Licensee Interview: The Unsinkable Mr. Marshall – Derek Marshall of Gamba



Gamba chef-patron Derek Marshall has stood the heat in the kitchen of his 62-cover Glasgow fish restaurant for over two decades. He’s just blown out the candles on Gamba’s 21st-birthday cake and Derek’s Gamba journey began in October 1998 when restaurateur Alan Tomkins opened the restaurant and appointed him head chef/director. Derek took on Gamba himself when Alan left the business eight years ago.

I’ve known Derek for about 20 years. I use the term ‘known’ loosely because he’s a fairly private person and a little reserved, but with a dry sense of humour that’s endearing. Plus when he’s passionate about an opinion he serves it to you undiluted.

We chatted in a quiet corner of the restaurant midafternoon as the last of the lunchers were leaving.  I got down to business by asking him how the restaurant, which was refurbished in the autumn of 2018, was doing and how it had adapted to the fluctuations in customers’ eatingout habits in the last 21 years. Derek said, “We still do the business. There are challenges too, of course, the biggest of which was the end of lunchtime trade. The recession meant that
corporate accounts disappeared virtually overnight and things never really fully recovered. But this is not a worry for me because we can cover this loss at dinner, and I know that not all restaurateurs have this luxury.

“I also think that the fact we are an independent restaurant stands us in good stead because customers have more loyalty because of the personal touch they receive here, which is probably lacking in a chain restaurant experience. I often wonder when I look around the city just how many of the restaurants will be here in 21 years from now.”

He continued, “I like to keep doing new things, like all the activity we’re planning for the 21st, as well as embracing the traditional – we have a Burns Supper planned for the end of this month.”

Derek plans to mark the 21st with several celebratory events, running from November 2019 until November 2020. He explained, “Reaching 21 years at Gamba is a great achievement for me and I want to encourage those in the industry or in schools to help chefs and young people learn to cook more with incredible seafood. I’ve always been passionate about it, particularly creating delicate dishes and balancing flavours.

“Underway right now is ‘Gamba Gives Back’ – this is all about me hosting practical skills workshops with any school, community or restaurant that would like to develop their team or learn more about cooking with seafood. I kicked things off by going back to my own secondary school in the east end.”

Gamba is also running a nightly oyster happy hour for customers. There are other ideas on the table for later on in the year that Derek is yet to rubber stamp, like the possibility of doing a menu swap with another chef where he will cook at their restaurant and they’ll reciprocate with a guest spot at his. There are others too, which Derek is keeping under his chef’s hat. Watch this space.

Derek has been working in kitchens since the age of 15 and still happily rolls up his sleeves to sear the scallops and boil the lobsters, in what is his fifth decade. His passion is still evident and the passing of the years doesn’t appear
to have jaded him. He explained, “I still cook five days a week, some 70 hours, and this includes peeling tatties and meeting the needs of the business whatever they happen to be. I suppose I’m a control freak and the way I look at it I have to be here because nobody else notices if the lights are set at the wrong level, say, or if the music
is too loud or too quiet. That’s not to say my staff (he employs 17 people) aren’t wonderful, they are.

“I also have to check the toilets every day – I’m not down on my hands and knees cleaning or anything like that but I am putting in freshly-cut flowers every day and making sure that there’s consistency. Inconsistency is the enemy in this business because everybody fancies themselves as a restaurant critic.”

This brought us on to keyboard warriors and so-called influencers, as well as review sites. Said Derek, “None of this was a consideration when I first started out. All our customers are checked back on and I feel that if they’re not happy with their meal at the time then I think that they should say so at the time and together we can do
something about it there and then rather than go away and then write a bad review. I’m always open to feedback. “

Derek is someone that just gets on with it. Like the thorny rates issue, the mere mention of which gets many in the hospitality industry hot under the collar. Derek’s view? “I just suck it up and pay what I owe. That’s the way I run my business – I pay all my bills and my suppliers on time. I want to go home and sleep at night and I don’t feel the need for all the trappings of a lavish lifestyle and incurring debt to acquire it.”

Sustainability is also a subject that is close to Derek’s heart. “We use only sustainable fish that is locally sourced. Farmed halibut is, hake isn’t. The freshness of the product is paramount, which is why we are closed in the first week of January because it’s virtually impossible to get fresh produce at this time of year. We celebrate locally-caught seafood on our menus. We are closed in the first week of January because you can’t get fresh fish. We’re also moving to all re-chargeable LED lights on the tables, moving away from candles.”

He’s equally as conscious of offering value for money and not neglecting the basics. He said, “I like to eat out a lot and you go to some of these places and pay £150 for dinner and you get no bread and no paper napkin – which sounds simple but I expect these touches. This is the way that I think all restaurants should be run.”

And when Derek isn’t working he’s travelling. He’s off to Lisbon soon and last year he headed to Malaga, Majorca, Amsterdam, Hungary and London where he’s not so much checking out the competition as much as enjoying the experience. He explained. “I love eating out when I’m abroad. One particular favourite is Graham’s Kitchen in Amsterdam, owned and operated by a Liverpudlian chef. El Meson de Cervantes in Malaga is equally as good. In Scotland, I like The Amber Regent in Glasgow and Dine in Edinburgh. I never ever cook at home.”

Is staffing an issue for Derek? The day I was there he seemed to have an immensely relaxed and informal relationship with all the staff that were buzzing about, yet good staff truly are as hard to come by for Derek as they are for other restaurateurs I’ve interviewed. “It’s really hard to get good staff. Slovaks and Poles contribute greatly to the restaurant industry in Britain. British people just don’t want to work in restaurants. I also think that many
young people seem to be lacking in drive and ambition. They’re all addicted to their phones and social media,” he told me.

And one of his longest-serving members of staff, Maitre’d, Gregor Munn, who left but is now back in the business after being away for nine years. He has also contributed massively to Gamba’s success.

Derek is also in a fairly new relationship, a long-distance one, so it looks like everything is coming up roses for him at the moment. I left wondering, and especially when you factor in all the extracurricular birthday activity, how there are enough hours in the day for him to do all that he does. But he told me that he’s always been good at time management which goes some way to explaining why he’s so unsinkable.



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Tags: Alan Tomkins, Derek Marshall, Gamba, Glasgow, seafood