Marvin Gauci is inimitable on the Maltese culinary scene. Meet him and be bowled over by his personality and zest for life; try his food and be blown away by the concept and sheer creativity. This man is no average restaurateur.
I first met Marvin when he was just starting out on his own – although, already his confidence and drive was unparalleled. He had just opened Tarragon at the time – the restaurant that would make him a household name – and things were going well. He was happy, and didn’t actually have plans to expand beyond the modest success he was enjoying at the time.
“Tarragon was my baby,” he smiles, as we sit and chat over nibbles at Susurrus in St Julian’s, one of his latest ventures. “To be honest, I never wanted to expand beyond its doors but things didn’t quite work out that way. Destiny had other plans.” Destiny, it seems, always had big ideas for Marvin and his path was paved early on. Food has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember, as he was born into a foodie family, with a mother and grandmother who both loved to cook and involve him in the kitchen, and a grandfather who ran the renowned St Anthony’s Bakery.
His business acumen was evident early on, too. His father ran an ironmongery and he would work there in his free time. But, at 13, he got a job in a local grocery shop, cutting meats and cheeses in the deli. He loved it. And it quickly led to his next role, cooking breakfast in a hotel for 400 people. Even then he wasn’t put off by hard work – he would complete a morning shift before school each day, and head back to the hotel after lessons to help with the dinner shift.
Again, he loved it. “There was a buzz about it that had me hooked,” he says. “I’ve always had enough energy for two people, and I don’t think that’s changed today.” This drive to get things done continued to take him places even after he left the hotel. Marvin worked in 15 different restaurants in the next year-and-a-half, eager to learn everything he could from each chef and team before moving on to the next spot.
“When I felt I couldn’t learn any more, I would move on. I don’t like being bored,” he says. This ceaseless journey didn’t wain as he got older too, but he did spend some time overseas when he and his wife Alison moved to her native Ireland to explore opportunities there. This actually turned out to be his first taste of running a business and, again, he loved it.
“I started to get a feel for what I wanted from life,” he recalls. Back in Malta, though, Marvin found himself disillusioned by the way some local restaurants were run and the fact they didn’t pay their staff on time. Frustrated, he turned to his long-time friend, and fish supplier Tony Azzopardi, Tony ended up being the liaison between Marvin and the original owner of Wild Thyme, an operation Marvin would go on to take over. Some readers will remember that period in Maltese food history with fondness; already Marvin was making waves on the local market. “It went very well,” he says. “And we did very well. But, after a while, another opportunity emerged, and I went for it.” This opportunity would turn out to be Tarragon – the first restaurant to really put Marvin on the map.
“It was as if I’d hit the jackpot,” he says, thinking back to those heady early days when the restaurant had just opened. “It just worked – our guests loved the food, the décor (designed by Alison, who is my in-house designer for all my concepts), the ambience, the energy, and the team. There was a buzz about the place and it ticked over beautifully. We gave people the wow factor they were looking for. Every evening we were packed, and every year did better and better. We were on a high.” He was on such a high, in fact, that he didn’t want to consider opening a new restaurant, despite regular suggestions that he do so. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he says. “But, one evening after service, I was chatting with friends into the night – as we often did back then. They were going on and on at me about opening a new place, and questioning me about what it would be like, and what I would call it. I remember telling them adamantly that I wasn’t interested, but they kept pressing me. Eventually, I said that – if I ever did open a new place – it would be bold and called something with ‘bull’ in the title, but that it would also have to be offset by something more sophisticated, like ‘caviar’. Yes, I remember musing that it would be called ‘bull and caviar’… but no, that wasn’t quite right… it would be ‘caviar and bull’!”
The night ended there but, for Marvin, the seed had been sown and that was it. He couldn’t stop thinking about this new concept – the caviar and bull. “All of my ideas start off as dreams, and I think about them for months and months until they are fully formed. Then, once they are – and I believe they can be viable – I go out and create them. I just needed the right location.” As destiny would have it, that location was to present itself soon. “My dear friend Simon Naudi, CEO for Corinthia, approached me and suggested I take over a space within the Corinthia St George’s. I have wonderful chemistry with Corinthia Chairman Alfred Pisani and Simon, and have been so grateful for their support over the years. At the time the space was called Grill 3301, and it needed some work to make it a success. I saw the space, fell in love with it, leased it, and the rest is history.”
There began an absolute marathon in Marvin’s life and career. Tarragon’s triumph somehow transferred to Caviar and Bull, and it was a roaring success within days. “It attracted a totally new clientele – the sort who weren’t as enticed by Tarragon, but whowere looking for something new and exciting,” Marvin says. “Again, it just worked.” Then came Buddhamann – a rooftop restaurant with a more laid-back feel and Asian menu.
This also worked, and clients flocked to try yet another of Marvin’s new concepts. “It did very well. Again, we put a fantastic team together and it soared. Suddenly there was a lot to juggle but I thrived on it.” Once it was on its feet, Simon Naudi had another suggestion for Marvin – a spot in Budapest, at the Corinthia’s fabulous five-star property, had opened up there. “I was unsure at first, but again, once the seed was planted I couldn’t stop thinking about it. We opened Caviar and Bull in Budapest and it was a hit again. At first, we were only attracting tourists to the city but, in time, the locals started to love us too. Today we rank among the top restaurants in Budapest. And we didn’t stop there either, as we have just this month launched our brand new restaurant in Budapest – Uncensored. In a world-first, the eatery surrounds our guests with a 360-degree visual experience, and presents food to match.
We are only in soft-launch phase but already the feedback has been incredible.” Of course, life in the fast-lane of the restaurant world hasn’t been without its challenges for Marvin and his team. Just earlier this year, Buddhamann was caught in the eye of the massive storm that made landfall in Malta in February, and the entire structure was destroyed. “It was a massive shock,” he says.
“But we got through it. The financial hit was substantial but, thankfully, our team was unscathed, and that’s the most important thing. As soon as the storm passed we were back on our feet and working on a replacement concept. That’s how Susurrus was born – a Mediterranean/South American fusion restaurant with a laid-back feel to it. So far, that’s been a great hit too.” So what could be next for a restaurateur with so much success under his belt? America, of course. “I’m not saying we’ll definitely open a restaurant there, but I am thinking about it and dreaming about it. And, when I dream about something that I think it will work, I generally do make it happen,” Marvin grins, adding that he is always grateful for the support of his team.
“Oh, and maybe after that it’ll be time to do a TV show in the States too. Who knows? It’s always been about the wow factor for me, and I am excited to find my next wow. Where there is a will, there’s a way.”