City winner of chef's gamble
CHEF Jacques Marchal gambled on Plymouth and the city turned out to be the winner.
However, the man who was to put the South West's largest city on the culinary map was charting a different course when he left London for the region 40 years ago.
He started by asking customers to place their bets, not their orders.
"I came here because I had a job as a croupier," says Jacques with a wide grin.
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"It was damned easier than working as a chef and it was fun."
The move from being a skilled chef at probably the capital's most famous dining and socialising venues, the Café Royal, Regent Street, to helping gamblers part with their cash wasn't such a long-odds bet. The young Frenchman and his chef mates were forever looking for something to do when work ended in the small hours and they were still high on the buzz from a high-pressure kitchen, and gambling fitted the bill.
There were plenty of opportunities in the London of the latter stages of the Swinging Sixties, especially for someone looking for extra cash for the rent.
"It was 1969, a great time to be in London," says Jacques. "Fantastic.
"But living in London was so expensive compared to France so a few of us had two jobs.
"I'd finish at the Café Royal and go up to Soho and work in a nightclub. In those days, for their late licence, they had to serve some food so all I had to do was make some omelettes and snacks."
Jacques spotted an opportunity in a Soho club called Le Kilt which rented out blackjack tables to anybody who reckoned they could make some money dealing the card game to the gambler.
The chef found he could and so enjoyed himself that he trained in all the casino games, including roulette.
When he was offered a job in Plymouth he thought 'why not' and headed west. He could so easily have gone on across the Atlantic had he stuck at being a chef: a former boss who was starting a venture in Chicago was keen to recruit anybody who would follow.
"But I'm glad I came to Plymouth, because I thought it would be fun staying as a croupier and I have always gone with the flow in life," Jacques adds.
"A couple of years passed. You know I can't even remember the casino name. Was it the Midas?"
Whatever the name, Jacques had his fun. If there was nowhere open late in Plymouth that he fancied, he'd drive as far as London for a club, heading back in the early hours.
Jacques was tempted back into the kitchen working in what was Quo Vadis, near the Grecian Tavern in Market Avenue.
A year later, though, he was headhunted for his croupier talents.
"There was a new casino starting up in Torquay," Jacques recalls. "It was upmarket and they wanted a little of the French suaveness, so I spent a whole summer training all the staff: 'faites vos jeux' ('place your bets') and all the rest.
"But there was something about the ambience of the place I did not like. I was not comfortable with it, so I didn't stay on after that."
This was the Carlton Club Casino and in December 1973 a year after Jacques walked out a gunman walked in. Disgruntled businessman Martin Fenton shot dead four people, three in the club — half an hour earlier he had murdered a policeman. One of those killed was a croupier.
Jacques was by then well away from gambling. "It sounds corny, but I did not mind taking money off people who could afford it," he says. "I did not like taking money off those who could not. I'd see, say, a taxi driver coming in with his fares and I'd want to say to him 'go home with your money, you have no chance of winning'."
So, after a few years enjoying himself rather than using his talents, Jacques — who says he was never much of a gambler himself — reverted permanently to the career on which he had started at a tender age.
"I started working for a couple of hours a week in a local hotel when I was 11 or 12," he says. "I could hardly see over the table but the boss there said I should dress properly and bought me my first chef's jacket.
"I had a wonderful childhood but I loved being in a kitchen straight away because it was so different from home.
"There were chefs shouting, waiters kissing waitresses. I loved the buzz of it."
Home was a few yards away in the village of Gerardmer, in the north-eastern France region of the Vosges.
Jacques was the oldest of nine so there was a lot of cooking done in the Marchal household, much of from scratch with the freshest, most locally sourced ingredients possible: from the family garden. "It wasn't a smallholding but my father grew almost everything we needed and there were chickens, ducks and rabbits."
Jacques' early memories of food at home are of his mother preparing simple but flavoursome casseroles, done slowly on the wood-fired kitchen cooker while she was busy doing housework or in the garden.
Although there was little opportunity to help his highly efficient and proficient mother in the kitchen at home, Jacques' interest in food was spotted by his father who arranged the weekend and holiday in the hotel.
He built up experience there and went on to catering school in the town. Training continued through the summer holidays with placements in restaurants in Boulogne on the north coast and near La Rochelle on the Atlantic seaboard. When he finished his course, Jacques was back in Gerardmer soaking up every opportunity for more experience, across the range, from preparation of ingredients and creating sauces and stocks to cooking meat and fish, making pastries and desserts.
"I was always eager to learn," he says. "If I had finished what I was doing, if another station was busy, I'd ask 'can I help?' and join in. I think that's important, knowing how to do everything in a kitchen and always being part of a team. Every chef should learn and help. Nobody is perfect."
Then followed 16 months of national service.
"But I never even put on a uniform," he laughs. "And don't ask me what French army food is like because I never tasted it! I was posted to a base near the German border where the colonel, as soon as he realised I was a chef, he had me in the kitchen as his personal cook."
After national service he was back at the Gerardmer catering school reading a noticeboard about what previous pupils were up to and saw a job advertised in London with the hotel group, Forte. "I thought 'why not?' and got the job."
The move to London and the opportunities that followed were the making of him, he says. "It broadened my horizons.
"I might have stayed where I was in France, especially if my parents had had a small restaurant because I would have been expected to take over the business.
"But I was free. I could go off on my own and do what I like and I enjoyed it."
The years of doing what he liked and flitting from job to job had to end by the time he was in his late twenties, he realised. He was no longer single.
Jacques met his Plymothian wife-to-be Suzanne while he was working at the old Valletort pub in Western Approach. "She was a customer and I asked if she wanted some more ice in her drink — and that was it!"
Jacques got to know Tommy Milne, of the Marquee restaurant, while working at what was Plymouth's finest restaurant and when the chance to buy an eaterie in Frankfort Gate came up, the pair jumped at the chance.
But the gifted Frenchman was not in the kitchen. "Tommy was the chef and I ran the front of house, but I would help out in the kitchen when needed. I liked to be able to do everything."
Because he likes to be in control? And if so, is that a character trait?
"Definitely!" says Jacques. "Catering is all about staff and trust and motivation, not just being a chef."
When Tommy became ill in 1980, Jacques and Suzanne bought him out. They then changed direction from what had been a busy, all-day bistro with tables on the pavement — "we were the first in Plymouth to do that".
The couple believed there was a gap in the market for a fine-dining restaurant in Plymouth — and were proved right.
"We halved the number of tables and worked hard for four years building up and up and up and in 1984 we were in the Michelin and Egon Ronay guides.
"Then in 1987 we got a Michelin star, one of only 33 restaurants in the whole country.
"That increased the business unbelievably. But being in the guides is one thing. It is the customers who make your business, their support."
Time to talk about Jacques' cooking. But here he gives what can only be described as a Gallic shrug.
There is no secret and there never have been signature dishes. Rather he goes back to the influences of the kitchen in the family home. "It is about ingredients," he says. "The best quality, as fresh and local as possible. We are lucky here (in the South West) because we have superb fish of course, and fantastic beef and game and the wonderful clotted cream."
When pushed to describe his food beyond 'simple, uncomplicated, French cooking' he cites a couple of favourites from the Chez Nous days: scallops with ginger and white butter sauce, and veal kidneys and sweetbreads with wild mushrooms.
Much has been written about the pressures that come with running a successful restaurant, including coping when a star listing is taken away.
On the former: "It is simple, really. You must be prepared to work hard. If you borrow money, pay it back as soon as possible and be honest: never serve anything that you would not eat yourself.
"And losing a star? I always said I would shoot the inspector first, then ask questions!"
In fact there was no murder when he later had the Michelin star taken away. He wrote to the guide editor asking why, and was told there were some minor issues, including the bread served with the meal. "Fortunately it did not really change the business," says Jacques. "Our customers were very supportive. Some even wrote to Michelin — without us asking — to question the decision."
When the couple quit, in 2003, it was more to do with the everyday pressures of running a small business. "It was so difficult to take a holiday when you are a chef-owner," he says. "You cannot really get somebody in. You have to close for a couple of weeks."
Jacques, then only in his mid-50s, was not immediately seeking work but was quickly in demand. He was approached by the City Centre Company to help organise a large-scale farmers' market, and the highly successful Flavour Fest, a fixture in Plymouth's summer, was born.
Jacques continues to be involved as the event has expanded to become one of the biggest and most successful food fairs in the South West.
This year's Flavour Fest will have more than 100 food stalls in the city centre piazza from Friday to Sunday August 13-15.
New this year is the involvement of the national body of the quality produce and local fare champion, Slow Food. Jacques was one of the co-founders of the local group.
He and Suzanne also have their own outside catering business, Chez Nous-Chez Vous and he is a consultant for several food-related businesses and helps champion awareness of good nutrition in schools.
Now that he has more time on his hands he can put them in the soil: in an echo of his childhood days, Jacques has an allotment in Mannamead. "Everything there is organic, something I believe in passionately.
"There is nothing, nothing at all, that compares with growing the best produce yourself and then, at the end of the day, picking, say, some lettuce to eat at home.
"It does not get better than that."
Passion is an over-used word but that is exactly what Jacques has for good, local produce.
"For me it is nothing new and trendy," he says. "It was what I grew up with and what we started with when we opened a restaurant. It was the natural thing to do."
He does not, though, have the stereotypically French superior attitude towards everything from his homeland compared with what he finds in the UK.
He says there were always good quality restaurants in Plymouth even when he was getting started here nearly 40 years ago, although he is delighted there are now more than ever and that the British have at last embraced the idea of eating out regularly.
"There was never a problem in Britain with the quality of the produce, only ever over the way it was used. But that has improved a lot."
His laid-back air extends to his look. When we meet he is wearing stone-coloured knee-length shorts and polo shirt in salmon pink, a look that can surely only be carried off when you are in your sixties if you are French.
The man who delivered a flavour of France to Plymouth has developed a taste for things British.
"There is nothing I miss about France," he says. "Nothing.
"I would not go back there because within weeks I would be stressed."
Really? Aren't the French supposed to be a laid back nation?
"Not at all. They seem that way when you are on holiday.
"Stress. The French invented the world. They are a nation of pill takers, always taking Valium and the rest and worrying that they are ill. What is the word?"