It’s not just ‘food’, it’s culture | Marvin Gauci

Malta’s gastronomy culture is experiencing a dramatic revival, but is our restaurant scene up to the challenge of meeting higher expectations? For award-winning chef and restaurateur Marvin Gauci, Malta is on the brink of a culinary cultural revolution

The job of a chef is reputed to be among the most stressful in the world. Is that true, in your experience... and if so, does the stress affect the way you work?

Yes, it does. It is very, very stressful. It’s partly the heat of the kitchen, and working in a busy environment, but it’s also the pressure of having to bring everything out together at the same time. If you have a table of six, for example, and they’ve sat down, looked at the menu and placed their orders... from that point on, you’re on the clock. You have about 10 to 15 minutes maximum to shoot out the starters. And they have to come out together: even if not all dishes have the same preparation time. Some might take one minute, others might take 10 minutes, depending on the cooking procedure. Besides the time running out, you need to ensure that standards are kept as high as the expectations. So yes, it is very stressful and very, very challenging. But it’s also very rewarding.

Another perception is that cooking is also an art-form in its right. Chefs of a certain calibre are regarded as master craftsmen more than mere professionals; and – in Malta as elsewhere – gastronomy is today more widely appreciated as an art than ever before. Do you agree?  

Nowadays, people are more into food than they might have been in previous years. You see this on the social media all the time. People buy books, cook at home, go to the supermarket, or their favourite butcher, in search of a particular ingredient for a dish they saw in a restaurant, and want to recreate in their own home. They’ll take photos of the dish and post them online... so yes, there’s a whole ethos surrounding gastronomy nowadays. Gastronomy is a culture; and in the Maltese islands it has grown drastically in recent years. Fortunately – or unfortunately – here in Malta we have been exposed to snippets of cultures from all over the world, that we have adapted and made our own.

Why is that ‘unfortunate’ as well as ‘fortunate’?

The ‘fortunate’ part is that you have different tastes from everywhere. The misfortune, however, is that you can’t say you have something that is your own. If you talk about Peruvian gastronomy, for example: there’s an identity there. In fact, Peru arguably boasts one of the best national kitchens in the world. It may not be generally known, but many dishes served around the world actually originated in Peru. But when we talk about the major gastronomy cultures of the world – France, Italy, India, China, etc. – they all have an identity of their own. Malta, on the other hand, doesn’t really have its own gastronomical identity... although we are in process of creating one. In this sense, we are perhaps closer to Spain. Until around 15 years ago, people didn’t really talk about ‘Spanish gastronomy’, either. There is, and has always been, typical ‘Spanish cuisine’; but not a national culture of gastronomy and fine dining, like there is today. But the people themselves created an ethos around food, and made their own national gastronomy culture. Today, the restaurants in Spain are magnificent. There is one town, San Sebastián, which has the highest concentration of Michelin-star chefs in the world.

I think one of the main reasons for inconsistency is that people underestimate what’s actually involved in running a restaurant

Not everyone would agree that Malta entirely lacks a gastronomy culture. It has been argued that there is such a thing as ‘traditional Maltese cuisine’, but it has been overshadowed by a constant influx of foreign influences...

I have no problem with other people’s opinions. But I don’t really see it that way myself. When we talk about Maltese cuisine, what are we actually talking about? ‘Bebbux’ [snails]? Don’t the French have their ‘escargot’? What else is there: ‘bragioli’? ‘Pulpetti’? They all have Italian origins. Same with ‘Mqarrun’ (‘macaroni’]. It’s pasta: where did it come from? So what indigenous recipe can we really call our own? Rabbit. That’s the only thing we cook here to a local recipe. And that’s because rabbit, in Malta, was the only wild game that could actually be caught and cooked locally. Everything else came from abroad...

There is an irony in this, because today – unlike, perhaps, 20 years ago – there are more restaurants specialising in Maltese cuisine than ever before...

Yes, that is what I meant by what happened in Spain over the past 15 years. We are now, over the last few years, in the process of recreating our own food culture. And in 10 years’ time, it will be there. We will have restaurants, in 10 years’ time that will go into great detail on the origin of the dishes they serve: going back to how people really ate in the past; digging up the original recipes, updating them to the present context.... and recreating something that will give true identity to Maltese cuisine.

That’s your projection for the future...

Yes, that’s my projection for the very near future.

What about the present? What’s being done in this direction today?

Malta is a unique place in a number of respects. It has its advantages, as well as its disadvantages. The advantage is, for instance, if there’s an ingredient you need from the other side of the island... you just go and get it; within an hour, you’ll be back. But size places certain restrictions. Who do restaurants cater for here? There are locals, and there is also a wide variety of visitors, who bring with them a diversity of tastes and demands. But the numbers are limited. If I wanted to open a certain style of restaurant that may be different from what’s already on offer... there might not be enough volume of people to sustain that demand. So when you create something new, you need to create the medium first.

If people have a bad experience eating out – it could be that even a fly passed by your table: something you have no control over – they might judge your restaurant on that basis

What do you mean by ‘medium’, in this context?

I’ll make it simple. Take the restaurant we’re in right now [Caviar and Bull, in St George’s Bay]. Here, I have to create an atmosphere – a menu, a service – that caters for diners from a multitude of sectors both locally and internationally. I need to attract all these people to my restaurant. How do you that? It’s more than just the food you serve. It’s the atmosphere, the concept underpinning the establishment. If you don’t create a medium, you will not be competitive. I could create a dish that would cost 150 euro on the menu. But who’s going to buy it? Recently I was in the USA, for example. At a restaurant like this one in New York, you would expect to pay around $300 just for the food. So a dinner for two would come to $600 just for the food, and between $750 and $800 with a bottle of wine. If I created something like that over here, it wouldn’t work. The market dynamics are different. So apart from creating the restaurant you want, you also need to see what works.

Let’s talk about pricing in Malta. Trip Advisor suggests that an average meal here, in this restaurant, would come to around 60 euro a head: which is on the upmarket side for Malta, but still nowhere near places like New York. Is there a ceiling on how much you can charge in Malta?

Basically, yes. There is a ceiling to what you can charge. If you go to Mykonos, or Ibiza, or Montecarlo, you will find people willing to pay 300 or 400 euros for a bottle of Champagne. The local market calls for a different price range.

To be fair, the average wages in places like Montecarlo don’t compare with Malta either...

But they have tourists there, too. Do you think the people buying Champagne at those prices in Montecarlo are locals? Forget about it. They are tourists who can afford to buy specific products at specific prices.

Out of curiosity, what percentage of your clientele here is actually local?

Around 45%. I am pleased to say we have a solid local customer base here. Part of it is because, at the end of the day, we are not as expensive as we are projected to be.

You’ve also opened a restaurant in Budapest, Hungary, which I imagine must be a very different culinary context. How do the restaurants' scenes compare between the two countries?

There are differences, but also similarities. Over here, for instance, it’s difficult to source the right ingredients; but then, it’s easier to get them delivered. In Hungary, being such a large country, nothing is centralised. Things which are easy in Malta, become challenging in a much bigger country. But really, whether you’re running a restaurant in Malta, Budapest, or wherever, the challenges are always the same. The only difference is that you need to do a lot more research to open a restaurant in a new place. This is where most people get it wrong. In Malta, I give people what they want. If there’s a trend for a certain type of food, and it works on an island, that is what we will deliver. We don’t do what ‘we’ want; we only do what we are called to do. You have to know the market; which is why research is so important when opening a restaurant overseas.

At the same time, new restaurants seem to be opening in Malta every day. Some last and get established; others close down within a few months. At the risk of voicing a personal opinion, even some of the ones that last tend to become inconsistent after a while. Do you agree with that assessment; and if so, how do you account for it?

All those vying to open a restaurant want to provide the best food, the best service, and so on. What they don’t necessarily understand is how to make it profitable. At the end of the day, a restaurateur will only run a restaurant if he’s making something out of it. If he’s in it for the right reasons, that is. There are, after all, other reasons one might open a restaurant. Let’s say someone opens a restaurant today. They will employ the best staff, a host, stock up on the best meat and fish available on the market; and they will be paying a fortune for it all.

Once they realise that, after a year in business, they’ve lost €150,000, they will start cutting costs. So obviously, the standards will go down. I think one of the main reasons for inconsistency is that people underestimate what’s actually involved in running a restaurant. There are days, for instance, when we [my wife and I] don’t sleep. You start in the morning, and God knows when your workday will be over: 2am, 3am... and by 8am the following day, you have to make sure your restaurant is fully stocked for the day ahead. Especially if you want the best meat, the best fish, the best vegetables and so on. If you don’t go early, you’ll find nothing.

Meanwhile, as Malta’s food culture grows, people are becoming more ‘food-literate’, as it were. What sort of impact has this had on the local restaurant scene?

I think the market is changing, primarily because people are travelling more. They’re getting exposed to food much more; and as a result, they’re becoming more critical about it. We’ve seen a development locally: people often come here with specific orders in mind. A big percentage would have already Googled the menu, or consulted Trip Advisor and various other online platforms, to know what to expect before experimenting. Another thing is that the market itself has just exploded. In most village cores you will find new restaurants opening today, where there were hardly any before. So there’s been a big change in the market: people are exposed to food even without travelling. Social media also made a big difference. If people have a bad experience eating out – it could be that even a fly passed by your table: something you have no control over – they might judge your restaurant on that basis. Today, social media gives them a platform to make that sort of judgment. It’s positive, because it distinguishes between the good and the mediocre. It can be negative, however, in the sense that sometimes, the judgement on what is ‘good’ and ‘mediocre’ might be taken for the wrong reasons. But on the whole, it’s more positive than negative. The market is growing; though I think the sustainability still has to be evaluated over the next two to three years, because it’s getting a little out of hand.

This seems to echo concerns raised by the MHRA recently, which suggest the idea of ‘capping’ the tourism sector. Do you share those concerns?

I think that capping would be a bit of a problem, in the sense that... who am I to stop another entrepreneur from opening an outlet? It’s their money, at the end of the day, and they can risk it as much as they like. But what I do think is a bit ridiculous is that, for example, in some places you will see one outlet, next door to another, next door to another... all offering the same concept. It is much more the regulatory aspect that I think needs to be controlled. Rather than limiting the number of restaurants, I think there should be more emphasis on the functionality, and the long-term sustainability at evaluation stage. But it is ultimately up to the regulators.