Drags to riches

5 min read

One wo/man's journey through food and performance

"I don't remember one day in my life when I wasn't happy to go to work," says Marc Kuzma. Now that's something you don't hear often. Maybe it's because Marc is always on the move, running his own restaurant and giving back to his community. Or maybe it's because this self-described "shy chef" gets to call on his alter ego, drag diva Claire de Lune, when he wants to be on show.

Growing up in Troyes, France with a Ukrainian dancer father, and a French actress mother, Marc was roped into performing early on. From the age of 6 or 7 he was part of his father's dance troupe which toured around Europe.

Marc ended up in Sydney after completing his compulsory military training in New Caledonia. On the islands he met lots of Australian tourists who urged him to visit them on his way home. Which he did. And never left.

Claire's Kitchen, his latest restaurant venture, is a French brasserie on Oxford Street in Sydney's Darlinghurst.

"I always wanted to be in the restaurant industry. I actually started as a waiter. We did three years of school to be a waiter in France - we actually take that as a profession quite seriously. But when I was in Australia I couldn't speak English so they put me in the kitchen where the chef was French. And that's how I started cooking."

Enter Miss Claire de Lune

Marc's better-known other half is the fabulous Claire De Lune. "She is the outgoing one that takes all the limelight," Marc says. "That's why it's her name at the front of the restaurant."

Marc has been involved in restaurants on and off since arriving in Australia. Except for a period in the '90s when he decided Claire needed to work on her career.

"In Australia I always wanted to be an actor but because of the accent, the parts didn't come to me," he says. "I thought I'd create my own character, which became Claire de Lune. And then I started playing around with the idea of a cooking show, which became 'Cooking with Claire'."

That led to Marc's regular 'Cooking with Claire' gig on the Midday show with Kerrie-Anne Kennerley. "I didn't get my own cooking show but I got a cooking show." Then he spent another four years as a host on 'Room 208': a wacky, free-for-all dance-off program on Foxtel's youth music channel, Channel [V].

Much of his life he's created his own opportunities. "I always have ideas in my head, and I make it happen," he says. As former manager of the Slide cabaret venue on Oxford Street, he dreamed up new stage shows year after year, for Claire and for other collaborators including his dear friend Verushka Darling. Claire's also done shows for Sydney's Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, including 2000's sold-out Drags to Riches, which was loosely based on Marc's life.

Unlike a lot of drag artists, Claire doesn't pick on her audience for laughs. "I always find Claire very motherly," Marc says. "She always looks after everybody. She has a fun, sharp tongue too from time to time, but it's nearly always self-deprecating as opposed to picking on other people."

Giving back to his community

Marc, in the guise of Claire, has always done food-related charitable work. "I've been involved in a lot of gay and lesbian, transgender charities. Also a lot of HIV charities because I was in Australia at the beginning of the crisis, and it did affect a lot of my friends. I've been doing the Bake Off with the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation for 28 years."

He worked with the AIDS Trust of Australia for 25 years, helping with their annual Food & Wine Fair in Hyde Park. For four years he also worked with youth charity Twenty10, raising money, giving lessons in the kitchen and helping young LGBTQI people gain confidence and open their horizons.

"I think it's nice to give back to the community," says Marc. "I've been very lucky - the community has always embraced me for what I am and who I am. And I enjoy it, I get pleasure out of it. If you can help, you should." 

Making a go of business

In business, Marc's a firm believer in surrounding yourself with people who have the capabilities you lack. "I've made my maître de and chef partners in Claire's Kitchen: one is great with bookkeeping and the other is great with cooking, so it leaves me free to spend more time on marketing. I'm more the artistic side and the people person."

Talking about the ups and downs of business, he's characteristically positive. "You learn by your mistakes... Learn as you go really." His biggest mistake in business so far? "Falling in love with my business partner. That's probably not a good idea - mixing business with pleasure."

But he's not one to let hurdles slow him down. "I think people create their own problems and I think if you actually look at life in a positive way, there are not that many problems." Nor is he a procrastinator. "When you run a business you don't have the luxury of doing that. I always give myself deadlines on everything to make sure things are done."

The other side of the coin

"Money is important because I like nice things in life," Marc says. "I like a pleasant lifestyle, travel... I like to buy good clothes, I like to live comfortably and have nice things around me."

Though he always employs someone to handle the money side of his business, he admits that his personal finances often fall by the wayside. "The restaurant comes first, my personal finances are always a bit of a mess. That's probably my way of rebelling."

Though he claims to have "no life" because he's so busy running the restaurant, doing appearances and performances, Marc can't ever see himself giving up work. "I'm the type of person who needs to work. The business I'm in, you can still do it - well maybe not in the kitchen, that's getting a little harder. But being in the restaurant industry you can still work into your '60s, '70s."

"I've been self-employed most of my life... I haven't been that good with putting money aside for retirement - that's why I'll have to work til quite late!"

But when he finally does get too old to work? "I'd like to have a nice little villa in Bali; maybe a couple of villas so I could have guests, and do that sort of thing. But that's a long term dream..." Maybe when he's 85. Or 95. Even then, he'll probably still be working. And so probably, will Claire.

If you're letting your own personal finances fall by the wayside, not contributing enough to your super, it might be time to see a financial planner to help you get moving.

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This information is current as at 20/07/2015.