Interview: Mark Watkins, La Grande Bouffe

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Photography by Annie Peel

When the first thing you spy upon entering someone’s home is a large road sign hammered to the wall directing you to ‘Jesus’ (a common Spanish town name), you instantly get the feeling that the inhabitant will be highly and dryly amusing. Presenting Mark Watkins.

With a larger than life personality fused with an affinity with food, the don of La Grande Bouffe, is the undisputed sheriff in his career of choice. Given he spent his youth in family owned hotel kitchens surrounded by Mum’s homemade pies, Dad’s cured meats and the ‘best ploughman’s lunch within miles,’ Mark’s career actually seems less like choice and more like something in the blood.

The ‘80s saw Mark spend several years living and eating his way through Barcelona’s colourful Catalan ways but it was upon his return to England when a light bulb flickered and Mark realised cooking – as opposed to studying – was all he could effortlessly apply himself to. ´I’d never had a regular job,´ he admits. ´I gathered I’d need one eventually – I decided I wanted to work in a restaurant.’

And so began the rise of chef Mark E. Watkins.

The Landsdowne in London’s Primrose Hill was first port of call. For six years Mark dedicated himself to mastering ‘gastro’ cooking which he explains as, ‘Mediterranean, English or any cuisine with a gourmet twist. No tarting, just cooking really good food, really well.’

Next stop, private cheffing. From constructing canapés for 120 in his third floor London flat to catering for a ‘bunch of blokes on deer stalking expeditions,’ in a grand Scottish castle, it was a natural progression for someone who thrives on pressure, people contact and being on show. Which could also explain Mark’s eventual move to Ibiza.

‘My connection with Spain was a given but I’d never been to Ibiza,’ he says. ‘My wife had experienced the island and loved it, so instead of saying yes to heading up a new restaurant, being suffocated by that all consuming life and waiting ten years to have a relationship with my newborn son, we decided to leg it to Ibiza.’

At the end of a challenging first summer in 2001 Mark landed a two week gig catering for a certain North American rap star and regular Ibiza habitué – P.Diddy if you must know – launching La Grande Bouffe into Ibiza’s catering limelight. Since then it’s been a non-stop-party-shop. Literally.

From swanky product launches with 500 guests and a wedding for 200 at the famous Space nightclub to celebrity sprinkled picnics, La Grande Bouffe has cooked, delivered, served and conquered.

‘I love catering for big parties,’ Mark says. ‘People come to Ibiza to have fun and want quality food prepared by a chef. What I do is cook for the numbers, not let the numbers determine what I cook. It’s a really cool way of working.’

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Photography by Annie Peel

An ambassador for originality, Mark has an impressive, unique yet simple way of cooking. His face lights up as he describes trampling about fields discovering Ibiza’s abundance of wild produce from asparagus and rocket to garlic flowers and ‘those little purple ones that taste like lemon. There’s something really right about picking food straight from the earth,’ he declares emphatically. ‘It’s uncultivated, unspoilt and tastes bloody delicious.’

As do his menus. For large numbers he prefers barbeques. Why? ‘It’s easy, tasty and everyone loves them. It’s things on sticks so you can eat with your spare hand and grip a drink in the other, like kebabs with monk fish, roasted cherry tomatoes and basil, chicken satays, grilled beef brochettes, skewered prawns marinated in chilli and garlic and lamb with tapenade.’

‘One of my first big Ibiza jobs was a wedding at a seaside watchtower near Cala Conte,’ Mark recalls, ‘It was one of the most difficult locations and the weather hadn’t been great. It was a typical ibiza wedding with the works from a dance floor, and DJ to generators and catering facilities for 200 guests.’

The D-day forecast was thunder, lightening and torrential rain. ‘Within 24 hours the wedding was relocated,’ Mark continues, ‘to Space, the nightclub. That was incredible – Space don’t do private parties but considering who the bride and groom were, it was a yes!’

‘Outside under a tarpaulin I set up my six-foot charcoal filled barbeque. Of course the heavens opened up as the bride arrived and I began to cook – both of us getting absolutely drenched,’ he laughs.

The wedding went off swimmingly as Mark reignited his barbeque to serve up a gourmet feast leaving all bewildered as to how he pulled it off. ‘I was standing outside at midnight, soaked to the bone and thinking this is really, seriously cool. Definitely one of my career highlights.’

‘Now I’m pushing the idea of a dinner for two on a beach only accessible by boat. The couple arrives and only the chef and waiter are there, but invisible. We supply everything so all the client has to do is get there – we do the rest.’

Any takers?