Once in a rare while in this life, we meet someone who isn’t just that clichéd ‘larger than life’ personality but who seems to occupy his own warm center of the planet in such a way that he makes his own atmosphere. Someone who so thoroughly loves the life he is living that he invites others to participate in its wild, risk-taking, heart-thumping ride and find the insane joy in it. These rare souls don’t spend their days stepping on others to reach the top of the heap. Instead, they inhabit a place so completely that they become its genius – and then open their arms and invite others in to take and eat. Such a man was Marcus Mitchell, head chef at Talisman and winner of the Taste Awards Chef of the Year 2013/2014. Down to his bones, he was a man who used food as a vehicle for loving people and drawing them in with a welcome that left a deep imprint on the thousands who came through his door.
Marcus always had a precocious appreciation for excellent cuisine. According to his mother, at 18 months he yelled at his uncle for not peeling chili prawns fast enough to suit his appetite. When he was seven years old on a trip in the French Alps, he couldn’t decide between frog legs or snails as he had never tried either, so he ordered one while his mother ordered the other and they swapped bites to enjoy both. This zest for sharing good things with others fueled the passion that would push him to become a largely self-taught chef comparatively late in life.
Marcus once told me that he lied through his teeth to get his first job in a restaurant kitchen. He had been urged by his partner, Lynda, to pursue his love for food and turn it into a career, so he dived into that challenge with every molecule of his existence. Willing to do whatever it took to learn his craft, Marcus peeled vegetables while eavesdropping on the sous chef and soaking up everything he could. No task was too humble, because it enabled him to learn the kitchen and make it his own territory.
By the time he was head-hunted to run the kitchen at the Talisman Restaurant in Karen, it was his famous pork belly and crackling that earned him the notice of owners Stuart Herd and Satyan Patel. Talisman was already a favorite Karen haunt, but Marcus slowly turned up all the burners and made it a not-to-be-missed destination— number one on Trip Advisor, beloved by the tourists and the locals who sometimes literally called it home when Friday night’s inevitable shenanigans turned into Saturday morning’s Bloody Mary and poached eggs.
Marcus constantly pushed his own envelope, learning new techniques and cooking in well-known kitchens in France and the UK to sharpen his own skills. He was never a pretentious chef (though he could wow the most fastidious judge with his Islay Malt foam and Wasabi sorbet). Instead, his hallmark was incredibly delicious, fresh dishes with a unique twist. Marcus had a lot of respect for chefs who put their customers above their egos and focused on quality ingredients. He often told me that the most loved dishes are really quite simple and that it’s important to let what’s unique about a particular cut of meat or type of veg shine instead of smothering it in fancy sauces. I can still hear him saying, ‘Let the steak speak for itself’ and ‘Salt and pepper are the brother and sister of a chef!’
To those of us who frequented Talisman, Marcus was so much more than the guy in the chef’s apron. He was the glue of a vibrant community that made the restaurant its home base and didn’t consider a week finished if it didn’t include a Friday or Saturday night at the bar or a Sunday afternoon on the patio. Marcus made it a point to walk around and visit patrons, and a meal was always better when he told you how he’d found some unique ingredient in your dish that day.
When Marcus entered a room, he towered over us and filled the space, yet his infectious laugh sounded like a teenage girl’s giggle and set off ripples of laughter all around him. And it wasn’t a proper Friday night if he didn’t stand up and sing ‘Purple Haze’ at the mic while Mojo played.
He took infinite pains to teach an eager under chef in his kitchen, but he didn’t suffer fools and had a lightning temper when someone’s incompetence threw a spanner into the works. Working as a photographer in his kitchen over a couple of years, I marveled that anyone could inhabit the high- stress atmosphere of a world-class restaurant and still maintain such a crazy sense of humour. Or maybe that was his secret after all— laughing when most people would have thrown in the towel. On his days off, he could still be found cooking at home. His Sunday afternoon braais were legendary and we counted ourselves lucky when we got an invitation.
That Marcus magic tumbled down over us in waves when he couldn’t contain that infectious laugh of his. But it also caught us off guard in his quieter moments when he got serious and took time to listen and to talk. He wasn’t perfect, and he was no saint. There were times we wanted to wring his neck, like when he’d never answer his phone or bother to reply to an email. But he always made things right…eventually. His bacon sandwiches smothered in real maple syrup could heal nearly all wounds.
As tributes have poured in over the past few days, there are common themes that stand out: Marcus was genuine, a gentleman, knew how to laugh and make others laugh with him, loved people with abandon and never forgot a face.
Marcus, we could say you’ve broken all our hearts, but that wouldn’t be true. The truth is that you broke your own heart, and gave each of us a piece of it. But we’re selfish. We would have more, and fill our glasses with it. But the piece we have, we’ll cherish—always. Save us all a place at your table.