Few names in the culinary world inspire as much reaction as Marco Pierre White. The mercurial onetime enfant terrible of British cooking – back when ‘British cooking’ was generally seen as a contradiction in terms – polarizes like few others. It’s not difficult to see why. Intense, passionate, loyal, hugely-driven with a God-given talent of which few could dream. Also maddeningly contradictory, often bewilderingly cavalier with how he chose to use his sublime skills.
The venue to meet him could not be more comfortable. Cape Lodge is a beautiful property in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, three hours south of Perth, where Marco is the star draw at the Gourmet Escape, an annual three-day festival of gourmet dinners, markets, appearances and more. In person White is utterly courteous, relaxed and clearly loving his time in this ‘special corner of the world’, as he calls it. Smoke from a steady stream of Marlboro Reds drifts upwards from his lakeside seat, that famous shock of voluminous hair remains unkempt and those piercing eyes which won and broke so many hearts back when White was the first culinary rock star, as immortalized by the late photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, are as intensely-focused as ever.
He starts by talking about the humility of his background and roots, a theme he comes back to time and again: “Cooking was a working class profession. The first kitchen I walked into, in 1978, everyone in that kitchen including me came from a council estate. When I started, I just followed my father’s footsteps. Had my father been a miner, I would have gone down the mines but he just happened to be a chef in the hotels and that’s where I was sent.”
He recalls how at the Hotel St George in Harrogate he’d found a book, ’The Egon Ronay Guide to Hotels and Restaurants in Great Britain.’ “I started flicking through it and what I noticed was that restaurants had stars and the best restaurant in Britain according to Egon Ronay was the Box Tree in Ilkley. I went back into the kitchens and thought ‘I want to be a cook in the best restaurant in Britain’”. Even as a teenager, he had a clarity of vision and focus which belied his age. “As a young boy of seventeen I had a dream to replicate a restaurant called Lasserre – it had the ultimate, three stars from Michelin and five red knives and forks.”
That dream was to set into action a chain of events and meteoric rise to the pinnacle of his profession. Following The Box Tree he worked first as a commis under the Roux brothers at Mayfair’s legendary Le Gavroche. He then became Head Chef and co-owner of Harveys at just 24 (where a young Gordon Ramsay was on his kitchen staff) and nine years later the youngest chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars, at Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel.
Along the way he also defined a new image for a chef as rock star, inspiring thousands to follow in his footsteps, from Anthony Bourdain to Jason Atherton. Simply put, he made cooking cool. With three marriages and seemingly countless assignations, he also became a tabloid favourite. Fellow chef Rowley Leigh, at Hong Kong’s Continental, told me with a twinkle in his eye that Marco was a ‘scoundrel’. When I put this to White, he smiled in return and said: ‘If he wants to say that I’m a naughty boy – like most of us, whether we’re journalists or cooks – we’re all naughty when we’re young. It takes a long time for us to grow up. Metaphorically speaking, I’ve just stepped out of short trousers!”
After achieving his ultimate goal of three Michelin stars and five red knives and forks, White decided to leave at the top, to the amazement of the culinary world: “Once I’d realized this dream, in 1999, it was time to go and hang up the apron. I realized ‘Marco, you’re being judged by people who have less knowledge than you’. One extraordinary fact – that remains true to this day – is that White has never eaten in a Michelin-starred restaurant in France.
Today his view of Michelin is less than favourable:“Michelin devalued their own currency, in my opinion. They’re in the business of selling tires. I don’t want to have 18 courses and little canapés on the plate, it bores me.” White had many great chefs work under him, most famously Gordon Ramsay, one of the few British chefs to also hold three Michelin stars. The recent relationship between the two has been fractious at best, primarily because “I made a conscious decision to cut Gordon out of my life for the simple reason that he bought a camera crew to my wedding, without my knowledge. Six months later my children, wife and family are on a TV show. If Gordon wants to elevate himself through association, then that’s his choice. It depends what value you put on friendship.
However White goes on to suggest that there is potential light at the end of the tunnel: ”I went to a little book signing the other day of White Heat 25 (the anniversary edition of the iconic original) at Little Black Gallery where they were selling all the photographs from White Heat. I was told that Gordon had bought four of the images, something that I took as a great compliment. So I took the one down with the cleaver and wrote on the back of it: “For the ram, with love, the bull.”
He then confounds things further by saying “Last time I saw Gordon we spent six hours at the bar on a Virgin flight to New York. Your chef is always your chef. Forever, I will always be Gordon’s chef. He was a young boy when he came to me and spent two and a half years with me and I got him his job at Le Gavroche and assisted him when he went to Paris.”
Mixed messages, but as part of such an elite group of chefs, intense rivalry and fanning the flames of publicity doubtless comes as second nature. Today White’s world is multi-faceted with restaurants bearing his name across the UK, his role as villain-in-chief on Masterchef Australia, time spent cooking for British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (he insisted he wanted to cook for them ‘on the frontlines’ and not back at base), while Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are both involved in the ongoing project to film White’s autobiography ‘The Devil in the Kitchen’. White’s take on Hong Kong is succinct because, amazingly, he’s never been.
The destination currently taking up most of his time however is the picturesque English town of Bath where he is overseeing the renovation of a Victorian Hotel where his food will be center stage: “I just want the food to be a menu that I’d want to eat. Simple as that. Beautiful pappardelle with a ragu of hare or oxtail. Risotto Milanese with braised osso bucco. Just real food, generous portions. I want things which are real, I don’t want pictures.”
Real things, not pictures. Seventeen years after hanging up his three star apron, he’s still searching for the final legacy to define him.
Marco Pierre White was guest of honour at The Margaret River Gourmet Escape www.gourmetescape.com.au
This piece first appeared in The Peak magazine – http://www.thepeakmagazine.com/hk/home