When he was young, Thierry Marx was a soldier. He battled on many fronts: as a navy parachutist, then as a UN blue helmet in Lebanon in the 1980s. But he grew tired of the horrors of war. He had been part of the traditional French organisation of journeymen artisans, or Compagnons, when younger, and had earned his professional diploma as a pastry cook. He decided to return to these roots. Good fortune brought Marx into contact with famous French chef Bernard Loiseau. Marx developed a passion for gastronomy and culinary craftsmanship and trained at top Paris restaurants such as Taillevent with star chefs such as Joël Robuchon and Alain Chapel. Meanwhile, Marx was seduced by Japan: particularly by friendly street-food stalls, and the mix of bureaucrats, garbagemen and students eating side-by-side in these local noodle bars.
The Japanese word samurai comes from the verb ‘to serve’. During the last third of the 19th century, Japan was westernising and its samurai warriors, who had traditionally served great men, lost this original vocation. They began instead to offer their strategic talents to industrial and commercial enterprises. Like a converted samurai fighter, Marx, who was, as he says, a “fundamentally pacific” soldier, changed causes. Once fully trained as a chef, he wanted to bring benefits to the underprivileged, and sought to pass his knowledge of cooking and bread-making on to the less successful in life. He gave up trying to change the world and the human race. Instead, Marx opted for the poet Rimbaud’s humbler ambition of “changing lives.”
In 2009 he opened his Atelier de cuisine nomade near Bordeaux, for “domestic immigrants”, a restaurant where cultures mixed and integrated. In 2010, Frédérique Calandra, mayor of Paris’s 20th arrondissement, helped Marx open his first school, called Cuisine mode d’emploi(s). The short-term course (eight weeks of theory and practice, with a four-week internship) is free of charge. Rigour, commitment and reliability are the three qualities he expects from his candidates. Backed by Swiss staffing firm Adecco, graduates receive a professional qualification.
The school was an instant hit and is now producing some 200 graduates per year. Ninety-two percent find work in just a few months. This success has led Marx to open other schools in Paris and Villeneuve Loubet, and this year he inaugurated his Besançon institution in a former watchmaking factory. Nowadays, schools are funded through a number of ways, comprising of 20 percent from public funding, 30 percent from private investors, and fifty percent through events the chef organizes.An adjoining bakery school is run on the same principles, and he plans to open a section dedicated to dining-room and sommelier service. Official recognition has followed from the French government: in September 2016, he earned the Prix de l’Entrepreneur, engagement societal, or Entrepreneur’s Award for Societal Commitment. The word societal, which connotes community, conviviality and tangible human realities, better fits what Marx seeks to achieve than social, which implies welfare.
Several floors above his Sur Mesure restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Paris Hotel, Marx and the hotel’s directors wanted to create a hanging garden on the rooftops. Landscapist Christophe Gautrand designed an “aromatic counter”, with sweet-smelling plants, vegetables and flowers that bring colour and fragrance to the plates served to the restaurant’s well-heeled clientele below. Marx added some beehives. Honey bees, in danger across the world, found a haven and now their production is a staple on the five-star hotel’s breakfast trays. The chef’s life story might be summed up in a phrase from Claude Lévi-Strauss: “From honey to ashes”, only reformulated to read ‘from ashes to honey’.
Thierry Marx at Le Sur Mesure, Mandarin Oriental Paris.