The real Marco Pierre White
Marco Pierre White, once dubbed the ‘enfant terrible’ of the restaurant world, has mellowed in recent years and, dare we say it, gone a bit… well, soft.
Renowned chef Marco Pierre White was once wild haired, tempestuous and, if his autobiography The Devil in the Kitchen (£8.99, Orion) is anything to go by, frankly a bit of a bully. In the book, Marco describes the kitchen of his first restaurant, Harveys in London, as ‘like the SAS – we’re all hard nuts in here’. His unorthodox leadership skills certainly sorted the wheat from the chaff, though. ‘Take a look at the ones who stayed,’ he says. ‘The ones who could take it. Today they are considered to be among Britain’s finest chefs and they all came from that cramped kitchen at Harveys.’ These Michelin-star winners include Gordon Ramsay, Philip Howard, Eric Chavot and Stephen Terry.
Simple but effective
Marco will turn 50 at the end of this year, and judging by his recent, honourable pursuits it appears he may now be striving to redeem his past misdemeanours and, as he describes it, his ‘unhealthy obsession with perfection’.
His TV appearances have been minimal – he recently appeared on Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 5, where he terrified the new housemates with his tricky cooking challenge. Contestant and paparazzo Darren Lyons said of him: ‘I was just in awe of the man. His presence. The chemistry he has.’ It was Marco’s first TV appearance since the reality cooking show Kitchen Burnout last year. Although he hasn’t been on the small screen so much, he has been busy expanding his restaurant empire, including heading up several quality eateries under the Wheeler’s of St James’s banner. He is also overseeing the renovation of one of the oldest public houses in the country, The Angel in Lavenham, which dates back to 1420. ‘I have got rid of Foster’s and Strongbow,’ he says in his typical, forthright ‘council house toff’ voice. ‘I simply don’t like them.’
In fact his love of a traditional pub has led him to develop an ale aimed at the ‘modern, younger ale drinker’. He says The Governor (4.1% ABV) ‘is an ideal accompaniment to great British food’. He adds: ‘British food was never meant to be eaten with wine – it was always accompanied by beer. Being in a proper British pub serving a good pint is heaven to me.’
Marco’s favoured honest pint goes well with his latest recipe book Marco Made Easy: A Three-Star Chef Makes It Simple, published at the end of last year (£20, Weidenfeld & Nicolson), which aims to make cooking Michelin-star food fool-proof, but with ‘a sense of occasion’. And the fact traditional condiments, including ketchup, mustard and vinegar, are on the cover alongside the shaggy-haired chef, is a hint that the recipes inside are aimed people who love food and entertaining but without fuss. Another new association in his quest for simplicity, and to appeal to the masses, is his affinity with Bernard Matthews, the turkey farmer who Marco says has helped to put the bird on every working-class table. Marco is an ambassador for the famous turkey brand, which has seen him face criticism. ‘When people attack me for associating myself with Bernard Matthews… they don’t just attack me, they attack the consumer, they attack every employee of Bernard Matthews, and they don’t have that right. Because those people who work for Bernard Matthews, who, in my opinion, is one of the country’s great farmers, they work hard for their money.’
He is also fronting the Knorr stock cube ad campaign and says it is ‘the best ingredient in the world’. So, even though Marco retired from the professional kitchen over a decade ago, famously giving back the three Michelin stars he worked so hard for, he has still remained on an empassioned quest to bring good food to the British public.
Marco’s ever-expanding restaurant portfolio is impressive – as well as the original Wheeler’s of St James’s, his collaboration with Sir Rocco Forte, there are the two Frankie’s restaurants, the Italian chain he co-owns with his friend the jockey Frankie Detorri. There’s also Marco, a collaboration with Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, located at Chelsea Football Club, plus steak restaurants that come under the banner The London Steakhouse Company, as well as Steakhouse Bar & Grill outlets recently opened in Bristol, Chester and Liverpool. His Birmingham Steakhouse is opening in December on the 25th floor of the iconic The Cube, complete with 360° city views and a rooftop terrace. His term for these new restaurants is ‘affordable luxury’. He doesn’t cook in any of the kitchens, but lends his expertise to recipes and the business side of his ventures.
It was in 1999 that Marco decided he’d had enough of professional kitchens and, at the grand old age of 38, effectively retired from the kitchen. This was after two decades of hard work, starting as a kitchen assistant in Leeds, having left school with no qualifications and literally sweating his way up the chef’s ladder, working with culinary greats such as Albert Roux at London’s Le Gavroche at the age of 19.
In the foreword of Marco’s 1990 cookbook White Heat (£29.99, Mitchell Beazley), Albert says: ‘I am the one that knows more about what is inside him. He is not what has been portrayed with relish by the media, at least not the Marco Pierre White I know. He is one of the kindest, softest people one would ever wish to meet.’
Marco cites Albert as akin to the Godfather: ‘He was the boss of bosses. He was Marlon Brando… in an apron.’ They fell out when Albert poked a spoon in Marco’s face after a row and are still not on talking terms today. Yet his time working with Albert, Pierre Koffmann and Raymond Blanc gave Marco the skills and confidence to open Harveys, very quickly gaining his first Michelin star when it opened in 1987. His second came a year later and his third was awarded during his tenure at the former Hyde Park Hotel.
Does he still feel that giving up his stars was the right course of action? ‘I achieved the top accolade in every guide – the two French guides, the Michelin and the Gault Millau, and all the English guides. I’ve proven myself, to myself. There’s nowhere else for me to go, apart from down.’
His dedication has bordered on obsession: ‘As a young man in the kitchens, my ambition was fuelled by my insecurities and by my obsession. It was never a passion for food,’ he tells us. ‘Your obsession may be interpreted as a passion but certainly it’s not. It’s quite dysfunctional, quite unhealthy. All insecurities are about trying to prove yourself. Ambition is, without a doubt, the most dangerous occupation in the world.’
Marco has paid a heavy personal price for his ambition: he has been married three times and is separated from his third wife. The first time he tied the knot was in 1988, when he married Alex McCarthy after a whirlwind romance. Their marriage lasted just two years. In his autobiography White Slave, Marco says his obsession with work meant he was never there. ‘Two people need to have the same dream. Mine was winning three Michelin stars, and that came before everything else.’
Then came Lisa Butcher, a model whom Marco describes as one of the most exquisite-looking women in the world. He was 30 and she was 21. They met at London nightclub Tramp and were married three weeks later. Marco says he was so intoxicated by her looks that he forgot to think about her personality. They split up straight after their honeymoon and were divorced four months later.
And then there was Mati, who worked for him at The Canteen in Chelsea. Born in Mallorca to Spanish parents, Mati is, Marco says, the only woman he has ever loved as much as his mother, who died of a brain haemorrhage when he was six years old. He dedicated his autobiography to her, with the words: ‘For Mati, the woman who finished the job my mother started.’
They had three children but it was a volatile relationship with rumours of fights, affairs and rows. They planned to divorce, but after ‘an amazing Christmas together’ the divorce was called off this year. They still live apart.
So what now for the chef once renowned for kicking out customers who asked for salt and pepper? More restaurants, hunting and shooting in the countryside, the odd round of golf perhaps? Oh, and cooking served with love, rather than blood, sweat and tears
Marco’s top cooking tips
On pot cooking: ‘I like peasant food. When you cook in a pot, it’s very simple. In my opinion, you get more flavours out of a pot than you do in a pan. I prefer braised in a pot rather than fried things in a pan.’
On cooking an egg: ‘Heat a heavy-based pan on a very low heat, perhaps for five minutes, then put in some butter and let it gently melt. Put the egg in, but if you can hear that egg cooking the heat is too high, so take the pan off for a few seconds to cool it down. Spoon the butter over the egg. After about five minutes you have your magnificent fried egg – more of an egg poached in butter.’
On raw or cooked food: ‘Which tastes more of tomato: a cooked tomato or a raw tomato? Get a tomato, cut it up and put one half under the grill. Have a bite of the raw tomato. Now taste the grilled tomato. So which one tastes more of tomato? The cooked one, because by cooking it you’ve removed the water content, and by removing the water you’ve removed the acidity and brought through the natural sweetness of the tomato. It is the same for an onion.’
On fruity dishes: ‘For me, pork and apple is a classic combination. The freshness of the apple contrasts nicely with the fatty richness of pork or, indeed, duck. The fresh citrus zip of lemon is great with fish. I like to use it with oily fish like sardines or mackerel. The zesty tang of oranges is very good with rich meat – think of that French classic duck a l’orange. Personally, I like to use oranges and orange juice when I cook fish. It’s all about balancing the flavours.’