Marvin Gauci is one of the most successful Maltese restauranteurs and chefs. After opening four successful restaurants in Malta, of which one is his ‘flagship’ Tarragon where he made a name for himself, he has opened his first restaurant outside the Mediterranean island of Malta in the Hungarian capital city Budapest. Caviar and Bull, the second restaurant with the same name is housed in the Corinthia Hotel in Budapest.
“If you would have asked me a year ago whether I would open a restaurant outside Malta, I would have told you that this was not possible,” the Maltese chef and restauranteur Gauci told Food and Wine Gazette.
Today, he does not exclude opening further restaurants outside Malta.
It all started around this time last year. The CEO of the Corinthia, a highly successful Maltese hotel chain with hotels in various cities across Europe and beyond told him that he needed a holiday. Two of Marvin’s restaurants, Caviar and Bull and Buddhamman are in the premises of a Corinthia hotel in St Julian’s, Malta.
“He told me we have a nice hotel in Budapest and invited me to go there. I did not know what he had in mind and I would end up opening a restaurant there.”
The Maltese chef has words of praise for both the chairman and founder of the Corinthia group Alfred Pisani and also the CEO Simon Naudi. “If you ask me to mention five names of people I admire, they would be the first two. The first is a visionary and the second knows exactly the perfect time for everything. Every time I speak to him I learn something new but the most important thing I’ve learnt from him is timing,” he says.
Marvin never dreamt that he would open more restaurants after Tarragon, but a conversation with Simon led to him being asked to open two restaurants in the Corinthia hotels in St Julian’s. Later, he was instrumental in convincing Marvin to take the plunge and open another one in Budapest.
Today, he tells me that a few months after the opening, they cannot cope the demand. It has got great reviews and is doing extremely well. So how different is it to operating a restaurant in Budapest to one in Malta I ask.
He said you would be surprised that you can work with pretty much the same ingredients. “In Malta, I cannot get the fish I need locally. The reality is that shellfish is imported from Scotland, Ireland and other countries. If it comes to Malta, it comes to Budapest. The same goes for fresh fish. Today everything is air flown so the produce is really fresh.”
We cannot use our sea because everything has been destroyed over the years
Isn’t this a shame I ask given that Malta is an island surrounded by sea. “The problem is that we cannot use our sea because everything has been destroyed over the years. I love to use Maltese produce but the reality is that it is limited. When you have five restaurants that serve around 350-400 people each day it is impossible to cater for such a demand with local produce,” he said.
Marvin Gauci is also promoter of the Dinner in the Sky concept in Malta where he serves a unique experience in different places around the island. That was his last venture in Malta before he decided to venture abroad.
He is not new to experiences abroad. He started his career in Ireland in 1997. After working there, he took the plunge and opened his first catering business in a renowned golf club in Ireland. He decided to return back home and opened the Wild Thyme, a highly successful restaurant in Xemxija, Malta which he ran for 4 years.
From there, he went on to open Tarragon in 2007. Then came Caviar and Bull in 2014, Buddhamann in 2015 and Dinner in the Sky in 2016 before his Budapest venture last year.
As a chef turned restauranteur he misses the cooking. “When I go to a restaurant, I feel the need to go into the kitchen and work even if I am not in my chef’s clothes,” he said. “Sometimes, I go and work even for just a part of the service but I know that my role as a restauranteur has now changed,” he said.
Marvin now believes that he might end up opening other ventures outside of Malta. “Corinthia have already asked me to consider other restaurants in their hotels. But I need to take this step-by-step, to build a good structure with standard procedures which is essential when you have multiple restaurants,” he said. “Ultimately it is a completely different ball game. In three years, I have opened four restaurants and I’ve done the same things. In the process, I am trying to improve on the bad things, learn from the mistakes I’ve made and how to solve them.”
The Maltese chef gives a lot of importance to the menu and is in control together with his team. “The menus are created by me. The chefs obviously give their inputs and we discuss and change the dishes together. But it is important to give your signature to a dish. When we prepare the menu, we create the recipes and then stick to it. When we have specials or we need to change the menus, we will meet and discuss again,” he said.
I remember a conversation with Marvin many years ago when he dreamt of opening a fine dining restaurant. “I still have this in the back of my mind but I know this is completely different. When you cater for a 16 cover restaurant, this is not a business but rather something that you do when you have had enough and want to do something you really like. I am conscious of the fact that there is a limit to how much you can charge in a place like Malta and even if the price is decent, it would still be limited to 16/20 covers. For the time being, my effort is to concentrate on growing my business. When I have a business that is structured and doing well, the machine is well oiled this can be an option. I get most of my satisfaction from seeing a restaurant full, from having happy customers.”
Does he see a revival in Maltese gastronomy particularly given food is becoming a very important element in tourism today. Where will Malta be in five years from now, I ask. “We are going no where. Our biggest problem is human resources. I cannot find resources.There are no people who want to work in the sector or else you have students or part-timers who do it to earn some extra money but who don’t have the passion to serve people.”
He sees the restaurant in Budapest as a way for him to be an ambassador for Malta. “People visit the restaurant, like it and ask about Malta. They want to see my country. It is like a stepping stone to Malta,” he said.
Marvin believes more chefs should open restaurants abroad. “It is in this way that we can bring people to Malta for the food. But we also need to curate their experience, we need to give them the best possible experience. There are of course places that need to be avoided.’
He is of the view that improvement needs to come organically. “I am not obsessed with using local ingredients, I prefer to use the best possible ingredients. I would rather use something that is not local if it is better quality or because the terroir where it has grown makes it better. For example, you will not find better oranges than the Maltese oranges so that is what we use. To source the produce you need to have the terroir. But we need to create this together. We need to build the foundations. It also depends on the authorities. We need to create the vibe, the marketing but we also need a series of destination restaurants but to do this you need to offer the right incentives.”
He mentions the example of Budapest where the government has offered incentives to allow restaurants to invest. “Like me, there will be others who will invest there, it is a win win situation.”
As a restauranteur he is not sure that he will ever be working full time in the kitchen again. “I don’t think that I will be able to drive the growth I want if I am in the kitchen. You have to do either one or the other. But of course, I love going to the kitchen, creating new dishes, doing the research and development and travelling to learn, looking at developments that are taking place and seeing how I can apply them to my business.”
So where will Marvin venture next? Only time will tell.