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.

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