Chantelle.
“I started as one of many chefs, at the Savoy Grill, and then gradually took on more responsibilities, both in the kitchen and operationally, which led to us being able to grow as a group to now have 3 restaurants. We also have written 4 cookery books together, and done countless events and charity experiences.”
Now as Group Operations Director Chantelle’s close working relationship with Marcus is stronger than ever. “I am a business partner in both The Gilbert Scott and Tredwell’s so our relationship is extremely important. There needs to be a huge amount of trust in decision-making given what is at stake in terms of a business and a reputation,” she says.
Though even her notable title doesn’t encapsulate the various hats that Chantelle wears. “I don’t really have average days!” Chantelle says.
“My week consists of many things, from running the service in the kitchen at Tredwell’s, to co-authoring Marcus’s new book and being involved in photo shoots, to recruitment, PR, operations and menu development. Our teams are the most important thing to our business too, so they need time put into them.”
On the floor one day, and in the kitchen the next, no one understands better the importance of a good working relationship between the two sides of the restaurant. “We are a team and must support each other to ensure the teams work well and enjoy what they do, and that the customer then has a great experience. There are huge pressures in both areas and there needs to be a good level of understanding of those pressures to ensure the relationship works well,” says Chantelle.
“They are both enjoyable and both have their challenges,” says Chantelle, comparing the two. “In front of house you have to deal with a lot of different people and personalities, which can sometimes be really tough, and not very pleasant, but on the flip side the guests that have a wonderful experience, and have their expectations exceeded, are why we do what we do. In the kitchen, there is pressure to perform also and if anything goes wrong you need to think and act fast to ensure it does not escalate.”
Chantelle concedes though that the kitchen is where she feels most at home: “being in a kitchen will probably always have a pull for me given it was what got me here in the first place.”
Each of the restaurants offers a different dining experience. From 2 Michelin star dishes at Marcus, to modern London cuisine at Tredwell’s, Marcus and Chantelle have built a clutch of eateries that appeal to every diner; something that Chantelle feels is important given the rise in casual dining. “I think Michelin will always have a place in dining. It is a time honoured institution that must be respected,” she says.
“Interestingly though I think diners expectations and wants have changed hugely in the last 10 years, and there can be as much admiration and respect for a non starred establishment as a starred establishment. It all comes down to expectations and what is delivered on the day.”
Chantelle is involved in the running of all three restaurants. “Marcus and I discuss things regularly about all three restaurants so we move forward with them as team,” she says. Though with three distinctive personalities in the restaurant family, Chantelle struggles to choose her favourite. “That is like trying to choose your favourite child!” she exclaims. In the past she has described Tredwell’s her ‘baby’, and this is a lot to do with the freedom Marcus has given her in its operation. “I have the autonomy to run the restaurant,” Chantelle says.
Working with Marcus has afforded Chantelle opportunities that veer off the usual career path of a chef. “I worked alongside Marcus as a consultant chef on the movie Burnt,” she says of one of the more unusual experiences. “We did everything from designing all the menu’s, helping with the set through to the training of the principle leads where we helped them to act, look, move and talk like real chefs. I worked mainly with Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller and their ability to pick things up quickly was amazing – normally it takes years of training but they just got it, it was impressive”
In the movie Burnt, Bradley Cooper plays a highly successful chef whose drug use and manic drive for perfection causes him to implode. Chantelle says the fiery chef stereotype does have some truth: “I think we work in such a pressurised environment that sometimes we do slightly erupt!”. When it comes to Marcus, Chantelle says he didn’t take after his notoriously bad tempered former colleague, Gordon Ramsay.
“Marcus has mellowed a lot in the time I have known him. I think a lot of it comes from having the right people around you, who are also very passionate and have the same goals.”
Marcus aside, Chantelle says iconic chefs like Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, Peter Gordon of the Sugarclub, and the Roux brothers inspired her as a young chef. Though she is continually inspired by the new generation of chefs on the London restaurant scene: “chefs like Robin Gill, creating amazing restaurants that are much more affordable, and chefs can actually go and eat and them, which is what is needed to move forward.”
Taking running three of London’s best restaurants in her stride, Chantelle’s work ethic hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the foreword to Marcus’ book Nutmeg & Custard he praises Chantelle, his co-author, saying that she never ceases to amaze him, and that he does not know where she find the time to do everything that she does. On how she maintains a good life/work, Chantelle humbly deflects the praise onto her team: “we have wonderful teams and it is only due to them that allows me to be able to have a balance.”
Though she insists she does take time to relax and unwind. “I am partial to a few glasses of wine, plus I absolutely love good bread and salted butter, Poilane or Fabrique sourdough with Abernethy butter,” she says of some of her guilty pleasures. “I also love cheese, and having such amazing European cheese so easily available is slightly dangerous, La Fromagerie is my favourite supplier.”
Respect for her team is something that comes up again and again when talking with Chantelle. While she can’t pinpoint an aspect of her job that she loves the most, she cites guests that are rude to her team as the least favourable part, and when questioned on her plans for the future she thinks not only of herself: “I love what I do so I will be doing what I am doing now, and hopefully there will be a lot more people, who I have nurtured and mentored, that would have moved forward too.”
Just like how Marcus took Chantelle under his wing, it seems that Chantelle will take her team with her on her rise to the top.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.