Chatting with Chef Marvin was an exhilarating experience. He opened his book of life and led us through its pages generously and effortlessly. The adrenaline in his words and excitement in his face are the driving force behind his innate success. Marvin is blessed with an inborn and instinctive talent of envisioning, creating and innovating the local cuisine scene which has flowed in his veins since his earliest days. Constantly ticking in his mind is food, and the pleasure of creating and sharing it in different forms, within diverse settings, and blending the whole ensemble into unique experiences. Like an artist who probes for a new colour, form or expression, he revels when he finds it, but also galvanises himself with equal verve for a novel adventure. Quite uncommon for an artist, he is also enriched with a sense of business…not in its basic meaning of making money, but in creating a profitable novel package that guarantees excitement, enjoyment and entertainment.
Insider Plus has left his words flow in this interview, with the least possible interruption. So what follows is Chef Marvin’s take on his past experiences and current adventures.
“My mother was a good cook and excelled in traditional Maltese cuisine. I was only five years old when I started asking her about the various ingredients. She followed my interest by silently involving me. I began getting a feel of the basic components…the building blocks which served as a firm foundation. Mum, in turn, inherited this talent from her parents. My grandfather, Żepp tal-Kanċ, was an icon of Maltese baking. He ran a bakery in Qormi for four hours a day, then rented it out to different persons for the rest of the day. Good business sense! I inherited that from him; our talents originate before we are born. They flow in our veins and drive us towards our future. My grandmother used to cook traditional food for expats and bake in grandfather’s oven at the bakery.
“Father ran a Hardware store and I used to help him when I was young. Most of the clients themselves ran shops nearby; they were mechanics, carpenters and tradesmen, and I acquired a sense of business, but also began engrossing myself in various trades. This helped me grow my knowledge on handy work such as plastering, plumbing and tiling. Nowadays, I am too busy with my main line of work.
“At one time, I offered a helping hand to a nearby grocer who opened only in summer. I was not paid a wage; I was too young, but instead he would regularly fill my motorino’s tank with fuel. When the end of the season was approaching, he kindly introduced me to a chef who worked in a nearby hotel, and at the age of 13 I started helping in basic kitchen tasks, such as peeling potatoes and assisting chefs. I also helped other chefs, and in no time I was preparing breakfast and in the evening helped in preparing buffets. I felt I was treated like their kitchen mascot.”
And the first food you cooked? “I think it was the fish which I myself used to catch. When I was around the age of 12, perhaps a bit younger, I used to dive with my harpoon and trident and catch different fish. At that time we had already moved to Mellieħa, so the sea was a vital part of our daily life.
“At the age of 16, the manager of the hotel where I worked encouraged me to further my studies in gastronomy and other related subjects.
“I moved on to several restaurants and hotels both in Malta and abroad, absorbing information, practices and ideas. At which point I met the woman with whom I fell in love with, Alison, and knew immediately we were in it for the long term. After we married, we decided to settle in Ireland, but after some months we decided to return to Malta. I was in contact with Mr Tony Azzopardi, who ran Azzopardi Fisheries and he immediately found a job for me. Very soon after, he enticed me to open a restaurant and introduced me to a partner, with whom we opened a new restaurant, Wild Thyme, in Xemxija. After some five years, I decided to open my own restaurant, Tarragon, close to the sea. It was a solid success story, which helped me to look towards the future with confidence.
“After seven years at Tarragon, Mr Simon Naudi, Corinthia’s CEO, who was a regular at my restaurant, approached me, and offered me to take over one of the prime outlets at the Corinthia Hotel St George’s Bay. We have never looked back since.
“Simon wanted us to form a working relationship, but emphasised that he wanted to see if I could create something which benefitted both Corinthia’s stature and myself. Corinthia was not interested in just leasing me a restaurant; what they wanted was for both of us to learn how to work together as one family. This is a concept very close to my heart.
“During one of our meetings, Simon informed me that he was booking me a flight for London for the following day, to experience Corinthia’s vision and standards in action abroad. I was literally in London on the morrow. Everything was perfectly organised and I was treated like a king. It was my first time in London and I absorbed a thousand experiences in a few days.
“On my return to Malta, we concluded and signed an agreement to begin operating my new venture. Simon gave me the keys to my new restaurant, which I named Caviar&Bull, aptly named for the driving force in me, being the Bull, and the elegance of my wife, being the Caviar. We opened a couple of days after signing, and in a fortnight we were literally fully booked. Simon just smiled and said: Jackpot!
“Since then, I have opened five restaurants with Corinthia: three in Malta and two in Hungary. I recall Mr Alfred Pisani, Chairman of Corinthia, joining for dinners in his usual elegant attire, and can still recall the impact he made on me with his intense passion for his work, great sense of appreciation and vision.
“In mid-July we opened a new place upstairs, which we named Sizzling Deck. We operated for three months and towards the end of summer, I informed Simon I had an idea for upstairs. We met over dinner, together with the Hotel’s General Manager, where I proposed a novel concept for the following year: A new restaurant, to be named Buddhamann, an Asian cuisine with a Mediterranean twist. Four years later, Buddhamann was hit by a storm, that’s when we rebranded the restaurant to Susurrus.
“Soon after, I opened Dinner in the Sky, serving dinner 40 meters above ground, with breathtaking views.
“After a short while, Simon contacted me once again, warmly and convincingly suggesting I should go to Budapest for another project…this time at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest. One of the outlets was not in operation and the General Manager wanted to tap into my vision and expertise to come up with a concept for this space.
“After two days scouting the neighbourhood, I suggested a fine-dining restaurant. When I suggested this to Corinthia, I was offered the option to open another Caviar&Bull. I was not expecting to venture outside Malta at that stage, as my plate was already full. Four restaurants were a handful!
“Alison, my wife, has great vision, perhaps even more than me. I could never have travelled my life’s journey alone; she backs me to the hilt. We share, mesh and build ideas together. She is my wings. It was around January when we went to Budapest; we managed to open in May. Complete refurbishment, new bar, new kitchen everything was new…it was a Mission Impossible task with gallons of boiling adrenaline! Corinthia gave me this unique opportunity to open my mind, vision and methods. Caviar&Bull was a resounding success in Budapest.
“Whilst on vacation with my family in Disneyland, a new idea emerged. I was engrossed on the phone trying to solve some work problem, when my wife came up to me and said: Marvin, join that queue; you can continue with your phone call, but join that queue. I did so; I was bowled over by what I experienced, and entered three consecutive times in a row. It was an immersed audio visual experience. My wife and I just looked at each other. We both had the same idea; we could create a similar experience in a restaurant. The result was a new concept restaurant, Uncensored, which we opened in Corinthia Budapest: We transport our clients through different countries, one country every 25 minutes, with audio, visuals, food, drinks and ambiance. From Hungary to Russia, America, Spain, Italy and beyond. Seven to eight different places and as many courses.
“Last October, during Covid, the opportunity of opening Don Royale cropped up and we opened a Pizzeria and Italian restaurant.
“We also have our own wine which is produced in Hungary, and which we serve in all our restaurants.”
Still reeling from all the positive energy emanating from Chef Marvin, Insider Plus asked about the next project? He smiled broadly. “Nothing in mind yet, but when opportunity or a fresh new idea knocks, I cannot resist opening the door. I never lock my mind’s eye; I always keep it ajar.”
Insider Plus was curious to find out how some of the restaurants’ names developed. Chef Marvin patiently led me through them:
“Don Royale was originally meant for Budapest, however we ended up opening it in Malta. Don in Italian is someone of significance, in this case gastronomy. Royale imparts a feeling of lavishness. Corinthia Hotel Budapest used to be called The Grand Hotel Royale, so the name fits in perfectly.
“Susurrus is Latin for whisper. The sea is close by, so I could imagine its whispering magic.
“Uncensored relates to something that is uncontrolled or better still not cut to measure. The restaurant itself is set in a secret location and can be accessed through three secret entrances. One is through an alley, through the back of the hotel and kitchens; the second one is through a hidden door in the hotel, and the third one is through the cloakroom of Caviar&Bull. When you enter, you walk through the clothes and you will find an opaque window. We flick our fingers and the window turns clear, where you see all the staff waving at you. We flick our fingers again and the window turns opaque again; we pull a two-foot hidden lever and the door suddenly opens up.”
No wonder Chef Marvin is the Ambassador of Gastronomy for Malta. But who has appointed him, and why? What are the duties of such a post? “I was appointed by The Malta Tourism Authority together with the Ministry for Tourism around four years ago. As part of my duties I get to host and cook for Ambassadors and Delegations. I also help in different negotiations which may concern the gastronomy world. Take the Michelin Guide: I played a central role in bringing Michelin to Malta. There were previous attempts to bring them over, which did not materialise, but my insistence proved successful.”
Insider Plus wished to know how he would describe himself. Chef Marvin looked up and said “Passionate, loud at times, hard-headed and assertive.”
Having heard the Marvin Gauci Story, Insider Plus had more to add: Ingenious, enterprising, persevering, undaunted by the new and its challenge, and appreciative of what he has learnt and achieved to date.
Having named Mr Simon Naudi several times, we felt we should obtain his comments on Marvin. As usual, he did not fail us: “Marvin is a special person with whom we have forged an unbreakable bond based on mutual respect. His talents are not just culinary, where he excels and innovates, but equally on marketing and the management of restaurants with a profit-focus in mind. The balance of all three, culinary, marketing and financial, is indeed what underpins his success. We first met some years ago, and notwithstanding formal contractual arrangements, our direction to Marvin was quite simple: every decision and act he makes in his five restaurants with Corinthia must be based on a win-win formula, both sides must gain from whatever is being decided. As a Maltese company, we are also especially proud to have opened the door for Marvin to step outside our island onto the world stage, first at our hotel in Budapest where he has become a renowned success in the city, and now, who knows, other destinations too …”
Chef Marvin felt chaffed with what we thought of him. He smiled and whispered in a susurrus fashion: “I think I have learned and grown a lot in my journey, especially with Corinthia. I look forward to the next adventure in my life.”