Meet Marcelo: Wandering Chef, Roaster of Turbot and Purveyor of Good Times
Marcelo Rodrigues has an idea. To be fair, he has a few of them. There’s a space above a restaurant in Hackney that he’s going to turn into a dining room. “I’m just going to cook. Friends and like-minded people. Invite only, no menu, no reservations, good wine and simple food done well. Old school. You can pay what you want at the end. It’s risky… but hopefully people will like it!”
Despite a CV that includes the head chef position at Margate’s Sargasso, a restaurant described by Guardian critic Jay Rayner (more on him later) as an “expression of exquisitely good taste,” four years at Hackney neighbourhood favourite Brawn, and a stint at Stoke Newington’s Rubedo, Marcelo didn’t start cooking until he moved to London in his 20s. Born in Lisbon to Cape Verdean parents, he had gone to university to do an interior and exterior design degree, graduating into the nucleus of a heavy and seemingly unending European recession. “I did a year at a practice in Lisbon and knew it wasn’t for me, so I moved to London. Not much of a plan, but let’s see.”
While he formulated a plan, Marcelo stacked shelves at Tesco at night and enrolled at Westminster Catering College, which counts Jamie Oliver as a former student. His mother and grandmother were both cooks, he grew up around great food. Cachupa, a famous Cape Verdean stew. Corn, beans and meat — the whole animal. Cooked low and slow for as long as possible, a home cooked crowd pleaser and a dish that maximises every available ingredients. Cooking, it turned out, came naturally, as did the community it fostered. The characters of London’s growing alternative dining scene appealed to a young chef. “Those were good times,” says Marcelo, “pull a double, go out, come straight back in and pull another one. I need to rest now, I’d rather have a pedicure!”
Within this burgeoning scene, Marcelo was introduced to Ed Wilson, the chef and co-owner of Brawn. “Ed was the mentor who opened my eyes to great cooking, who taught me what it really means to work in, and run, a restaurant. ‘Cook food that you want to eat,’ that’s what he always told me. I’m bored of the whole fine dining thing. I think the reason that restaurants like Brawn and St. JOHN have survived for so long is that they make food that people love to eat, and have real locals that go there.”
Okay, the Jay Rayner story. The Sargasso team was prepping for another busy summer service, when a strange man on a bicycle appeared on Margate’s harbour and, as if embodying the spirit of some kind of town - or critic - cryer screamed that, “Jay Rayner is coming!” Marcelo had never seen this man before, an apparent harbinger of important diners, nor did he know that one of the country’s biggest food critics was about to eat at his restaurant. “I just said, ‘Guys, let’s have a good service,’ and we did what we always did.” Rayner loved his meal and wrote a glowing review, a blessing and a curse for a new restaurant. “It was crazy for a while, that’s what hype can do! It’s important, but if you have regular customers, that’s when you know you’re doing a good job, and at Sargasso we had a lot of them.” And the messenger? “Never saw him again! It’s Margate… there are some characters there.”
Now back in London, Marcelo is roaming. There’s a project that he’s helping a friend out on, a Grade II listed cafe on Chatsworth Road in East London called Jim’s that is going to be turned into a beautiful Sardinian restaurant, but with all the original features of the cafe’s former life left intact. There are regular appearances behind the hob at Islington’s Western Laundry and at various friends’ pop-ups and kitchens and events. “I want to see what the edges of London have,” he says. “Where are real people eating?” There’s a late-night curry house in Lleyton, and he’s heard about a Brazilian restaurant in Seven Sisters, with two tiny tables out the back. Apparently it’s something special. Next on the list.
Much like his not-a-supper-club supper club, Marcelo prioritises ingredients and company when he cooks at home. “A whole roast fish, if possible a turbot. The king of the sea! A good bottle of wine, maybe some truffles if they’re in season, and a group of friends around the table. That’s all you need. Simple."
Marcelo’s Cider sauce for fish or mussels
Bones of 1x 1-2kg (turbot, brill, cod, hake etc)
500gm unsalted butter
6 anchovy fillets
5cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
½ bunch chervil
10 shelled mussels and their cooking liquor
Cider vinegar or apple vinegar
- Thinly slice onions and garlic, then on a low heat, sweat very gently in the butter, along with 5 sprigs of thyme, bay, star anise, peppercorns and the anchovies.
- When onions are completely soft, add fish bones and again cook gently until the bones have completely broken down, releasing their naturally occurring gelatine.
- Add the mussels and their cooking liquid, and cook for a further 10 minutes. The sauce at this point should have a nice viscosity. When it does, remove from the heat.
- Reduce the cider to ¼ of its original volume and add to the sauce, along with 5 more thyme sprigs and the chervil.
- Allow to infuse for half an hour, then pass the sauce through a fine strainer. If it seems a little thin, put it back on the heat to reduce further, but be careful not to over-reduce as this sauce needs freshness and acidity to cut through the richness of the butter. If needed, add a little fresh cider, cider vinegar or apple vinegar salt to finish.
These may be simple, clear flavours, but the silky sauce gives the proteins a sophisticated edge .
I strongly recommend serving the sauce with a good piece of piece of roasted fish, or perhaps a whole turbot to share with roast potatoes and wild mushrooms.