Game hunter. Shark fisherman. Bad boy. Chef. Marco Pierre White is an enigma wrapped in a grimace smoking a Marlboro. On the one hand, he’s the boy from the council estate in Leeds deemed frightening by some members of the press, the loose cannon who was turfing people out of restaurants and reducing his chefs to gibbering wrecks under torrents of withering abuse back when Gordon Ramsay’s vocabulary amounted to little more than ‘oui, chef’. On the other hand, he was by many counts the first celebrity chef, the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars (and the first British-born chef to do so). Having given back the stars and taken up the mantle of restaurateur rather than hands-on chef, White has built a multimillion-dollar restaurant empire, having collaborated over the years with everyone from artist Damien Hirst to actor Michael Caine. He also cooked food that is remembered by many as some of the best they’d tasted anywhere.
His acting-out is the stuff of legend, whether it’s the tantrum over the arrangement of the cheeses on a board that was punctuated by each gooey slice being thrown at the wall, the occasion when White sliced open one of his chefs’ uniforms after he complained about the heat in the kitchen, or the time he tipped a tureen of hot soup down another chef’s pants. Followed by the croutons.
As Gordon Ramsay’s boss and mentor, he created a persona that has gone on to serve Ramsay well, even if White reduced the younger chef to tears in the kitchen. The two have now been feuding for longer than they were friends. American chef Mario Batali was one of White’s apprentices in the early stages of both men’s careers; it was a period that ended with White throwing a saucepan at Batali, and Batali dumping a fistful of salt in the stock and walking out. (They’re now great mates.)
Heston Blumenthal and The Square’s Phillip Howard also worked for him, among others, as did Donovan Cooke, Curtis Stone and Shannon Bennett. Through White Heat, his seminal cookbook featuring recipes interspersed with gritty photographs of the rangy, stubble-jawed chef looking like a quail-boning rock star, he inspired a generation of young chefs.
Anthony Bourdain describes reading White Heat as a younger chef as “an amazingly religious experience”: “From the moment my chef pals and I got a look at it – and at photos of the man himself, in all his haggard, debauched-looking, obsessively driven glory – we dreamt of nothing more than to be just like him. White Heat was the first real hint we could be proper chefs and not just look like Paul Bocuse.”
Today, at 47, White continues to cut an interesting figure, even if he’s not in the kitchen. He lends his name and expertise to a range of restaurants, has opened restaurants aboard cruise liners with P&O, publishes books and appears on TV, next up in a US-based version of our very own Chopping Block.
AA Gill profiled White in our September 08 issue, introducing recipes from Great British Menu, White’s new book. Gill joined White in stalking roe deer in Dorset to gather material for the piece. He describes the journey to the hunting ground with White’s driver, Mr Ishii at the wheel, vividly: “Marco sat in the front and ate half a kilo of peanut butter with his fingers and smoked a pack of fags with the other hand. Beside him, Mr Ishii stared at the motorway as if it were a science-fiction movie.”
Marco Pierre White’s mystery hasn’t ebbed, and the man is, if anything, more compelling than ever. In an effort to get the word straight from the horse’s mouth, Pat Nourse talked to White by phone between bursts of tannoy announcements as the chef cruised off the coast of Gibraltar aboard the P&O ship Ventura.
Where are you?
I’m on board Ventura, P&O’s new ship. It’s the largest in the fleet, and it’s designed to accommodate families so that people can bring their children with them. We’ve just pulled into Gibraltar.
Are you an ocean-going man, yourself?
I’ve always loved the sea and when I was boy I spent a lot of time fishing off the east coast [of England] in boats, so I’ve always enjoyed being out at sea. Like all young boys, I had a fascination with ships like the Titanic, the Britannia, the Normandie.
Churchill was obsessed with sinking the Bismarck. Propaganda of course. Probably because it was the only one we could pronounce.
How did you come to be involved with the food on P&O?
About two-and-a-half years ago I was approached by P&O Cruises, and they asked if I would be interested in doing a restaurant on board. All the new ships hadn’t been built by then, so I spent a couple of days on one and thought, these are quite magnificent things. I’ve fallen in love with cruising, and taken my boys out and they think it’s the greatest thing in the world.
One of the things I love about ships is that they cater for different layers of society. I think it’s fantastic. Today, it’s a lot more accessible – it’s the best value holiday in the world. The other thing I like about it is that you don’t have the aggravation of flying. You pull up, you get on your ship and away you go – you don’t have all the checks and the waiting and you don’t arrive exhausted.
Have you spent much time in Australia?
I’ve never been to Australia. I’ve just been asked to do Hell’s Kitchen down under, but it’s an awful long way away. I’m signed to do two shows a year in America and two shows a year in England, so I’m not sure it’s going to work with my schedule, but I’m giving it some thought.
Don’t worry – 12 and 20 hours on a plane feel much the same.
That’s very comforting.
What are these new series?
I’ve just finishing filming The Chopping Block for NBC. There’s a version of that in Australia. I just sack people, really. I’ve been taken 5500 miles to give people the sack. It’s an interesting concept: they couldn’t find anyone in America to do it better. Bring in an Englishman to sack them. Funny.
How do they take being sacked, these chefs?
I do it very nicely. They cry, they scream at each other, but they’re very nice to me.
And in the UK? In the UK I’m exclusive to Hell’s Kitchen.
Is it a fun show to shoot from your perspective?
I think when you do reality TV, you’ve got to put reality in it, otherwise it becomes farcical. You have to instil reality into it. When I did Hell’s Kitchen I didn’t swear at anybody, I didn’t belittle anybody, I didn’t put anybody down, I just did my job, and turned it into a restaurant, it’s as simple as that. They were a little bit shocked that I could do it in the timeframe, so they tried to put obstacles in front of me, but you just change your strategy.
Did you learn anything from working on these shows? From the contestants? The reality is you can never teach people to cook. People teach themselves to cook. It comes from within them. That’s what I have to do with the team on the ship. I have to make people want to do it. I spend 30 or 40 days a year on the ships. You have to be committed to doing these things, otherwise it’s just a slap-on label, which I think is wrong. P&O allowed me to participate in the design of the restaurant, they allowed me to put a chef in position, and I work alongside them very closely.
You have to remember that you’re out in the middle of the sea, so you can’t ring up your supplier and say, by the way, I forgot to order two turbots this morning. Your homework is your shopping list, and when you come into ports, they bring on fresh produce, they bring on meat, they bring on fish, they bring on herbs. It’s like a military manoeuvre, it’s very different to running a restaurant onshore. I do relish the challenge.
I’ve just been reading AA Gill’s profile of you in Gourmet Traveller.
He’s very good, is Adrian. He’s a good boy, and he knows about food as well. His brother was one of the youngest chefs ever to win a Michelin star in Britain, and he was the first English apprentice at Maxim’s in Paris when they won three stars in the 70s.
What’s Adrian like at stalking game?
He’s a good stalker, is Adrian. And he’s a very clean shot.
You’re known as a keen hunter – are you still heavily into fishing?
Fishing was my first passion in life. I love all sorts of fishing. I started out fishing the rivers of Yorkshire as a child and fishing off the coast in boats. My fascination with the sea was born fishing for cod and haddock off the east coast in the 70s. I love early morning fishing for tench on a lake or fishing for pike in the winter with my boys. It’s just a great day out. I took my son fishing for pollock and conger eels off a wreck just the other day. Fantastic.
Do your boys cook?
They’re 13 and 14, so they do a little bit. They do things like pancakes for breakfast, but all the other meals of the day they expect to be cooked for them, which is really funny.
How would you feel if one of them said to you, "Dad, I’m thinking of becoming a chef"? I’d be horrified. I’d never discourage them, of course. You must let them make their own decisions. But can you imagine? I’d have to start knocking on doors... this is my son. Calling in favours. I think for Luciano and Marco it’d be tough because of who their dad is.
Where would you send them to apprentice? If that was the case, I’d send them to France. Someone like Alain Passard or Pierre Gagnaire. The reality is that with those guys, they’d get a proper training and learn to do things well across the board.
How do you describe The White Room?
One thing about The White Room is that it’s got the best of classicism and it’s got the best of the modern world. It’s an environment created to make everyone feel comfortable. I think that’s the most important aspect of any restaurant – comfort. Once you feel comfortable, you can start to enjoy your food. Most posh restaurants, it’s like walking into the chapel of rest.
What’s the food concept?
The inspiration came from the sun. The ships are in the Mediterranean during the summer and the Caribbean during the winter, so I think it’s very important that they should be sunshine flavours.
In practice that translates to what?
You might have a tranche of halibut or turbot with citrus fruits with olive oil and a confit of lemon, or you might have something like a tuna à la Méditerranée with black olives, green olives, little grape tomatoes, fresh basil and capers. I don’t think people on ships in the Mediterranean or Caribbean want thick cream sauces. Those days are over.
Is Caribbean food an inspiration for you?
I like my peppered shrimps and my fish tea, yes.
That seems quite a departure from the food you’re known for. I was trained in the French school, but as I get older, I like simpler food. You look at a lot of artists, and their paintings become looser and more economical as their confidence grows. You look at someone like Picasso and his work when he was a young man setting out to be the world’s finest draughtsman, and then you look at what he was doing at the end of his life. It’s just that confidence to do what you want to do rather than what people want. I like my fish cooked on the bone. I get small red mullets, I don’t want them taken off the bone. Fish cooks better on the bone. I want my turbot on the bone, not off the bone. You couldn’t cook a tuna on the bone, of course. Although I suppose you could... a giant spit-roast. But you see my point – it’s about keeping things very simple. You get a sea bass, cook it on the bone, take the bone off, a little bit of olive oil, a little bit of crystal salt, some lemon. It’s delicious.
What compromises did you have to make to cook at sea?
You have to work with all the ports that you pull into. I’m only doing 120 of the 15,000 meals a day, so I have to fit into that giant infrastructure. You’ve got to feed people at a certain time, too – that magical hour of 7.30pm, eight o’clock. If you’re in central London, you get people coming in from 6.30 to 10.30. But you cut your cloth accordingly.
What are your personal picks of the menu at the moment? Right now we’ve got that tuna, which is based on a Sicilian recipe – very simple, very clean. And it’s healthy. We have halibut with orange reduction, coriander seed and a croquante of fennel. Or there’s the steak, grilled with rosemary and crystal salt, and we make an oil of rosemary, so it’s very simple and clean. We can cook it quickly and serve it quickly, so no one has to wait.
What’s been the reaction to the menus? It’s been enormously popular, and they love the room. We also have alfresco dining, which people like. You think cruise liners 30 years ago had one big dining room with everyone sat in together. Now you can dine alfresco. In Britain, we become that little bit more European each year.
Speaking of things British, what’s the story with Marco Pierre White’s Great British Feast?
It’s about bringing suppliers up to my stage. If I do another TV show, it’s not going to make me any more famous. There are a lot of unsung heroes out there, and they have to be promoted. My place today is as an ambassador of that world where I promote people. I show people off.
Which British products are you particularly proud of? We have great fish, like yourselves, because we’re surrounded by sea. We have very good beef in England, we have very good lamb in England. We have fantastic game. And then we’ve got individual cheesemakers. Stilton is one of my favourites, for instance. We have lots of great cake-makers. In England we make puddings, we don’t make desserts. There’s something rather nice about an old bird who makes a nice cake.
What do you think of the wave of St John-style restaurants that now proudly wave the British flag?
I don’t know much about St John. It’s a bit basic for my liking. When I go out for dinner, I have to be honest, I do want an element of sophistication and comfort. I’m not into sharing tables.
Do you think British food has potential as restaurant food? The problem with a lot of British restaurants is that they say they’re British, but it’s French method. They take French or Italian base methods, but call it British.
There again, it’s nice to see recognition of things like burnt creams predating crème brûlée.
Cambridge burnt cream was invented at Trinity College. The French stole it from us and called it crème brûlée. On my pub menu we call it burnt cream. I love English puddings. Eton mess, sherry trifle.
Could you tell me a little bit about your new book? It’s all recipes based around my country pub. I have a 17th-century pub in Hampshire. I don’t call it a gastropub, because I think gastropubs disappoint a lot of the time. I call it an eating and drinking house.
I see White Heat is in a new printing.
It’s sold a tremendous number of copies, and it still fetches good money.
Are you happy to think that a new generation of young men and women are getting ready to follow the image of the chef you created with that? I don’t know. When I joined the industry, you learnt your craft and then your job. There was no such thing as a celebrity chef. A lot of these young people are going in with the wrong reasons. They want to be head chefs and celebrities overnight. They want to be stars overnight.
A lot of people credit White Heat with being the genesis of the celebrity chef idea. Two people created the celebrity chef in my opinion. Bob Carlos Clarke, who was the photographer, and Alan Crompton-Batt, who was my PR man. All I was, really, was their muse. I was nothing exceptional.
Has the rise of the celebrity chef had positive effects?
There are a lot of positives along with the negatives. It has brought attention to many deserving people, but it has also seen a lot of Michelin-starred chefs pulled away from their kitchens
You’ve been quoted as saying Michelin is not what it once was. They’ve devalued it. You go to some Michelin-starred restaurants in America and you’ll be served by someone with a Mohican. Michelin set criteria once, but now I don’t understand what they stand for anymore. When I was a boy, to get three Michelin stars, you had to be behind your stove. The chef’s name was above the door, and that’s what you got three stars for. A lot of these two- and three-star chefs aren’t at their stoves any more.
What do you think of the rise of Spain as a global culinary force?
It’s absolutely right. Spain has great restaurants, Italy has great restaurants, and they’ve been cooking great food for years. It’s just that Michelin have only now decided to acknowledge them. I’m very disappointed with Michelin. I don’t understand them anymore, I really don’t. Maybe they’ve become too much of a commercial beast. The guide was set up by André Michelin in 1900 for travellers. You take a detour to a starred restaurant now in Britain and the chances of finding the chef in the kitchen are very slim.
Are you still much of a restaurant-goer?
No. So much of the time food is overworked. If you look at a lot of restaurants now, they dictate to you that you’ll have 12 courses or 18 courses or 24 courses. I don’t understand that mentality where you go to a restaurant and you’re given 18 small courses, which always come lukewarm at best. You’re told how to eat them, they’re never satisfying and you’re interrupted. The evening’s about them, it’s not about you.
Who gets fine dining right?
I think Alain Passard’s restaurant in Paris [L’Arpège] is one of the finest in the world. It’s very simple, it’s very understated, it’s intelligent cooking. You get looked after as a guest, you get beautifully cooked food, and it’s not the emperor’s new clothes.
What do you make of what has been termed molecular gastronomy?
I don’t understand that, in that chefs have been scientists for years, really. As I’ve always said, though, cooking is a philosophy, not a recipe – unless it’s pastry, and then it becomes chemistry.
What of foams? You take a very light sauce to make a foam, because it has to be very light, and then you liquidise it and froth it up, and that dilutes it even more. There’s no flavour in it. How many times have you had one of these froths and there’s no flavour in it?
So in the search for lightness, flavour becomes a casualty?
There’s a point when you can make a soufflé too light. It still requires texture. You have your base, and what do you do, you incorporate egg white into it, don’t you, so it rises. It’s constantly being diluted, so your base has to be very strong, and you have to get the balance right, otherwise you have a soufflé which is tasteless and collapses too quickly.
Great chefs have three things in common. The first is the understanding that mother nature is the true artist and they are the cook. The second is that everything they do becomes an extension of them as a person. Third, they give you insight into the world they came from, the world that inspired them. They show that off on their plates.
Painting by numbers is one thing; cooking by them is something else. Most chefs, unfortunately, cook by numbers. It doesn’t come from within. Molecular cuisine is basically branding food. There’s nothing new to it. Its foundation is still classical. The man who invented la cuisine nouvelle, ultimately, was Fernand Point. He took practical cuisine and refined and lightened the concept.
The molecular guys say they’re just continuing the same project using different tools.
Gadgets. Is this an explanation or a justification? When you see people cooking beef in an oven for 24 hours so it comes out pink, served tepid, with no real caramelisation, and they get their caramelisation with a blowtorch, they’re not rendering the fat, are they?
Do you want something cooked in a bag at a certain temperature, or do you want your piece of lamb with the fat on cooked perfectly so the fat caramelises and is reduced and made edible and delicious and protects the meat as it cooks?
It comes down to eating, not cooking. That’s what it’s all about. When you take a piece of tuna and you cook it perfectly, you don’t have to do anything with it, do you? I’ve had meat cooked in a bag, in sous-vide, at X degrees. It’s boring. If you buy meat that has been raised, slaughtered, hung and prepared properly, it’s delicious. Why do you want to take something and put it in a bag and boil it? We didn’t like boil-in-a-bag in the 70s, why should we like it now, just because it looks pretty?
Consistency is the argument.
It’s cooking by numbers. That’s not cooking any more. Where’s the touch? These kitchens are boring. When I was a boy, kitchens were exciting. You go to these restaurants and the food is always tepid. It’s wrong. I want a piece of meat cooked by fire. Most of what they do is about presentation. Let food present itself. Let nature be the true artist. Don’t turn it into something it’s not.
Mario Batali is perhaps someone we won’t see doing much cooking by numbers. We’re great mates, Mario and I. He worked for me [as an apprentice at the Six Bells in Chelsea, in the early 80s before either chef had come to public recognition]. We were boys together. All I did for Mario was give him an insight into the world. He created his own dream. He’s done it all. Mario is the king.
Did you have any inkling he’d go on to great things?
Look at Mario: you look at the man, you look at the personality and that’s what you get on the plate. Fernand Point said you never trust a thin chef, so we’ve got to trust Mario. Mario always delivers.
Do you think your reputation as an arse-kicker is overshadowing your work? I’ve always said most of my reputation has stemmed from other people’s ignorance. I’ve been condemned many times in my life as being controversial, but I wasn’t setting out to be. Maybe my methods were unconventional, but you only have to look at the Michelin guide today, even look at some of the chefs in Australia – Shannon Bennett came to work for me. Donovan Cooke was with me for years. Curtis Stone.
I had a job to do and my job was to feed my customers to the best of my ability. That’s it. When a chef put his career in my hands, I always protected it and looked after it.
Do you think that tradition continues in the restaurant kitchens of the UK today?
It’s a different world. You walk into restaurants and there’s no service any more. Some of them even cook the lamb before service. It’s cooking by numbers.
Is it a side-effect of the corporatisation and globalisation of restaurants? I can’t answer that. You’re either a cook or you’re not. I spent 22 years in the kitchen, six days a week, and if you ask those boys like Shannon, I worked my balls off. I nailed my colours to the mast and I always led from the front. When I made the decision to retire, I had three options. The first option was, I don’t retire, I stay in the kitchen, I continue to work six or seven days a week, I kiss my children goodbye in their beds while they’re sleeping in the morning and I kiss them goodnight when they’re sleeping in their beds, but I retain my status and my position within my industry. My second option was to live a lie, to pretend I cook when I don’t cook, question my integrity and everything I’ve worked for these 22 years, continue to charge high prices. My third option was to pluck up the courage, give back my stars and abdicate my position and reinvent myself as a person. Those were my options, and one Sunday morning I was fishing and it came to me. I was being judged by people who knew less than me. So what was it all worth? Not a lot.
When you realise that you’re dancing to that drum and you keep doing it, you’re a fool. And that’s why a lot of them keep doing it – because they haven’t got the courage to retire. To put their hands up. They want the money, they want the status. And that’s not me being controversial, that’s just me being very honest.
Are you any closer to patching things up with Gordon Ramsay?
When a man brings a camera crew without asking to my wedding, which hides in the bushes, and films my family and my friends... You know something? There’s nothing to patch up. He showed his colours. It’s a breach of trust. He broke the cardinal rule. If I was one of your friends or associates and I came to your wedding and put a camera crew in the bushes to film your children and you to stick on your TV show, would you be happy? I have no war with this man. He just doesn’t play a role in my life. It’s very simple: if someone can’t enrich my life, then there’s no point in knowing that person.
Thanks Marco. Thank you. I’ll come to Australia soon, I promise.
This web exclusive interview was posted in August 2008.