Big interview: Mark Askew brings The Ivy to Yorkshire

IVY LEAGUE: Mark Askew. PIC: Paul Winch-Furness
IVY LEAGUE: Mark Askew. PIC: Paul Winch-Furness
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For 18 years he was Gordon Ramsay’s right hand man, now Mark Askew has the job of helping to bring the famous Ivy restaurant to Yorkshire. Catherine Scott met him.

For 100 years The Ivy has been synonymous with fine dining, quality, celebrity and glamour. Over the last few years the London restaurant has been expanding beyond the capital into the rest of the country.

Last month The Ivy Collection, as it is called, opened its 18th brasserie and first in Yorkshire, on Parliament Street in Harrogate. Next week sees a second Yorkshire restaurant open on St Helen’s Square in York and a third is planned for Victoria Gate early in 2018.

It is a risky strategy, expanding a famous brand in such haste across the country when its biggest selling point is the uniqueness of the original. It isn’t something that is lost on The Ivy’s group chef director and Yorkshireman Mark Askew.

“We didn’t really plan to open all three Yorkshire restaurants so close together. In our mind we open one restaurant at a time. But the location is important and if a building becomes available then sometimes you just have to go for it.”

No one can accuse Mark Askew of not knowing his trade from the bottom up.

“My first real experience was working in our local pub, The Plough in Long Preston,” recalls the former Settle High School student. “I was 12 and I washed dishes. Quite a lot of my friends worked there too. Most of them progressed into becoming waiters but I wanted to be in the kitchen working with the chef Stephen Goodall.”

Askew worked in the pub for five years while he was at school and he then did a catering course at Craven College.

“Cooking was always a passion, I particularly remember baking bread when I was really quite small.”

After two years at the Skipton college learning the basics, Askew took the brave decision to leave Yorkshire and head to London – he was just 17.

“I had to make a choice,” says the dad of eight-year-old twin boys.

“I could stay where I was or I could try to do something different and I got a job working at the Savoy. It was difficult to move away from home at such a young age and it was a challenge for the first few years.

“But in a way it was good, and I often have to remind myself of those times when we take on new staff who have to move away from home or even come from a different country at a young age. I think it helps to have been through it yourself.”

From the Savoy, Askew changed direction and went to work for three Michelin-starred Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire.

“It was a big change and a difficult step going from a big hotel kitchen into a small restaurant, working with the owner but at an exceptionally high level.” Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing and Tom Kitchin all worked a La Tante Claire under Koffman.

“I probably didn’t realise how much I actually learnt until after I left.”

From La Tante Claire, Askew went back into hotels, working at the Connaught in London although it was much smaller than the Savoy. Following a stint in France for a couple of years he came back to London once again. It was while he was working there that a friend said they had heard of a chef who was doing great things and was opening his first restaurant.

“My friend said that I should go and talk to him about working with him.” That chef was Gordon Ramsay and for the next 18 years, as the Ramsay brand grew exponentially around the world, Mark Askew was by his side.

“Gordon opened Aubergine and I was Chef de Partie. It was really quite small, only four or five of us in the kitchen.”

After 14 months it gained a Michelin star, followed closely by a second.

“I was with Gordon for 18 years and it was quite a journey,” says this softly spoken Yorkshireman who one can imagine being the perfect foil for the well documented foul-mouthed outbursts of Ramsay.

Despite leaving Gordon Ramsay Holdings, where he was executive head chef Askew is still loyal to Ramsay and says they are still in touch.

“He was very demanding,” he admits. “It was very challenging at times, but we were both on the same wavelength – we wanted to succeed and threw everything at it. ”

A year after Aubergine got its second star Ramsay left and opened Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea with Askew at his side. The restaurant gained its third Michelin star in 2001.

“It was incredible getting the third star. But it brings with it a lot of expectation and there is nowhere to hide. Everything has to be right. We became totally absorbed in it.”

As Ramsay’s fame spread so did the number of restaurants he opened and Gordon Ramsay Holdings was created with Askew an integral part.

“We travelled the world opening restaurants. I went to some amazing places and did some incredible things with Gordon.”

But after 18 years Askew decided that it was time for a change. He became co-founder and operations director of Cirrus Inns before joining Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings, the owners of The Ivy, with the brief of helping to expand the brand beyond central London.

“It was a huge challenge and a huge responsibility,” he admits. “The Ivy is a huge brand recognised around the world and we couldn’t do anything that might affect that.

“We wanted the restaurants to reflect the spirit of the Ivy, we wanted people to recognise it as being like the Ivy, but a more affordable and version while not losing any of the quality associated with the original. We wanted to create something that was more relaxed and everyday but without losing any of the Ivy magic.”

Another issue is that a lot of people think they know what the Ivy is without ever having gone through its doors.

“That is another challenge for us,” says Askew. “People have a perception about the Ivy and the menu but the menu takes inspiration from across the world. It is about giving people what they want. They can get a sandwich or a curry, or something more akin to fine dining, but all of it will be served in the Ivy way with white table cloths and impeccable service.”

As well as being open for lunch and evening service, the Ivy brasseries in Yorkshire will be open for breakfast and afternoon tea.

Askew, who is married to a Yorkshirewoman, remains in London, but is spending a lot of his time back in Yorkshire overseeing the renovations and developing the menus, all of which contain elements unique to each particular restaurant.

“We try to use local ingredients when we can and every menu is slightly different.”

Hence the apple and Harrogate Blue salad and ‘The Stray’ spritz on the Harrogate menu.

Askew is aware that opening what is seen as another chain in a town where many independent restaurants feel under siege could be controversial.

“I have worked at independent restaurants and it can be very hard, but for me it is about choice and that is what we are giving people.”