Not that Marx looks anything like Cinderella. Often compared to Bruce Willis – pugnacious, determined, gritty – I actually find him softer than the Die Hard star. A prizefighter, a Hells Angels biker, perhaps, but a huggable one, one deeply in touch with his feminine side.
He has good skin to boot, and a healthful glow he puts down to good diet. ‘I haven’t eaten bread for three years,’ he told me, when I finally caught up with him, without a trace of irony for a chef who started out as a baker in the kitchens of such illustrious establishments as Ledoyen and Taillevent, and whose bread and viennoiseries – all baked in-house at Mandarin Oriental – are among the best (and I do mean best) I have ever eaten. ‘I feel better for it, more dynamic,’ he says, and you’d better believe him. A third dan in judo, a fourth in ju-jitsu, Marx is a man who believes in feeling healthy, who needs to feel healthy. A marathon runner himself, every Thursday evening he takes his entire brigade on a run around the Tuileries, conveniently situated virtually on the hotel’s doorstep.
He is disciplined, but not austere. Despite the Lynch-Bages connection, he does not drink alcohol generally, though he’s not evangelical and will have the occasional glass of champagne, which he loves. ‘Champagne knows no conflict between tradition and innovation – I try to follow the same spirit in my cuisine,’ he says, a little enigmatically. I think it’s a comment on champagne’s versatility, its timelessness. An ex-UN paratrooper, it hardly requires a leap of imagination to see that many of the qualities it takes to be a good soldier are the same ones necessary in a top restaurant kitchen.
Marx’s cuisine is traditional, in the sense that he understands the essentials of good technique. Like any chef at this level, he favours high-end ingredients, and his menus are liberally sprinkled with the big players of French cooking, the likes of foie gras, black truffles and caviar. But by no means do they tell the whole story. Marx is a man who understands the greatness of simple things, that less is often more, that there is a special purity in humble ingredients. A dish of spinach, ‘structured and destructured’, is a beautiful example of how the intensity of flavour can be conveyed. Presented under glass, in a kind of bell jar, a spinach-wrapped quail’s egg reveals the green vegetable in all its earthy, minerally glory, elevating the quail’s egg, with its molten gold interior, in the process. Alongside it, around a disk of hazelnut-studded foie gras, sits a circle of jellied spinach, which seems to have almost medicinal qualities.
His menus are liberally sprinkled with the big players of French cooking
An upside-down pumpkin soufflé turns out to be a teetering tower, crowned with chestnut foam, spliced with crisp shards of Bigorre ham from the Hautes-Pyrénées. You can take the boy out of the southwest, but you can’t take the southwest out of the boy. (In fact, Marx was born in the Paris neighbourhood of Ménilmontant, to eastern-European Jewish parents.) Mind you, you can’t take the east out of the boy, either, it seems, with so many of his dishes redolent of the Orient, either in their spare, Asian presentation, or their exotic flavours, or in most cases both. Almost pagoda-like in appearance, this pumpkin soufflé is a wonderful dish: sweet and salty, shot through with the umami-like seduction of black truffle.
Created for Sur Mesure by Marx, semi-pris de coquillages with longuet caviar has already become something of a classic at the restaurant. A ‘soldier’ of toast with mousseline of chicken is topped with Aquitaine caviar, which Biroud evocatively, and accurately, describes as ‘a luxurious finger sandwich’. That’s just what it is. And alongside it, in a bowl, is the semi-pris, an emulsion, or lightly whipped mousse, of spankingly fresh shellfish, with the texture of shaving foam but the heady sea-salt tang of ocean spume. Eat them together and discover another kind of astral plane.
In a soy and oyster risotto, another new dish that Marx has created especially for Sur Mesure, the graininess of Arborio rice is replaced with the unequivocal crunch of bean sprouts, another humble ingredient wondrously upgraded, this time with an oyster bisque, and anointed with black truffle. It’s almost Proustian in its earthy aroma. You may not have grown up in the fields, but the truffle in this dish takes you right back to them, knowingly and longingly.
If his main courses are more traditionally anchored (veal with truffles, pan-fried beef with Jerusalem artichoke crème), and rather wonderful for it, desserts enjoy a brush with fantasy. The Sweet Bento comes in three shallow, interlocking white ‘boxes’ – like a precocious child’s toy. There’s sweet avocado with lemon oil (extraordinary), vanilla panna cotta with iced meringue and ylang-ylang, or Macassar-oil (remarkable), and dark chocolate mousse with toasted rice (indecent). ‘Enjoy!’ as they definitely don’t say at Sur Mesure.
Marx’s cuisine itself, it seems to me, mirrors Mandarin Oriental’s own culture brilliantly. ‘In my travels around Asia, I’ve long been a fan of Mandarin Oriental,’ he says, as if reading my mind. ‘I’m a fan of their traditional sense of hospitality. And the Group is open-minded, with a very modern sensitivity. I was delighted to be joining them in Paris.’ If not made in heaven, this was certainly a match made somewhere between the rice fields of Asia and the department of the Gironde.
The ‘snagging’ of Marx and bringing him to Paris was a distinctly Mandarin Oriental-style coup. In the UK, though many had tried, it was the Hotel Group that tempted Heston Blumenthal away from the village of Bray in Berkshire, and into the ‘big smoke’ of London. In Spain, Carme Ruscalleda, and perhaps more pertinently, her son, Raül Balam (inextricably linked with the small town of Sant Pol on the Catalan Mediterranean), were persuaded, maybe even sweet-talked, into opening shop in the brilliant new Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona – and what a ‘shop’ Moments restaurant is. For Marx, Paris was the only way to go. As the Relais & Châteaux president, Jaume Tàpies, told me, ‘Even Cordeillan-Bages could not contain him. And his work, as a result, is now at an altogether higher level.’
Bringing Marx to Paris was a distinctly Mandarin Oriental-style coup
But how hard was it for Marx to make the leap, I wondered, to leave the bucolic setting of the south and head north to the big city, because – unlike Blumenthal and Ruscalleda, whose home base is still out of town – Marx is not going back to the vineyards, at least not any time soon. ‘I miss the Gironde River,’ he says, a little wistfully. ‘I found inspiration during long walks and running along it. But I’m not a nostalgic man. I don’t belong to any place or any terroir. It’s not a problem for me to pack and move whenever the opportunity comes along, whenever it’s possible.’
For Thierry Marx – soldier, martial artist, marathon man, aesthete, chef – everything seems possible. Paris may not be the end of the road, but it’s certainly the most significant stop along the way so far.