Marlon Abela, restaurateur

Dishes by Arnaud Bignon for The GreenHouse Restaurant Mayfair

In an unassuming office building tucked away behind Berkeley Square is the London headquarters of the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation. It is an un-showy space. Save for the smattering of awards and certificates lining the walls, there is little to suggest that this is a place where multi-Michelin star restaurants are built.

I meet Abela in his office – a simple room with a large desk, behind which sits a bookshelf with framed photographs of his family. The window looks out on to Bruton Place, along to the north side of the square, where Morton’s, the group’s private members’ club, takes pride of place.

Morton’s is just one of Marlon Abela’s Mayfair ventures. The Greenhouse on the backwater of Hay’s Mews was acquired by MARC Ltd. in 2003, and in the years since has gained two Michelin stars and much acclaim thanks to executive chef Arnaud Bignon’s delicate take on fine French cuisine and a remarkable selection of wines. Comprising around 3,400 bins, it is one of the largest and most diverse collections in the UK.

Umu, Abela’s Japanese restaurant on Bruton Place, achieved its second star last year. Since its 2004 launch, chef Yoshinori Ishii’s timeless menu – with its thoughtful consideration of the provenance of ingredients and focus on the culinary traditions of Kyoto – has made Umu one of the hottest tickets in town.

With his relaxed charm, Abela explains that restaurants have always been an integral part of his life. “I was born into this. The family business was in catering and hotels, and from a very young age, I was exposed to that world.”

His father’s contract catering business, the Albert Abela Corporation, specialised in food service management within industries including business, education, healthcare institutions and airlines. The company also operated a range of hotels across the Cóte d’Azur.

In his teens, Abela was drawn into his father’s world, and began working in the family business. He “picked up a lot of experience,” directly learning how a business on such a great scale operates.

“The business had many facets. Mostly catering – whether it was business dining, or airline catering, to offshore catering – you name it: hotels – luxury hotels, too – and other F&B trading activities. That was a great place to learn.”

Abela says that entering the food and drink industry was not a decision he even had to make: “It was kind of an automatic thing. I always knew I would be involved in F&B in some way or other. I never sat back and said: “Okay, this is what I want to do”; I always assumed I would do that.”

By the end of his teenage years, Abela had discovered that his passion was in fine dining. “I was passionate about food and restaurants from a very early age – I’d done all of the three Michelin star restaurants in France by the age of 19, and most of the two stars in Paris. That was my thing.”

Later, the decision was taken to sell the company. “When we took the decision to sell the business, I knew that my focus would be high-end restaurants and wine. I was always more geared towards the high-end.”

After his father’s death, the Albert Abela Corporation was sold for £360 million; but Marlon had no intention of retiring. “I never even thought for a minute, second or millisecond of not doing something with my life. It never even crossed my mind… perhaps it should have crossed my mind! But it didn’t,” says Abela. “I need to work. I need to keep my mind active. I need to create. That’s very much the way I was brought up.”

Since, Abela has created two of Mayfair’s most exciting restaurants in The Greenhouse and Umu. For these expertly conceived restaurants to exist in Mayfair is not surprising; Abela spent many of his formative years in the area. “The family offices were on Savile Row, so I kind of grew up in Mayfair.” He says that Mayfair’s iconic restaurants made an impression on him, even as a boy. “I remember the old Cecconi’s; I remember Mirabelle at the time; I remember all those places. These are institutions.

“I always believed Mayfair to be the natural home for our restaurants, because I always thought of Mayfair as being the centre of the world. That was always my perspective.”

For Abela, whose life has been so linked to Mayfair, the success of The Greenhouse and Umu makes him proud. “I’m delighted that Umu has been awarded another Michelin star. It’s a big thing. Getting our second star is something I’ve wanted to achieve for a few years,” he says. “The fact that I’m not Japanese and we succeeded in getting that star means a lot to me.” Abela says that he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve when opening this restaurant. “When we set out creating Umu, we always positioned ourselves and always wanted to be among the very best Japanese restaurants in Europe. I think getting that second star is an homage to that.”

Now with a portfolio boasting numerous awards from Michelin, Abela says that with each restaurant, there is a benchmark to reach. “Undoubtedly, our market is very high-end. That is where we see the restaurants prospering, and that’s our long-term position. The last thing we want to be is transient.”

Shirking “trends”, Marlon hopes to create lasting, iconic restaurants by “providing the highest quality possible, on every level.” He continues: “We are all about food and wine and great service. The values we have as a group, and the commitment we have towards those values, is what will ensure us being in this business in 10 and 20 years time.”

Does Abela think Umu and The Greenhouse have what it takes to become iconic London restaurants? “It takes a long time to build something into what I call ‘iconic status’,” says Abela. “It takes a lot of work.” He explains that the success of a restaurant relies on its willingness to evolve. “You have to constantly be investing and reassessing what you are doing. It’s not a question of getting two stars and saying, ‘We’re happy’. We’re always pushing on to the next project, the next phase of the evolution. I hope our restaurants are timeless, but there has to be a constant evolution. Without that in today’s market, you can’t compete.

“You always have to anticipate, and you have to be in a place where your customers find a reason for coming back.”

With Umu and The Greenhouse, Abela has found a gap in Mayfair’s dining scene that he feels the restaurants occupy. “Most places in London and in Mayfair are not about fine dining per se – there are some very good restaurants out there, but they are not fine dining,” argues Abela. “If you look at the new breed of Mayfair restaurants, most are selling more of an environment, rather than what we do so well, which is food, wine and service. I think in that way, we have a very unique positioning and niche. We want to be the very best at what we do well.”

Abela is highly involved in the running of the restaurants, as well as his group’s wine business, MARC Fine Wines. He also has a majority stake in wine merchants O.W. Loeb. Abela is passionate about wine, and has been since he was young. “I had my first sip of great wine when I was 10 or 11 – it was the awakening of a new world to me,” he says. Marlon brings his own knowledge and passion to these projects. “I’ve just come back from a week in Burgundy and a week in Piedmont – I go to each twice a year. I’m very hands-on.”

The sheer size of the wine list at The Greenhouse is staggering, and a testament to the effort dedicated to sourcing the very best bottles. “To me, two things are vital when choosing wine: terroirs – where the grapes come from and how they are nurtured; and balance. Every wine has to be harmonious and balanced – that’s what makes a great wine.” The restaurant is savvy with technology, too: the Coravin system in place allows expensive bottles to be opened and poured by the glass, meaning a significantly lower price for diners. A recent ‘four hands’ dinner in partnership with acclaimed Bordeaux winemakers Lynch-Bages is a taste of how central wine is to Abela’s operations.

As well as restaurants and wine, Abela operates a bakery wholesaler that supplies bread to The Connaught, The Dorchester and Jason Atherton’s Social Eating House; the Group has also recently launched MARC Patisserie at Selfridges, offering “high-end patisserie and chocolates”. Marlon says that London was “under-supplied” in this area; he tells me that they only use the best ingredients, and then prepare them in the best way. “Our signature is cutting down on sugar and fat contents to get a cleaner, longer palette; they are a lighter texture so you can enjoy more of them, and they have a length and purity which is unrivalled.”

And of course, there is Morton’s, the private member’s club whose regulars come from various industries – “everything from the art world to the fashion world, to finance, banking; property of course; publishing… it’s a diverse mix,” says Abela. Despite the club’s success, Abela is not looking to open another Morton’s any time soon – and the same applies to his restaurants.

“When we first acquired Morton’s and transformed it into what it is today, I was more open-minded about doing Morton’s elsewhere.” Abela explains that his restaurants are so linked to their locations, that it’s hard to see them anywhere else.

“The uniqueness of Morton’s also lies in the fact that is on Berkeley Square – it’s a prime location, it’s a beautiful building – and I don’t know how you would emulate that in any way elsewhere. I don’t think you can. It’s the same with most of our restaurants; it is very difficult to envisage opening The Greenhouse elsewhere. I’m not saying it’s impossible – but these are very much Mayfair restaurants.”

Abela sees Mayfair as a unique place, not just in London, but globally – and he says that it is the perfect setting for his restaurants. “There is an elegance and uniqueness to Mayfair. When I look at other cities, you just don’t have a ‘Mayfair’ elsewhere. I realised this when I was looking at perhaps opening an Umu in New York, and thought: ‘What’s the equivalent to Mayfair?’ There isn’t one – there’s nothing.” He says that the diversity of Mayfair is what makes it the place to be. “You have the art, fashion and business; you have the restaurants, clubs and green space. Mayfair is a community that has its own traditions. It’s something I hope Mayfair will never lose.”

As featured in Mayfair Times’ March 16 edition.

Christine McVie, Fleetwood Mac



Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie offers me tea and a seat on a plush sofa. Among the things on her coffee table is a picture book called Crap Taxidermy. There’s a platinum record on the wall, and an artfully stuffed dog looks out from under a side table, next to a flickering fireplace.

“Do you like my dog? I found him in an antique shop – he’s 100 years old and I call him Jarvis.”

McVie is a dog person – she had two until recently. “I had a lovely time with them, but do I miss having dogs? Dogs tie you down. Who’s going to look after them when I go on tour?” she says. “I thought about getting a bird – a parrot perhaps – and teaching it to talk.” But McVie doesn’t want to be held back any longer. “I want my freedom now.”

As one fifth of Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie has helped define popular music since the late 1960s. With her bandmates – some she has played alongside for many years, others for shorter stints – McVie has written songs that are loved by different generations. With 1977’s Rumours, Fleetwood Mac became superstars, experiencing both critical acclaim and public adoration. She explains that there is something about the band’s music, and Rumours in particular, that appeals to all ages. “Parents played the album at home, but kids gravitated to the album as well; and now some of their children are turned on to Fleetwood Mac.” It’s something that McVie is still surprised by. “It’s really quite amazing, the dichotomy of people coming to see the shows – it ranges anywhere from 80 to eight. It’s very exciting.”

Nearly 40 years on, Rumours is an album that still resonates with audiences today – herself, included, explains McVie.

“I think that people love Rumours – I think that the songs are very timeless and ageless. I still love Rumours too; I don’t listen to it all the time, but when I do, I’m always stunned by how fresh it still sounds.”

McVie and Fleetwood Mac achieved a virtually unparalleled level of acclaim and adoration with Rumours, but the road to success wasn’t always easy – as a musician or a woman in the countercultural sixties and early seventies, says McVie. “There weren’t that many women around back then. It was a very male-oriented industry. I was not in the pop industry at that time – I was playing in a blues band, so that was even more unusual.”

McVie had her first taste of life on the road with British blues outfit Chicken Shack; a gig she held down until she married her future band mate and Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie in 1969.

“We had a Ford transit van and we used to schlep up and down the M1. We used to have converted transits with aircraft seats put in the back,” recalls McVie. The young songwriter was paying her dues, living a lifestyle far removed from what she would later experience with the heady heights of Fleetwood Mac. “You couldn’t say it was a life of luxury by any means.”

After a couple of years playing the British blues circuit, the band made perhaps the biggest decision of their career. “We moved to America. We thought it would be great to move to LA, because we weren’t doing anything over here. We couldn’t buy a gig.”

Soon after the relocation, the band’s guitarist and driving force over the past few years Bob Welch departed, leaving Fleetwood Mac guitar-less. A chance meeting with guitarist Lindsey Buckingham led to the band bringing Buckingham and his lover and collaborator Stevie Nicks into the fold. “I was a bit cagey in case we didn’t get on or something – but we met for dinner one night and we all got on really well. We didn’t even have auditions. The rest, really, is history.”

The tide truly began to turn with the band’s 1975 self-titled album (referred to as the “White Album” by McVie) – the first with Buckingham and Nicks.

The album demonstrated a more pop-oriented sound than before. It was during the writing of Fleetwood Mac that McVie saw the band’s potential to be very big. “I remember that I’d written a song called ‘Say You Love Me’. We went into a little rehearsal room in a cellar somewhere, and I said: “Well, it goes like this…’ When the chorus came, Stevie and Lindsey both chimed in with the most fantastic harmony,” remembers McVie.

“We all had goose bumps. That was the moment when I thought: ‘this is going to be amazing’.” With Buckingham and Nicks, the band took on an unusual dynamic – one that McVie notes as having a definite impact on the music. “The combination of two Americans and three Brits, two girls and two couples as well, made for all kinds of things we never could have expected to happen.”

More than a year after its release, Fleetwood Mac went to number one on the Billboard 200 chart. “That took some time to take off,” explains McVie. “Once we started touring, people started to flock to see us, and they would buy the album.” The band was receiving huge support from radio, and was riding a wave of critical acclaim and success before the band began to record a follow-up. “I don’t think people realised, but the White Album was number one in the charts about six months before we even made Rumours.”

What happened next is rock and roll legend. Personal relations between band members hit a low; the McVies were in the midst of a divorce, and Nicks and Buckingham’s on-off relationship was strained. “When we finished Rumours, we knew we had something good – but we weren’t getting on very well. Stevie, Mick (Fleetwood) and I would get on great; Lindsey, Mick and John would get on great, but the ‘couple’ thing got quite tense in the studio sometimes.”

Against adversity, Fleetwood Mac made one of the finest albums of their career – and one of the most popular albums of all time. Rumours is now estimated to have sold over 40 million copies. McVie says there is an understanding between band members, which leads to memorable music. “What’s that famous saying? ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ – in our case that is true, because there is just something… a great chemistry between the five of us. We’re all completely different, but we connect musically in a really strange way.”

In 1998, after continual chart-topping albums and lucrative tours, McVie left the band. “My father died in 1990, and I was desperate to move back to England at that point,” explains McVie. “I wanted to be closer to my brother who was my only remaining close family. I’d also developed a chronic fear of flying – and the band knew when I did the last tour that there was no persuading me to stay.”

McVie spent the next 16 years “out in the boondocks” in Kent, much of her time spent restoring her house and looking after two dogs. Now, McVie has mixed feelings about her time out of the spotlight. “I could say I have regrets, but then there were quite a few years doing that that I did quite enjoy,” she says. “It was very peaceful, and I learnt all about birds – I love birds.

“I just wish I’d filled that 16 years with a hell of a lot more. After the house was finished, I was bouncing off the walls. It was a very isolating time. I’ve wasted a bit of my life, and I want to make up for it now.”

McVie says she came to a realisation. “There came a point when I finished doing the house that I realised I was just sitting in the country, rotting away. I had two dogs to keep me busy, then they got old and died, bless them. I was just bouncing off the walls, because it was such a big place and it was in the middle of nowhere. I thought: ‘What am I doing?’”

McVie sought the help of Dr. Richard Wolman, a Belgravia psychiatrist who helped the songwriter overcome her fear of flying. “He worked with me for quite a long time with that and other issues I had; I became friends with him and his family.”

Soon, the idea of getting back with the band began to take shape. “It just so happened that I was thinking about what it would be like to go back to Fleetwood Mac. I called up Mick (Fleetwood) and said: ‘Do you think it’s possible? Would you guys even be interested?’” Fleetwood was arriving in London and suggested meeting up to discuss a possible reunion.

As part of her therapy, Dr. Wolman suggested McVie buy a plane ticket. “He said: ‘If you could get on a plane, where would you go?’ I said Maui, because I love Hawaii. He told me to just buy a ticket, and said I didn’t have to get on it, but it would be a positive move. So I did.”

McVie flew from London to Hawaii with Fleetwood, who lives on the islands. “I ended up going on stage with his little blues band – he owns a restaurant called Fleetwood’s on Front Street, Lahaina. He persuaded me to go and play a couple of songs with his band, and I loved it.” Soon, she had spoken with other members of the band, and the five members that recorded Rumours were reunited.

Since McVie’s return, the band has completed a world tour taking in 120 shows. Now, Fleetwood Mac is in the process of recording a new album.

“I started sending demos to Lindsey and he worked on them, then we got together to start making a record – we’re talking two years ago now. We only got it half-finished, a new studio album. We’ve got seven or eight songs at the moment, and we’re very, very thrilled with them.”

According to McVie, fans will have to be patient – getting each band member in the same room is not as easy as it once was. “I’m waiting to hear when we’re going to go back and finish it, which I suspect will be April or something like that. Everybody has different things going on. We still branch off and do our own things if we want. But my feet are firmly planted in this record at the moment, because quite a lot of the songs are mine!”

McVie is clearly excited for fans to hear new material. “The songs are fantastic, we’re very excited about them, because they have a little whiff of Rumours about them – and I’m saying that very cautiously, but that’s how I feel. I think people could do with a new Mac album from the five of us.” Once the album is ready, McVie says the band will be embarking on another world tour. “Depending on how decrepit we feel, it may not be the last. We’re all fit, so we’re thinking we can do another tour and put another record out – and people seem to love us, so we appreciate that.”

McVie says that playing with the band feels natural, even after so long out of the public eye. “It was strange in the fact that it wasn’t strange at all. The moment I stepped on stage it felt right – it was like 16 years hadn’t happened.” Playing in front of huge audiences now comes naturally to her – and it is a still the greatest thrill for McVie. “Hot air ballooning comes pretty close. I only did it once, and it was a celestial experience. But nothing really compares to the interaction between a band and an audience. It’s a big rush.” According to McVie, there is one song in particular that audiences connect with.

“When I do Songbird, you can hear a pin drop.” McVie can see the effect the song has on people. “I’m not saying it’s my favourite song, particularly; but it seems to be the one that I get associated with, because people have played it at their weddings, funerals or when their pets die. In all kinds of situations, people play Songbird, because it’s a little prayer. I wrote that song in 30 minutes!”

For now, McVie is back in London, and enjoying what Mayfair has to offer. “I love it around Bond Street – now I’m back in the city, that’s top of my list: burning some plastic!” As for Fleetwood Mac, she is content just seeing where the music will take her. “It’s a rebirth, in a sense – and it’s fantastic because we’re way over 60. I’m having a ball.”

As featured in Mayfair Times’ March 16 edition.