Marc Aulén

We haven’t tasted any of his soups yet, but if we had to make an educated guess based on how he delivers every last drop of sweat while on stage rocking with his bands, or laying down his best advice on how to navigate the best eateries in Helsinki, or composing catchy tunes about crooked politicians and underdogs, we’d say his soups would taste… Deliciously honest. He’s a professional chef, a writer with two published books (So)ppat and The Helsinki Book, he’s the front man in his rock cover band The Seven Mugs, and he composes and performs original music with his other band, Pretty Marc.

Hello, Marc! A bit about your background, please?

My parents are both Finnish and Swedish. The name Aulén comes probably from France or Belgium, I think there are only five or six people with that name in Helsinki, quite a small family. I myself was born in Belgium, because of my father’s job. He used to work for Ford Motors Company, and we had to move around a lot. Twice we lived in England, twice in Sweden, and once in Norway.

I was around thirteen when we moved to Finland. They put me back one grade (seventh) because I didn’t speak any Finnish, so I was one year older than the other kids. I had gone to nine schools before that… It was not easy. You get ripped off, having to start everything from zero. But at the same time it makes you strong, it gives you a good set of cojones.

Sounds like school was not a nice experience.

It was a catastrophe. It was horrible, I felt school was not for me. I was not being deliberately difficult, or stupid, I just did not fit in. When I turned 16 I understood I had to go to vocation school and become a chef. My talents could shine there.

Usually culinary taste develops when we are more mature. Young people don’t care much about food, they eat simple stuff like burgers and chips.

I’ve loved food since I was young. (pats his belly) We always had very good food at home. And because we moved so often I had the chance to visit high quality restaurants at a young age. I fell in love with food and the whole restaurant scene. I felt at home, so to speak. Proof of it is the day I went to vocation school my grades skyrocketed! It was such a great feeling when things started to fall into place!

When the Helsinki Book came out, I gave a talk at the International Bookstore in Töölö, and my old English teacher from high school was there (she follows me and likes what I do, so she came). She gave me a huuuge hug and said “oh, I remember you so well from your school days! I knew then that you don’t fit in, you have your own universe, and you’re going to do lots of things, not yet, but in the future!” It was so nice to hear, at my age, that someone really got me back then, because I felt like nobody understood me.

How did you get your own restaurant?

After vocational school I went to the army, and after that I started working in different kitchens, pubs, and things like that; I’ve done it all. Then me and a couple of friends opened Qulma restaurant, which is a great success. But I have sold my share to them, so it’s not mine anymore. Now I just work there for a wage, and I’m loving it. I get to sleep, and do other stuff.

Ownership was weighing you down?

In terms of money and worry, it’s really expensive to own stuff. For example, if you own a house or an apartment and it’s time for the dreaded renovation (remontti), you’re supposed to pay 1.500 eu per square meter! You go broke just because you own it.

So I just pay my bills, the rent, good food, and gas for my scooter and an old Toyota, that’s it. That’s my luxury. Hand to mouth, but it’s a way of life. When I learned to live like this, I loved it. It’s simple and you learn to appreciate the good things, and make the most of what you have.

I guess the idea is to max your potential, not be obsessed with money or owning things.

Yeah, and it’s about what you do with your brains. You have to keep the doors open, let things happen, but also be ready with a plan B. If something doesn’t go the way you planned it, take a different option.

Why did you write the Helsinki Book?

Because I felt the ones on offer were poor copies of each other. Everyone was doing Pohjoisesplanadi, Töölö, Chez Dominique, blah blah blah. A 300 eu vinaigrette au lait! In my opinion that had nothing to do with reality. I am a normal guy living in Helsinki, where can I eat well? I wanted to offer options for a normal crowd, someone who’s visiting the city and wants to taste real food, at the normal places where normal people eat, that’s it. That’s what people like the most about the book, the honesty. I put myself out there; it feels authentic because it’s true. And it’s my first self-published book.

Why did you choose the self-publishing route?

Ah, well… In 2014 I wrote another book called (So)ppat (Soups) through a big publisher. That book sold really well, but I wasn’t happy about the overall experience. When you work with a big house, they take over your editing and kill 30% of your book. For the graphic design, I was chasing the guy in charge for a year through emails, you know, to coordinate stuff. Not one single email replied from him. No calls, nothing. When I finally meet him in person I’m like “what’s your problem, why didn’t you answer any of my messages?!” and he’s like “I only answer to my bosses”. Stuff like that drives me crazy. The publishers were really happy, they would have probably offered me a deal for the next book, but I said stuff it, next time I’m gonna do this myself.

Then I realized what a big difference it is. They have ALL the connections to the press, TV, radio. They just press a button and it goes PUFF! The Soups book was in all the newspapers and magazines. I was on morning TV twice, and in radio shows, great stuff! So of course I contacted those same journalists who did really big stories on my previous book saying “hey, remember me? I’ve got a really cool new book out, it’s self-published!” I built a website, I offered free segments of the book “please get in touch, I’ll give you a free book!” But I didn’t get a single answer, not even to say NO. It was like I was dead to them.

This is what you have against you when you self-publish. You have to do the work of five people and still you don’t come close. It was an eye-opener, but I’m not sorry I did it this way, because I had to create my own marketing strategy. Even though sales didn’t come close to the first book, I’m much more proud of the Helsinki Book. I also talked to Elisa Kirja about the possibility of a digital version.

What’s the feedback from the readers?

Every single person who’s seen it loves it. The whole book is written so that the information doesn’t get old. And of course there’s the website, where I post personal updates and new reviews, with new restaurants popping up, others closing.

Shall we start talking about music?

Yeah! I’ve always been a musical guy. I always dreamt of writing my own music, but never got a chance until late in life. While I was still an owner of the restaurant, I was contacted by an old friend of mine who was in this “therapy band” for old guys. (laughs) Nobody knew how to sing though, so my friend said “you want to join the band?” and I said, why not? It wasn’t really good in the beginning but time passed by, some people left the band, others joined in, it got better. A lot better. I came up with the name The Seven Mugs for the band, referring to a bunch of old geezers who look like thugs (having nothing to do with the mugs we fill with coffee!). Anyway, we’ve been playing rock n’roll together for four years and now we’re beginning to sound like a REAL band. (laughs). Before the Mugs I sang in a short-lived band project called The Roadhouse Cuckoos.

But did you use to sing before all that?

No! I hadn’t even taken classes. I contacted this opera singer and he gave me a two-hour lesson. At the end he told me “there’s nothing I can do for you!” (laughs) He said “you are what you are, and what you need to be. I’m not going to change you.” He also comes from time to time to our gigs. I’m also learning to play the guitar now, but I have this fat, effing sausage fingers, so I have to learn how to cheat and play my own way. That’s the story of my life: “adaption”.

What is “Pretty Marc”?

While The Seven Mugs is pretty cool, it’s still a cover band. Pretty Marc is a more artistic project of mine, where we really create stuff from zero. I write the lyrics and the basic chords, and send them to Patu (the other half of the band) who puts meat on the bones. We send it back and forth until we’re both happy. And we’re very grown up about it, I can tell him directly “hey, this is crap, I don’t like it” and vice versa, which is totally cool. Once we’re both happy and ready, we record and publish on Spotify and iTunes. It’s so easy to publish music these days. The company distributing our record is called DistroKid. We pay them 20 eu one time, and after that we send our music files and they put it out on seven, eight sites, and we get paid royalties based on clicks. In money terms it’s nothing, really. Last week we took a look how much we had made, and it was .23 cents! Who says there’s no money in music?! (laughs) This year we are going to publish some eight to ten songs and a few music videos as well, and after that we just might put our songs on an LP, ’cause vinyl is just so cool.

I see a new Harley Davidson in your future.

Spotify Premium subscribers pay 10 eu per month, and that’s diluted between all the songs by all the artists available on the platform. We’re two old guys with no false expectations of making any money. We just click together well, work quickly and efficiently, and do cool stuff that we both love.

Patu plays the guitar?

He plays everything. He mixes, plays guitar, sax, He’s extremely talented, and even more passionate about music than I am.

He looks like Bowie, and you look like Elton.

(laughs) He does, and I do! Every single time I’m abroad somebody stops me, wherever I go: “do you mind a selfie?” In the beginning I thought it was silly, but now I just go with it.

What happens if they ask for your autograph?

(laughs) I always tell that I’m NOT Elton, but they say “it doesn’t matter, just scribble something!” When I was with my daughters in LA a few years ago for a couple of weeks, TWELVE times I was stopped, plus all the buzz around, people going “OMG, it’s ELTON!” I could have a steady job over there being an Elton impersonator, I tell you.

Do you ever do Elton covers with the Mugs?

I’d like to, but the other guys don’t feel it much. I do my fair share of karaoke, and there I cover Elton.

He was at the Royal Wedding the other day.

I haven’t seen the Wedding yet, I got it on tape.

On TAPE?! VHS or Betamax?

I meant “recorded”! (laughs a lot) I am a dinosaur…

Do you still have projects regarding food?

No. I’ve done so much in the kitchen. And I’m in the wrong place for that. I know I could have become a big brand had I been somewhere else. But my wife wants to stay here, and I love her very much, so I stay here also. It’s a small sacrifice, but I’m happy.

Having been in so many places, what’s your nationality, would you say?

Well… I’ve been a few times in the US, and that’s kinda my thing; I get along with Americans. And also with Canadians. Maybe I’ll end up there one day, you never know. My wife doesn’t want to move, I respect it, and I’m not suffering. I had a pretty good run, I’ve done interesting stuff here. But you gotta keep an open mind and see which way the wind is blowing.

In the US, mavericks are revered.

If you have the brains and the initiative, you will get help there. I LOVE that. If you go just to be a burden to society of course they won’t welcome you, but if you bring a good attitude and ideas it’s a great place to prosper, I think. Today we had several American tourists at the restaurant, and I just clicked so well with them. In general, I seem to get along better with foreigners than with Finns. The “don’t be seen, stay low, don’t stick out” attitude doesn’t go well with me, I’m the opposite. I think I may be a bit too much for the basic Finn. (laughs). So what?

I could see it at the Mugs’ gig. You’re the one sticking out with your Jagger moves, while the others are quietly strumming in the background.

(laughs) Good observation. That’s me, that’s what I am. I have fun, I’m feeling stuff, and I’m not afraid to show it!

This is Marc’s website, this is The Helsinki Book’s, and this is Pretty Marc’s.