Carol Emmas meets the man behind Wirral's Michelin star restaurant
IN life, serendipitous decisions often come with the benefit of hindsight. Chef Marc Wilkinson counts himself as one of the fortune favoured after abandoning a decision four years ago to move his restaurant from Wirral to Liverpool.
I can’t please everyone, but when people do get what the restaurant is about, it’s a nice buzz
"I would have been ruined when Covid hit if I’d have moved to a big swanky place in Albert Dock,” says the owner of Fraiche in leafy Oxton Village.
"At three times the size and three times the overheads, I wouldn’t have lasted."
Since Fraiche opened in 2004, Wilkinson has teased with the idea of upping sticks to another location. For now, the Michelin star chef of 14 years and his bijou restaurant (which he lovingly calls "The Shed") are staying put. With just six tables, the lengthy three-month waiting list has always been an issue and one of the original reasons he wanted to expand.
"People can get huffy when they can’t get a table, but I can’t help that. I’m catering for the amount of guests I can cope with. If you try to book an aeroplane ticket and the flight is full - you don’t get abusive - you wait it out," Marc says.
"In terms of Fraiche - you’re just going out for a bit of tea - I’m not delaying your heart surgery."
Marc is immediately likeable for his easy-on, straight-to-the-point ways. As laid back as he comes across though, you can see he is also in constant flux over his objectives. He would like to expand - but also admits to being a bit of a control freak. He flies solo across the whole operation, with no backer, or no chef understudy.
I ask him what happens if he gets ill? "We cancel bookings and close," he says.
Classically trained in French cuisine, Marc’s previous work has seen him at The Chester Grosvenor, Mirabelle in Eastbourne, and Latymer in Surrey. In relative terms, Fraiche as an operation is unique. Firstly, you wouldn’t know it existed because the door is black, the branding is black and you can’t see in. He says he likes a "sense of mystery."
No kidding. When you walk into the restaurant, it’s like you’re walking through a porthole into Marc’s head. More so currently, as he’s running the operation with only one other member of staff helping. He says he is advertising for three more members, but the current state of the hospitality industry makes it difficult to find others.
As a result, Marc does everything. He is chef, sommelier, and does all in-house maintenance. He has a strong, creative side and has just finished another refurb. As we sit and chat, I notice three projectors he has dotted around the restaurant. The main one plays a seascape aerial flight across Wirral.
Marc admits to being a bit of a "bedroom DJ" and says he makes playlists for the restaurant which cover the four or five hour duration of the average dining experience. He likes to use poetry too, whether as a wall visual or on tables when guests sit down.
"I sometimes have had to question myself whether I’m going too deep," he says. "If I feel I am, I pull it back."
I compare Fraiche to an evolving piece of living art. Marc disagrees and says, for him it’s all about craftsmanship. The craft comes in terms of his dishes, the thought that goes into them and the preparation of them.
"For me, it’s trying to create a package which is not just about the food on the plate.
"I can’t please everyone, but when people do get what the restaurant is about, it’s a nice buzz.
"But there are times when people haven’t done their research and have booked purely because they want to eat at a Michelin star restaurant. They don’t understand there’s no big a la carte menu, or they’ll ask for changes to the food.
"The perimeters of this operation don’t allow me to go off-piste and say ‘Okay, well you don’t like lamb, so you want beef, chicken or duck.’ I can’t offer those options. It is what it is."
He says research, planning and tweaking can consume a large amount of time and in a self- effecting way he explains that he doesn’t always get it right.
"I have a pretty large mental palate memory now - but sometimes at the planning stage, you think this is going to taste great and it’s disgusting. So you’re pulling things in your head and thinking this should work. Other times, it’s easy and it comes together."
His culinary inspiration is derived from Pierre Gagnaire and American chef and restaurateur David Kinch. Marc reckons there are few things in the world he hasn’t tasted, so I ask him what his favourite food and ingredients are?
"It has to be truffles," he says. "I love them."
He goes on to list his love of citrus; calamansi, yuzu, kaffir lime, finger limes, and bergamot.
"It’s important in my food to always have citrus elements in it. The turbot dish on Saturday was with clementines. I always like to respect the seasons too."
Wine is an important part of the experience and Marc likes to surprise his guests - he mentions a Japanese wine from Grace Winery made from the Koshu grape, that he says is "very cool".
"When you have that interaction with the guests and you’re sharing a new experience with them - I love that."
In reality, £115 for a six-course signature menu and an immersive experience could be viewed as pretty reasonable. There is also a Sunday lunch menu with four courses at £58pp.
He says he’s not driven by material wealth ("I don’t pursue money and I don’t drive a flash car") but rather his aim is for guests to "get" his vision.
If your attention span is short and you’re not happy being in the moment, then perhaps this is not the place for you. Anyhow, I’m sold - if I book soon, I should get in for the summer. If I don’t, hopefully he’ll be around for a while. I’m happy to wait.
Fraiche, 11 Rose Mount, Oxton, Birkenhead, Prenton CH43 5SG
Read next: 'Top trumps' - Gordo reviews Fraiche
Read again: Confidential Guides: Marc Wilkinson, Fraiche
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