The perfectionist: Marco Pierre White visits Sydney

It was with more than a little treipidation that I headed to Catalina for lunch with Marco Pierre White and his reputation. He was the original bad-boy chef, well before Gordon Ramsay was thrust into the role. Indeed Ramsay used to work for White, and it was assumed that he learned not only culinary skills but also extravagant behaviour from the maestro. Britain's media loved White. With his good looks, his sharp suits, his wild locks, his butcher's apron (no monogrammed chef's whites for this lad), the fag dangling from the corner of his mouth and the occasional contretemps when he ordered a customer out of his restaurant, White was always in the headlines as the "rock-star chef". He denies, though, that he chased celebrity. "When I first started cooking, chefs were acclaimed. They were not celebrities. Journalists created the cult of celebrity, not me."

Perhaps the media couldn't see past the tantrums to the cause, a constant striving for perfection. And for him, this all begins in France. Our long conversation is a kind of road trip through that country's great restaurants, past and present. One senses that although White lives and works in the UK, his heart is in France. "I have always loved the classic French cooking traditions," he says. We reminisce about the statesmen chefs of the 1980s and '90s, most of them working in the provinces rather than in Paris, recalling the greatness of Alain Chapel in Mionnay; Louis Outhier's L'Oasis at La Napoule; Roger Vergé's Moulin de Mougins in the hills above Grasse; the brothers Troisgros at Roanne; and Charles Barrier at Tours. For him, as for this writer, these were the golden decades of French cooking. Alluding to Fernand Point's legendary publication, he confesses, "Ma Gastronomie was the first cookbook I ever bought." And he quotes Point: "Perfection is lots of little things done well."

The third of four sons of an English chef and his Italian wife Maria, White trained almost entirely in the classical tradition, straight from school, without any qualifications, beginning in a hotel kitchen in Harrogate.

"I was 16 and I used to unpack the meat trucks at the back of the restaurant. I'd carry in a whole lamb carcass with legs attached or a loin of beef complete with rib. We'd butcher it inside."

Soon afterwards, he left his native Yorkshire for London, where he worked as a commis at the Roux brothers' fabled Le Gavroche, then London's most famous French restaurant. Pierre Koffman's La Tante Claire was next, then Raymond Blanc's Manoir au Quat' Saisons, and onwards and upwards, until in 1987 he opened the doors of his first restaurant, Harvey's. He quickly gained his first Michelin star, and in 1988, his second.

It was at the sumptuous Oak Room restaurant in Le Meridien hotel that he would gain his third Michelin star. He was just 33. "I walked into Escoffier's world, a world where restaurants were romantic, the food refined. I love romance in restaurants. There should be a show in the room, and this was my ideal restaurant."

It was another book that burnished and consolidated his own reputation, the 1990 publication White Heat. Now a classic in its own right, it's a striking mix of his recipes and opinions. "I wrote White Heat before cooking became sexy. Before that it was very below-stairs."

He acknowledges that there can never be a return to the days when a restaurant kitchen accommodated a staff of 50, but he laments their passing. "It was a hierarchy. There was the chef, a sous chef and a number of chefs de partie with particular responsibilities, the chef garde manger who looked after the pantry, the chef saucier, the chef rôtisseur, the chef pâtissier, the chef entremetier for the vegetables… these days most kitchens have a chef and a couple of assistants."

Economics have dictated the emergence of "modern cooking", about which he is somewhat dismissive - "bits of warm knick-knacks on a plate like cocktail party food" - but he accepts the change. Indeed he is here, on his first visit to Australia, to promote a new jellied stock. Oh, and he'll be making guest appearances on MasterChef, so although he may look at food through a prism of the past, he acknowledges that times have changed.

He is generous in his praise of his now-famous former staff members such as Heston Blumenthal, and unforthcoming about Gordon Ramsay and their long-running feud. (It is said that Ramsay turned up at one of White's three weddings with a TV crew and the two haven't spoken since.) And although he hasn't met him, he's full of admiration for Neil Perry, whose food he encountered on his Qantas flight here. "I've never been impressed by airline food but his is exceptional. Every airline in the world should look at what he's doing. He's cracked it."


WHAT THEY ATE

Roast lamb rack with chive spätzele, baby beetroot and Jerusalem artichoke crisps
Cone Bay saltwater barramundi with spanner crab parcel, sage and shallot cream
Three Sheets Ale, Lord Nelson Brewery, Sydney

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