Words: Nancy Larman
There’s more to life than three Michelin stars,” declares Marco Pierre White. “To kiss your children when you leave the house in the morning and to kiss them at night, for one.” He should know. When, at 33, White claimed his third star for The Restaurant at The Hyde Park Hotel, he was the youngest chef ever to have seized the supreme triumvirate, and the first Brit. But perhaps even more astonishing to the outside world than his trailblazing early career was his subsequent decision in 1999, aged 38, to relinquish the coveted stars that had once held such allure, with which renunciation, his career in the kitchen was over. And on which subject, he is staunchly impenitent. “I was being judged by people who knew less than me, and I am not so insecure that I felt I had to dance to Michelin’s drum. I didn’t want to live a lie, where I was pretending to cook in my kitchens.” And nor did he.
That’s the thing about White; going to extremes evidently comes naturally, but what is often read as egotism, could (and probably should) be understood rather as a disdain for half-measures. Nonetheless, drop his name casually, and preconceptions abound. Ambition is one; ruthlessness another. Then there’s volatility, even violence. All this comes, one supposes, with the gastronomic territory, especially when our subject was the industry’s wonder kid for so long. It also comes part and parcel with White’s dramatic narrative of struggle and zeniths conquered.
All things considered then, I’m relieved to find something of a reflective soul, whose major stimulus is passion – in all aspects of his life. “I’ve always done everything I have done for the right reasons. I know that I won’t always be there to protect my children and I know what it’s like to be poor and to see the struggle. But so long as you do things for the right reasons, you’ll be happy.” Such as quitting the kitchen? “That was definitely the right decision. I exiled myself to the country and went shooting, fishing, stalking. It was a journey of self-discovery. And that, my friend, is true success: the opportunity to realise your true potential as a person.”
If personal fulfilment had, until then, eluded him, White had capitalised hugely on his talent to become, in his own words, “king of my world”, albeit one who would ultimately abdicate at the apex of his reign. He had grafted his way up, from cutting his teeth at The Box Tree in Ilkley, which he maintains is “the most magical restaurant I’ve ever stepped inside”, and training under Albert Roux, to his eventual turn as chef-patron at Harvey’s (presently Chez Bruce) in Wandsworth, where he garnered two stars. During his ascent, he worked long hours and exceptionally hard; he took the flack, kept his head down and became, he tells me (among other things), the most phenomenally efficient sheller of peas. All of which goes some way to explaining his disillusionment with the industry today. “I was a star for being behind the stove. Now I look at these young boys in kitchens and I just hope that their motives are right. When I was growing up, chefs were trained. It wasn’t about being on television, or being famous. These days it seems that a lot of the romance has gone, and it’s been replaced by politics.” And for the same reason Michelin ceased to hold any credibility for White. “I loved Michelin, but I just don’t understand what it’s about now. Stars used to be awarded to chefs, not to the establishment.” There is, he maintains, one man who continues to uphold the old values the others have neglected: Raymond Blanc. “He is flying the flag for the old world. He is magical, rare, a great man.” As if to underline Michelin’s unintelligible criteria, White continues: “He is definitely the finest chef in Britain and that he has not been honoured as he should have been by Michelin is a crime. I am really fortunate to have become who I became in that golden age of gastronomy.”
Despite his sporadic vitriol, there is nevertheless something humble about White, an intrinsic humility, which is manifest as he peppers talk of his stellar career with assertions that “I’m not that clever”; he believes unreservedly in the “privilege” (a word he uses a lot) that has been afforded him throughout his life, and thus feels a moral obligation to pass on some of his wisdom to fledgling chefs, a commitment which formed the rationale behind his decision to do the show Hell’s Kitchen, through which he sought primarily to inspire. Though he feels at odd with it, he recognises his debt of gratitude to the industry that made him what he is.
It isn’t surprising then that his guiding dictum is that “success is born of arrogance and greatness come from humility.” Yet his zeal is often misconstrued as explosiveness (not that talk of his many public spats are unfounded; the much-hyped wrangle with his one-time protegée Gordon Ramsay is a case in point). But White habitually puts to flight most of the fixed notions about him, which has led him to be branded a mass of contradictions – not least when it comes to the question of his provenance.
“People say to me, what are you? Are you French? Italian? What? And I always say the same thing: ‘I am an Englishman with an Italian mother.’” The notion of Englishness is especially pertinent at present, for White is currently busy putting the final touches on his latest landing in London: Mr White’s English Chophouse at the brand new New Road Hotel in Whitechapel. A contemporary take on the classic 1960s-style eaterie, it will feature dishes such as lobster macaroni and rump of lamb, fusing stellar British ingredients whose provenance is impeccable with great hearty portions and just a soupcon of the French influences that have defined his career. Says White: “I am very excited to bring our contemporary Chophouse concept to London and the New Road Hotel. Together we have created a relaxed, sociable space where we’ll be serving up prime cuts of mouth-wateringly good meat.” If anyone can make this renaissance of the very English chophouse a roaring success, it is surely this half Italian, French-sounding Yorkshireman.