Yorkshire-born chef Mark Sweeney returned to his home-county earlier this month to launch COSMO Restaurants’ new dining concept COSMO Luxe in Leeds. The chef began his career at the Bath Hotel in Devon before joining the Royal Air Force in 1991 where he was a head chef for 23 years. On leaving the RAF he joined The Glasshouse as head chef and went on to work with Red Carnation Hotels at Hotel 41. He talks to Hospitality & Catering News about the challenges he’s faced, why his latest job takes him back to his roots and what it’s like cooking for the Queen.
Tell us a bit about COSMO Luxe
Luxe, as I call it, is about West meets East. It’s a buffet restaurant and we can do 250-covers a day, but the food we serve here is more European compared to the pan-Asian style COSMO is renowned for. We’ve launched on the same site as the former COSMO restaurant, but this time it has more Western influences. We do have sushi, because I like sushi and some Indian dishes, because I love Indian food, but you’ll also find British and Italian dishes alongside them. We are still finding our feet a bit and we’re working hard to reposition the restaurant and convince customers that it’s a new concept now.
What is it about the role that appealed to you?
I took it on because of the owner Tom Chan. I met him when I was at the Glasshouse in London. He was one of my customers and he kept asking questions about whether we could do this in Leeds and that’s what influenced me. He’s a wonderful man, a true gent, so I though I’d love to work with him. He’s very patient and supportive and so far we are working together very well.
COSMO Luxe draws inspiration from around the globe, how have you influenced the menu?
It’s kind of like a showcase of the journey I’ve taken in my career. I’ve worked all around the world with some wonderfully talented people and I’ve picked up some great dishes and brought them back. What I really love are the classic dishes as I’m classically-French trained. Coq au vin is the first dish I made and I love it, so I’ve got my chefs here to re-create it as well as my mum’s dish the lamb shank pie. I’m from a large family – I have five brothers and five sisters – so my mum used to cook everything in big pans. We have that dish here on the buffet and every night the pan is empty, it’s so popular. I like fine-dining but also I like feeding the masses – that’s the military in me. I think that’s what you’ll find here, influences from every part of my life.
You’ve worked in some very different environments as a chef, how did you survive in each one?
Each job brings a new challenge and it gives you a completely new approach to the kitchen. A lot of chefs will travel through their career having the same idea and style of cuisine, whereas I’ve changed my style and approach along the way. In the military they say ‘improvise, adapt and overcome’ and that’s exactly what I’ve done with each. I’m a fast learner and I’ll change my style to suit the environment.
What’s been the most challenging part of your career?
It was when I was working in the Royal Air Force and was given the challenge of turning a decommissioned aircraft into a 50-cover restaurant for the Princess Royal. I had three weeks in which to do it and although it was tough, I did it. Not only did I have the pressure of royalty coming in, I was also working for the Chief of the Air Staff at the time. He was the big boss, so if I’d failed it wouldn’t have been good. There was a lot of pressure, but we did it.
Who, or what has inspired you most during your career?
My colleagues in the Royal Air Force. We did a lot of culinary competitions there and I had a great friend and mentor in Stuart Harmer when competing in them. It was before you had the internet or social media as a resource so we’d sit down and flick through recipe books for inspiration. We spent a lot of time talking through ideas and developing things ourselves. Those times have really stuck with me.
Paul Bayliss of Carden Park spoke about the training environment in the army being world class, would you agree that the forces are a good training environment for chefs?
I would. In the forces, they instil discipline in everyone and I ensure that we have the same kind of discipline here at Luxe. I think it’s important to be well-groomed and for staff to wear clean and pressed clothing. However, the saddest case here is the lack of chefs out there who want to do this. So many think about the money first then the job. When I was younger I didn’t care about the money, you just want to learn everything and build up your own repertoire of skills and knowledge so that one day when you become the chef you can pass that on. We have a great catering college here in Leeds and yet, no-one from Leeds has applied for a job here. I don’t have a single English chef. I want to employ local staff, but no-one has come through. Thankfully it’s very multi-cultural here in Leeds I have Polish, Brazilian and Italian chefs who are my heroes.
You’ve cooked for the Queen in the past, what was it like?
The last time was at a state banquet where I was working with the royal chef Mark Flanagan. He’s a good friend of mine and for state visits he’d sometimes invite me in to help. At those banquets you’ll do about 500 covers, so it’s an amazing thing to be a part of. The dining room is always something to behold and it’s so unique. People on the outside will never get the chance to see that, so I’ve been very fortunate to work on them. Being security cleared through the military gives me so many opportunities.
The Queen likes classic French food. All the menus are written in French and it is always communicated in French. It’s also amazing to see how food for 500 people is plated at the same time. That’s another benefit of being a chef in the military. It prepares you for feeding lots of people in unison.
What are your plans for the near future?
Being successful in launching Luxe. It’s important to me. I came on a promise to Mr Chan. He asked me if I could make this work and I have said I can if I have the right team around me, the right support and customer it will work. At the moment there’s a crossover between what people are expecting and what we are providing them with, but I’m giving every single hour in the day to this project and I really want it to work.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor