Marco the man behind the myth
The original rock ’n’ roll celebrity chef has seen his fair share of triumphs and disasters over the years – here’s a look at his most formative, famous (and infamous) moments…
At 33, Marco became the youngest chef to ever receive three Michelin stars, as well as the first Briton. But at 38, he gave it all up, handed in his stars, and retired from the kitchen to the country.
In a career (and personal life) that’s often been glittering, occasionally controversial but certainly never dull, we take you on the roller-coaster ride of the tempestuous chef’s life…
Born in 1961 to an Italian mother, Maria-Rosa Gallina, and an English father, Frank White – a chef – Marco grew up on a council estate in Leeds. He idolised his older brothers, Graham and Clive, and speaks of how they inspired his love of fishing and how as a very young child, he’d be distraught when not allowed to join them. Indeed it was on such a day when Marco was just six years old that an event occurred which would change his life forever and still profoundly affects him today.
‘That morning I was in the kitchen with my mother, begging her to let me go fishing with Graham,’ he says. ‘She wouldn’t let me go. I remember going up to the bedroom window and watching him walking off across the field.’ Hours later, Maria-Rosa, 38, collapsed after suffering a brain haemorrhage. A few days later, she died. ‘When you watch your dear mum die, it becomes kind of pivot, an anchor, in your life,’ says Marco. ‘I still ask myself what she expects of me, and she’s still my guiding force. The only woman a boy truly loves is his mother.’
Growing up, Marco spent his days roaming the Yorkshire countryside, and has since admitted to indulging in more than a spot of poaching to keep himself in pocket money. As a result, he harboured early ambitions to be a gamekeeper, but on leaving school at 16 with no qualifications, it seemed natural for him to become a chef. ‘In those days you followed in your father’s footsteps. You didn’t question it,’ he says. ‘I became an apprentice chef at the St George Hotel in Harrogate.’ A spell at the Box Tree in Ilkeley, West Yorkshire, followed, before Marco headed for the big lights and famously pitched up in London a wide-eyed teenager with £7.36 in his pocket. His career in the Big Smoke skyrocketed, but Marco’s love of the great outdoors, and his passion for hunting, fishing and foraging, never left him.
As a 19-year-old trainee chef with dreams of greatness, Marco set his sights on an apprenticeship at Le Gavroche in Mayfair, London, the two-Michelin-star restaurant run by brothers Albert and Michel Roux. When the application form arrived, it was written entirely in French and a disillusioned Marco threw it away. A chance set of circumstances, however, led the aspiring chef to Roux brothers’ headquarters. Marco’s tenacity and his experience at the Box Tree so impressed Albert – at that point probably the most revered chef in the UK – he told Marco to start on Monday. This was the break Marco needed, and the younger chef, who Albert referred to as ‘my little bunny’, excelled under the elder’s mentorship. The pair developed such a bond that Albert was best man at Marco’s second wedding.
Fame and infamy
In 1987, Marco opened his first restaurant, Harveys in Wandsworth Common, south London, where he won his first Michelin star and was awarded his second in 1988. After moving on to become chef-patron of The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the former Hyde Park Hotel, London, Marco won his third Michelin star at 33, becoming the youngest chef to achieve the honour. During his early career in the kitchen, Marco became renowned for throwing customers out of his restaurants if he took offence at their comments.
And when one patron asked if he could have a side order of chips, Marco hand-cut and personally cooked the chips but charged £25 for his time. As fiery with his staff as with his clientele, Marco once famously cut open the back of a chef’s whites with a paring knife after he complained of heat in the kitchen. This quick-tempered streak, which led to Marco’s reputation as the rudest chef in London, is perhaps the inevitable flip side of the passion, drive and self-belief that led to his great success in the kitchen.
Giving it all up
Despite the blood, sweat and tears Marco endured in pursuit of his ambitions, he found the achievements and accolades weren’t enough to make him happy. So in 1999, he retired and returned his Michelin stars. ‘I was being judged by people who had less knowledge than me, so what was it truly worth? I gave Michelin inspectors too much respect, and I belittled myself,’ says Marco. ‘I’d lost all sense of direction in my life. I was 38 and I’d just had enough. When you start, you’re always pushing, always chasing, wanting to do better and better, but once you get to that level, it becomes very systematic. And I just thought, I’m not happy. I thought that by winning three stars I would be happy, I thought I’d be accepted. But I was almost in a worse position.’
Since his retirement, Marco has returned to his roots, spending hours hunting and freshwater fishing. But he hasn’t left the restaurant world behind. He presides over a string of eateries, including London’s Belvedere in Holland Park, L’Escargot in Soho, and until last year, Criterion in Piccadilly – where he employed magicians led by legendary transsexual Fay Presto. Marco also owns the Frankie’s chain of Italian pizzerias, with celebrity jockey Frankie Dettori. He has also written several cookery books and two acclaimed autobiographies, White Slave and The Devil In The Kitchen, which go some way to explaining the man behind the headlines. After seven years away from a professional kitchen, Marco returned to the stove for ITV1’s Hell’s Kitchen, and more recently, Marco’s Kitchen Burnout.
The public fallings-out
Over the years, Marco has had some spectacular rows and fallen out with everyone from his protégé Gordon Ramsay – who worked for him at Harveys – to his own mentor Albert Roux who he said was like a father to him. He has also quarrelled with the equally feisty film director and restaurant critic, Michael Winner, who paid for his honeymoon, and with actor Michael Caine who backed his London restaurant, Canteen.
Famously, Marco was once dining at The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, owned by another of his former protégés, Heston Blumenthal, when he spotted Gordon Ramsay also having lunch. He immediately summoned Heston and told him to tell Gordon to leave. Heston was embarrassed; Gordon was furious and fired off a few expletives! Marco’s issue with Gordon springs from when he took a film crew to Marco’s wedding without permission. ‘I helped Gordon set up his first deal at Aubergine,’ says Marco. ‘I was brought up to never forget what people do for me – sadly, some people have short memories.’
Hailed as the first rock star chef, it’s not surprising that Marco is also renowned for his ways with women. He has been married three times. Marco married his first wife, Alex McArthur, after a year-long romance. The ceremony at Chelsea Registry Office in 1988 was attended by neither family and the couple divorced in January 1990 when their daughter, Letitia, was six months old. Wife number two was 21-year-old model Lisa Butcher, whom Marco met outside the legendary Tramp nightclub in London. They were engaged within three weeks, married within three months and separated 15 weeks later! Marco has since said he was so intoxicated by Lisa’s looks, he forgot to consider her personality.
In 1993, Marco began a relationship with Mati Conejero, a 28-year-old bartender at one of his restaurants. The pair went on to have two sons, Luciano, 16, and Marco Jr, 15, before marrying and having a daughter, Mirabelle, 8. However, Marco and Mati began divorce proceedings after she confronted two of his waitresses over affairs, and the couple were divorced in October 2007. ‘I don’t believe I’ve ever truly been in love,’ says Marco. ‘Because I don’t believe that I’ve known myself well enough in the past to allow someone to love me. So I must take the blame in many ways because I should never have entered into those relationships. But I still hold out hope for it. I’ll always roll those dice. If there were two dice on the table right now and you could roll them for love, would I do it? Yes, every time.’
Pictures: Dave Bently