Fraiche start: interview with Oxton’s Michelin star chef Marc Wilkinson
For 11 years now chef Marc Wilkinson has been leading Merseyside’s restaurant scene, holding the area’s only Michelin star for his ‘shed’ Fraiche in Oxton.
As he prepares to end the restaurant’s chapter in the Wirral location, he talks to YM Liverpool about his motivation, inspiration, hopes for Liverpool’s food scene and forthcoming plans.
Interview by Natasha Young
Q: Tell us about your culinary background before you opened Fraiche:
From [the age of] 15 I’ve been working in kitchens so it’s been a long old haul.
I worked in a lot of hotels, such as the Chester Grosvenor, and I worked at The Grand and the Mirabelle Restaurant down south as well as Pennyhill Park which is another five-star hotel.
I also worked in Canada for a year.
Q: What brought you back to the area to open Fraiche?
It’s funny, when you leave you often say ‘I’m never coming back here, that’s it I’m gone!’ and then you end up back here.
It was a combination of coming back to where family was and trying to achieve something in Merseyside because, at the time, no one had achieved anything culinary actually in Merseyside. We’d had great chefs from Merseyside going out of [the area], but no one had actually brought it back into Merseyside so
I thought ‘there’s a mission for me’.
Q: Why did you choose Oxton in particular for Fraiche?
Initially I couldn’t afford Liverpool. I looked there but rent, rates and running costs and looking at how you would survive didn’t look feasible.
Unfortunately with this type of cooking and style, unless you’re really lucky it’s hard to make profit on it so I started looking further afield and Oxton hit the spot.
Q: Do you believe Fraiche’s location has played a part in its success?
Initially it does because you have a captive market there. When you’ve got a lot of chimney pots around you it certainly helps.
The more you become a destination restaurant, the more people pull towards you so it gets easier.
Q: Was achieving a Michelin star always your goal?
You can’t let it be your raison d’etre, it’s got to be a nice bonus. If you get too fixated on that you lose sight of what you’re doing and the vision of where you want to go.
I’m quite stubborn so I still do the things I want to do and I don’t really listen to other people in that sense, which is why Fraiche is a bit nuts.
Q: How do you describe your food and what do you believe has been the key to your success at Fraiche?
Slogging my guts out most of the time! Consistency is key and I’m always there so,
food-wise, Fraiche has always been consistent. The consistency of me being there has kept a steady course through the years.
It’s passion as well – wanting to improve and put a better plate of food out day after day.
I always think if you aim above where your rating is at then, at the very least, your rating will be safe.
Q: Fraiche was recently awarded a Michelin star for the 11th year. How challenging is it to retain it?
Michelin has the reassurance that I’m always there so when they inspect they see me in the kitchen visit after visit.
We all have bad days but your bad day has got to be at a certain level that never falls below Michelin star standard, which is hard.
Q: What impact does that kind of accolade have on you as a chef in terms of pressure and the daily job?
Initially it’s good for your ego – chefs love bling and shiny things! At the start you think ‘ooh yes, I’m a superstar’ and then the reality kicks in and everyone who comes through the door is expecting ‘wow’. The pressure starts to mount.
Maybe it’s a double-edged sword because if you were to lose [the star] it’d be so detrimental to your business. Like with everything in life, if there’s bad news it travels so fast.
Restaurants I know have lost a star and their businesses have been affected. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.
Q: Fraiche still has the only star in Merseyside. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m hoping Liverpool is going to achieve a Michelin star in the next year or two and that’ll be great for the city.
I don’t want to be possessive like in ‘Lord of the Rings’ so that I am the only one, I’m not like that.
Q: People talk about how the restaurant scene, particularly in Liverpool, is quickly changing. You must have seen a lot of change in the 11 years you’ve been achieving these accolades.
Yeah it’s vibrant. You can eat better mid-market in Liverpool – whether it’s tapas, Asian or street food it’s definitely a lot better now.
The top end is slower coming around but there are places with potential to achieve so let’s keep things crossed and get Liverpool on the map.
Q: What made you want to work in a kitchen, and were there any chefs who inspired you?
It was a financially driven motivation, purely – I just wanted a bike and I couldn’t get one unless I went out and earned it.
I just wanted a shiny thing – I’m obsessed with shiny things you see, things don’t change! I’ve got a stove that’s a shiny thing now and I polish it every night.
It was purely for money then I watched a TV programme called ‘Take Six Chefs’ and that totally blew me away. It opened a door to a world I’d never seen before.
Q: Do you mean in terms of the creativity that could be involved?
Yeah, and how cool these chefs were. I just thought it was mundane, peeling potatoes and carrots and making roast potatoes, and it was just about functioning – a means to an end to get money.
Then all of a sudden I was like ‘oh my!’ and I upgraded where I worked, started buying the books and progressed on. Now I’ve got my own shed with a shiny thing in the kitchen.
Q: Where do you get the inspiration for your dishes?
I like art and architecture. Sometimes a dish can be visually captivated and initiated from a painting, which sounds a bit up my own bottom but it does happen. I take a picture of a picture and then I work on an ingredient.
Or sometimes there’s an influx of an ingredient and you have to work with it. Say you’re gardening and you’ve got courgette flowers coming out of your ears, your inspiration has got to be ‘what am I going to do with these courgette flowers?’ so then you work on the dish that way.
You have to look at different angles to conceive a dish and not just pick up a cookery book and say ‘oh yeah I’ll copy that’ which is easy.
Q: You’ve got your own cookery book on the way. Can you tell us about it?
It’s cheap therapy, as I’ve worked out!
It’s about opening the restaurant, running the restaurant and then, in December, closing the restaurant so it’s that journey interspersed with recipes and dishes from over the years.
Q: How have you chosen the recipes for it?
A couple are popular with regulars and a couple are for personal reasons.
There’s a dessert called ‘Fallen Leaves’ which is purely inspired from my father.
I used to be my father’s carer and the last walk we had was through Royden Park. I asked him to help me pick some leaves because I was doing an autumn display on the bar with fallen leaves and acorns.
The week after that he passed away so the dish I came up with was ‘Fallen Leaves’ and that’s quite important to me, so that’s in the book.
Q: When is the book likely to come out?
In the new year, and it’s all on me now. We’ve got a good photographer on board and a good chap doing copywrite to convert my waffle into English so it’ll be nice. Hopefully it’ll give me some closure as well with the restaurant.
Q: So when the restaurant closes in December, is that it?
That’s it for Fraiche [in Oxton], yeah, but Fraiche will move. Fraiche is not dead, just the building.
Q: Have you got somewhere else lined up?
We’re in talks and I can’t say anything. No contracts are signed but I’m looking at something.
Q: What are your ambitions and goals as a chef and restauranteur now?
New horizons. It’ll be 15 years [of Fraiche] this December so no time like the present.
I think I’ve proved enough there so I am looking at a new challenge.
Marc Wilkinson’s book, ‘One Man and His Shed – A Reflection of Fraiche’ is due out in the new year. Fraiche in Oxton will close on 14 December. For more information visit www.restaurantfraiche.com.