The food entrepreneur who’s hitting the MARC

MARLON Abela fits the international It-Boy bill perfectly. Born in Lebanon, he grew up among the rich and famous of London and the south of France, raised by a father who owned one of the world’s top institutional and airline catering businesses and a slew of four and five star hotels. Recently valued at £400m, Abela was coiffing the best wines on earth and supping the best food on the planet when most boys are downing cider in the bushes.

With family millions behind him, he was able to set up on his own in his late twenties, bypassing anything as dreary as the middle-ground and heading straight for a Michelin star-dusted empire MARC (Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation), that has provided London with three of its best restaurants. Now divorced, he dates a Burberry model, invests in wine and collects art for personal use and for his restaurants. It doesn’t get more jet-set It-Boy than that, does it?

But Abela the man – rather than the Rich List entity – is a very different sum of his parts than you might expect. In person he is serious and polite, with a curious German-sounding accent, pale brown eyes and curly hair hinting at his Middle Eastern origins.

After our interview at Morton’s, the members club on Berkeley Square that he now owns (and has turned into a bastion of fine dining and fine art – a dinner I had there recently left me speechless), I saw Abela at Frieze Art Fair. Rather than flanked by an entourage of the beautiful, rich and famous, he was wandering around on his own, looking preoccupied and ever so slightly lost. In fact, he looked just like one of the hoi polloi trying to make sense of the labyrinthine fair. But as I found out later during a dinner in which he was more than happy to chat about life, love and the universe, he said he actually bought “a few things”. Not quite hoi polloi, then.

Unlike many in his set, Abela seems a substantial person. One is struck by the fact that he can’t help but be himself – a perfectionist more than a bon vivant; a thinking, hard-working foodie rather than a mask of moneyed international manners. He is a person who values quality – almost to the point of insomniac neurosis. “I only sleep four hours a night,” he says, and you can believe it – he has a slightly restless air and it’s not hard to imagine him being easily disturbed by the thought of an imperfection. It’s this obsession with the best that has led his Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Umu to have the UK’s largest sake list, and his Michelin-starred restaurant the Greenhouse to have the largest wine list in Britain (this extraordinary wine emphasis is “both passion and shrewd business”). And although his restaurants remained busy throughout the recession, they have been completely flying since – “it’s been a phenomenal year”. Morton’s has a new nightclub downstairs; Umu had a new lounge put in and in New York, Abela has just launched FPB, a chocolaterie and patisserie with French cakes-star Francois Payard.

I am meeting Abela, 35, to discuss his new restaurant, Cassis. Opening next week in South Kensington, it will serve Provencal food in a more “rustic” atmosphere than his others, with a mixture of big dishes and small plates – you can have three courses for £19. You get the sense that he has a truly personal connection with this one. “I’ve always loved Provencal food,” he says. “I grew up around there and it’s very pure. It uses the most beautiful ingredients in the world. Think of the cheese, the boullabaise. It’s the type of cuisine I love. And it should work very well in London.”

Abela is a stickler for location, which is why he hasn’t expanded at the speed you might expect. Before the recession, there were plans to open or acquire 30 restaurants in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dubai and other global nexi but then the credit crunch struck and he decided to return to the “slowly slowly” approach, which is a better way to maintain quality. “We looked east but it’s not as classic as Mayfair. Apart from [places like] Mahiki, I think Mayfair is very elegant.” Faddishness bores him: “There will always be fads in London, New York and Paris. But those restaurants don’t concern me.”

Now is MARC’s golden era because we, the restaurant-goer, are ready. “At the end of the day, the diner has never been more sophisticated. I want them to walk away and say ‘Wow’”. Thanks to those four-hour nights, we’re doing just that. Cassis opens 25 Nov. www.cassisbistro.co.uk.

CV | MARLON ABELA
BORN in Beirut in 1975 to Lebanese contract catering giant Albert Abela, Marlon was involved from an early age with his father’s company: Albert Abela Corporation (AAC), which employed 30,000 people in 40 countries, operating in the education, healthcare and airline catering sectors, as well as owning a string of hotels in Monaco, London and Nice.

Abela became VP of AAC in his early twenties until 2002 when he split ways from the company, having founded MARC in 2001. His first acquisition was Morton’s, which he opened in 2004 after an extensive refurb. He bought the Greenhouse in Mayfair in 2003 and Umu in 2004, which won a Michelin star after just four months. He also owns several restaurants, bistros and eateries in the US, including in New York, Connecticut and Boston.

He was valued at £400m in 2008.

A VOCE, NEW YORK
With two prime spots at Columbus Circle and Madison Ave, A Voce serves elegant Italian for the well-heeled.

GREENHOUSE, MAYFAIR
A huge, wine list, impeccable food and a celebrity following have ensured this Mayfair restaurant’s success.

FOUR OF THE STARS IN MARC’S EMPIRE

MORTON’S, MAYFAIR
Abela’s attempts to make this member’s club less stuffy have culminated in a new nightclub downstairs.

UMU, MAYFAIR
Said to be the only Kyoto-style restaurant in the UK, Umu serves brilliant food and has a great sake list.