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Showman dishes up his own wild ideas
GRASS soup, dog biscuits and salmon ice cream cones anyone? Mark Baumann likes to push the culinary boundaries at his restaurant in Coggeshall.
I went to meet the restaurateur to learn about the concepts behind his favourite dishes on the menu, past and present.
Baumanns Brasserie has been running for 26 years and in that time, the menu has been constantly changing.
I was intrigued to find out where Mark gets his ideas, and his energy, from.
Walking into the brasserie there were photos, framed caricatures and artwork covering the walls and the smell of coffee and pastries filled the air.
Larger than life Mark greeted me with a smile and then buzzed around, coffee in hand, preparing for the morning.
Mark became animated when I asked him what his driving force is for creating new dishes.
He says: “If the food we serve didn’t excite me, then I wouldn’t be doing it.
“The fun part is being creative and coming up with new dishes. I am actually no good at the business side of it and I would rather not have to worry about profit margins.”
The restaurant is open Wednesday to Sunday and is almost always full.
The team runs like clockwork with ultra-efficient manager Samantha Welton, Mark and his trusted head chef John Ranfield, known as “John Boy”.
Examples of showmanship on the current menu include bonfire sorbet, complete with popping candy and tobacco; butterfish cooked and served in a coke can and duck cooked two ways with teriyaki toothpaste.
It may sound gimmicky, but all the dishes are consistently expertly cooked and presented.
Mark says: “The bonfire sorbet was a fun idea, I like to use tobacco, it is amazing at enhancing flavour.
“I enjoy the theatre of food, but I don’t like to watch the customer’s reactions while they’re eating. I prefer to let the food speak for itself.” Mark has worked with the likes of Rachel Allen, Gordon Ramsay and Jean-Christophe Novelli and had his own TV show in 2004, Baumann Goes to Market.
Although he likes to be at the cutting edge of cooking, he doesn’t like the idea of chefs unquestionably following trends.
Mark says: “I have always preferred to be a leader rather than a follower. I like to try something new and then when people start cottoning on, I change it.
“I was coming up with ideas, like Heston Blumenthal 20 years ago.
“At the moment everyone is using sous-vide (cooking vacumn packed food in a water bath at a low temperature), but it’s a load of rubbish.
“I was doing it ages ago, it’s actually old hat now. If you’re cooking you need to smell the oven – sous-vide only works with fish because it keeps the flavour in.”
Mark, who is married Fiona and has two daughters, talks me through his grass soup dish which was previously on the menu.
He says: “I was mowing the lawn one day and decided I wanted to capture that smell everyone says they love. I want to get the freshness in the taste and smell of the soup.
“I pureed the grass from my garden so it was digestible and the customers absolutely loved it.”
Mark has an interesting dish lined up for when he revamps the menu in the coming months.
He says: “I was watching one of our golden retrievers tuck into a marrow bone, enjoying getting every little bit out. He looked like he was enjoying it so much, I wanted to recreate it.
“I want to take a beef marrow bone and fill it with foie gras and serve it in a dog bowl with biscuits shaped like dog biscuits.”
One item on the menu, which his regulars would be in uproar over if he changed, are the complimentary smoked salmon ice creams, which are tiny cornets filled with a piped swirl of whipped salmon mousse.
Mark was born in 1964 in West Sussex where his parents ran a hotel. He first got into cooking in the hotel’s kitchen where, in Mark’s words, “there were girls and booze. I thought right away ‘I like this’.”
He trained in France at the prestigious Royal Champagne owned by Moet & Chandon, aged 17, where he learned fluent French and cooked for royalty.
It was not all plain sailing and the pressure and regular beatings in the intense environment saw him have a breakdown and have to return home for two months.
After he finished training, Mark went on to work at Michelin star restaurants Chewton Glen Hotel in Hampshire, Gravetye Manor, in West Sussex, and Hintlesham Hall, in Suffolk.
It was while at Hintlesham Hall, when he was 21, Mark met the renowned restaurateur Peter Langan.
He invited Mark to be head chef at a restaurant he was planning to set up in Coggeshall as an outpost of Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair.
Mark say: “Michelin star cooking bored me by that point because everything was so precise and at right angles. Working with Peter gave me a chance to be creative.
“He was a perfectionist, as I am, but he saw beauty sometimes in imperfection and that is something I also see.”
Peter, who suffered from alcoholism, had a tragic end when he set himself on fire in 1988 and later died from his injuries.
Mark says: “It was a devastating loss for everyone. I don’t believe he poured petrol on himself and set it alight to kill himself, I think it was a cry for help – him being the showman to the end “We would sit and drink in the restaurant to the early hours, but then I’d go home and he’d be there at 9am when I came in the next day for four days straight.
“Then he’d disappear four days and I’d see him when he was really low.”
Mark believes that Peter was a true visionary.
He says: “He bought the brasserie here when there were no brasseries anywhere, now they’re everywhere.
“Before he died he was talking about taking an Italian restaurant to Blackpool, he was always ahead of his time.”
Pointing to a framed painting of Peter on the wall Mark says: “I don’t believe in things like this, but we had Essex Ghost Hunters here a while ago and they said he had called me by my nickname – which no one knew.
“He used to call me his number one. I definitely think he’s still hanging around the place.”
Visit www.baumannsbrasserie.co.uk for details.