Mark Jensen, it is wonderful to read online about your successes in life and in your career. When I first met you in the early 90’s you were hairdressing and modeling. Now, 20 years or so later you are a very successful chef with a restaurant and now also an author, I’m interested in discovering how you came to where you are now in life.
What was it that you initially fell in love with about restaurant life?
I’d say the vibrancy of the restaurant life first drew me in. I hadn’t dined at many if any, top end restaurants in my youth so when I first encountered a true fine dining restaurant my senses were blown. I had literally walked into a world of opulence far removed from my everyday existence. The design, the theatre and of course the food!
How did working with Matt Moran shape your future career whilst you were working at the Paddington Inn?
Matt Moran had a bit of a reputation as being a hard arse. Fits the angry chef stereotype, right? He was ambitious even back then and I’d say this ambition drove his exacting standards. In reality, he is a gentle giant in the kitchen who knows how to get the best from his team. I learned kitchen management from him. Matt introduced me to authentic, clean flavours. He let the produce do the talking. Classical technique was applied to showcase the best of the ingredient. I’ve continued this ethos throughout my career.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from Janna Krystis at the prestigious Opera House’s Bennelong Restaurant?
The biggest lesson I learned from Janni was how to reinvent classic dishes and make them relevant to today. Janni was obsessed with peasant cuisine. He had this whole Nose to Tail eating thing going on long before the phrase and practice became popularized. He made the classic dish of tripe Lyonnaise sit as comfortably on the table of the exquisite Bennelong dining room as it would in any backstreet French bistro.
How was it challenging to branch out on your own at the dining room at the Olympic Hotel?
The first challenge to conquer was my own self-doubt. Do I know enough? Have I really learned enough to go on and open my own restaurant? In retrospect, I believe the Sydney dining scene was less fickle or brutal back then although you still had to harden up and seriously back yourself if you intended to survive. I took advantage of the growing pub dining scene. It was Matt Moran who introduced me to the owners of the Olympic hotel in Paddington. It was here that I first started honing my own cuisine. Drawing on what I’d learned from my time with Janni I continued his love of the classics and set about reinterpreting classic dishes for myself. Running the restaurant wasn’t easy going. We were a seriously busy little kitchen brigade of 3. I would stress over every menu change and every little detail. Abnormally so. It was during this time the first warning signs of something not being quite right within me appeared.
What were the biggest challenges as a head chef?
The biggest challenges for me were finding good team members, keeping our cuisine relevant and, if possible, ahead of the game. You are constantly thinking what you can do differently to set yourself apart from everyone else?
After 10 years at Red Lantern with your brother-in-law Luke, how has it changed you and the way you work?
Luke has this amazing easy going character. He is quite the opposite to me. I’m more intense and think about things far too much. Luke has a natural easiness about him which attracts people to him. It’s an admirable trait. Luke isn’t a formally trained chef so he has a freedom in his approach to food. His passion for food and travel is infectious and this alone inspires the people around him. He’s taught me how to relax a little and still get things done.
Had you always loved Vietnamese flavours and techniques?
No not at all. Before meeting Luke and Pauline, I’d possibly only eaten Vietnamese food once or twice. I was attracted to the challenge of learning the cuisine. I hadn’t used Asian flavours or ingredients in a commercial kitchen before. I was confident I could and once I started there was no turning back. The cuisine made sense to me given Australia’s location in the world. Sure, the flavours were different but the techniques weren’t to dissimilar to those that I had already mastered.
I have seen you a couple of times on Ready Steady Cook, how do you enjoy working on TV?
Many people aspire to appear on Television. I’m rather introverted so I’m not quite certain I was one of them. Today with social media, YouTube, and other mediums it’s a lot easier to satisfy one’s narcissistic tendencies. That said, I did enjoy my time working on TV although it took a couple of series of Ready Steady Cook before I felt comfortable in front of the camera. I enjoyed the challenge of cooking live on the show and meeting all the amazing people I met over the years.
With the plethora of cooking content type shows on TV, what do you think about amateur chefs competing with professionals? Do you think it undermines the professionalism of your profession?
Television cooking shows have helped shape our cooking and dining culture in recent years. Ingredients once exclusive to the professional kitchen are now commonplace in supermarkets and corner stores. I believe cooking shows even popularized the urban farmer’s market. Cooking shows have inspired ordinary people to search out and cook varied and different ingredients. We are all the better for this. On the flip side cutting your teeth as a cook on a TV show does not prepare you for the arduous task of running a professional kitchen. There is no substitute for hours spent toiling over the stove and consistently operating under the pressure of restaurant service.
Talk about the Red Lantern becoming green? In what ways are you changing your practices and produce?
It’s so easy being green. You don’t have to do everything at once, you just need to start doing something. One little thing that then leads to another. A simple example is to separate the rubbish. Yes, food waste, cardboard, glass, plastic, and tin. By doing this you can easily see the quantity and the make up of the rubbish you create. We did this at the restaurant and found we could make simple changes to the way we were ordering products and produce and significantly reduced the amount of packaging we were using. Using locally and sustainably grown produce also reduces our ecological footprint. We order produce daily and use as much of the individual item as possible. I think it was Janni who first told me you don’t make money out of the produce you throw in the bin.
Does being green cost more? How do you communicate this to patrons, so they understand?
Sure, being green may cost a little more but if you use sustainably grown, free range and organic produce wisely, not that much more. It is rare that I feel compelled to justify the cost of a meal to one of our guests. Our guests expect the best and appreciate the cost involved to deliver the Red Lantern dining experience. Price will always be a major consideration but the real conversation should be around value for money.
I remember on Facebook, Recall you mentioning the fact that you have battled with the black dog at times (namely with bipolar disorder). It is an extremely brave thing to do, in being in the public eye. Was there anything the prompted you to disclose your battles with mental health on social media?
Sharing my experience with the black dog is something I had long considered. I was first diagnosed with depression 20 years ago. Back then I was told to keep that to myself. Today there is a better understanding of mental health but there is still prejudice. When I commented on social media about my own mental health I didn’t think of myself as being brave, the timing just felt right. If anything, I made the comment from the position of being quite anti-social media. Anti how everyone’s life looks so damn perfect on social media including mine. It was my way of saying things aren’t always what they seem. The comment seemed to have struck a chord and I was overwhelmed with the messages of support. I was also amazed by the number of people who reached out privately to express and communicate their own personal concerns.
How do you manage your life effectively around the disorder?
Obviously how I manage the condition has changed over time. Sure, I have challenges, who doesn’t? Until you experience the grip of depression I don’t think you ever truly understand it. It is all consuming. You feel no one around you will ever understand how you feel. You stand alone and you are totally consumed by your thoughts. Completely self-indulgent, right? Acknowledging how I was captive to my own thoughts was the key to unlocking my experience with depression. The moment I stepped outside of myself and actively changed how I viewed the world and my position in it was the moment I started to take control of my life.
We are what we think and what we do. Therefore, if you change what you think and what you do we effectively change how we see the world and our position in it. I’ve done a lot of work on myself since I made that Facebook post.
I’ve also changed my diet to a predominantly plant based and of course get out on my bicycle and exercise regularly. I no longer consider myself to have a disorder.
How do you find balance in your life? I imagine working restaurant hours isn’t always child-friendly.
I don’t think there is ever balance in one’s life nor do I believe there needs to be. There is one thing and that is life. All consuming, all experiencing. If I’m at work I work. If I’m in ‘life’ I live it. Having children and having restaurants do make that life a colourful one.
How has having your beautiful children changed your life?
Growing up I was that guy who thought, I don’t want kids. Damn, I can hardly take care of myself never alone another human being. Now I have two, I can’t imagine life without them. They bring me so much joy. I learn from them and they inspire me to be a better person.
What brings you the most joy in life?
A simple yet not so easily answered question. I’d say doing the inner work brings me the most joy. Doing the daily work to enable me to understand who I am and what I want from my life. This work is a work in progress and one that never ends. Remember the adages fit your own oxygen mask first before helping others. The lesson in this is quite profound.
If you feel plagued by the black dog of depression, please visit The Black Dog Institute for confidential help.