White on White: An Iconic British Chef Dishes It Out
I was to meet Marco Pierre White poolside at The Raleigh Hotel at ten in the morning. Figured a cup of coffee, quick chat for a short blog, thank you very much. He had arrived in town the previous evening for a speaking gig with Gael Greene at Books & Books (to promote his autobiography, The Devil In The Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making Of A Great Chef), but his plane was delayed for two and a half hours, and then immigration officials at Miami International Airport detained him -- and didn’t allow a phone call to the bookstore to inform them. By the time he arrived at the shop, most everyone had left. He asked me to pass on his apologies.
Our cup of coffee extended into lunch, some glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, two packs of Marlboros for Marco, and five hours of nonstop conversation -- a bit too much material to fit into this format, so I’ve just culled a select smattering of quotations.
But first a quick highlight reel: Marco was a lad from Leeds who rose through the ranks toiling in England’s grandest restaurants, tutored by legendary chefs such as Albert and Michel Roux. Obsessively driven, White became the first English chef to ever be awarded three Michelin stars, and at age 33, the youngest anywhere to receive the honor. He was likewise the only chef to hand back his stars, which occurred eight years ago, when he all but retired from the kitchen (He has since worked at developing an ever-expanding portfolio of restaurants through his White Star Line company.)
The book White Heat (1990) catapulted M.P.W. to stardom as the first rock and roll chef; the first celebrity chef; a true enfant terrible of the kitchen. It’s this last role that revved up the tabloid press, as White wouldn’t hesitate to hastily escort diners from his restaurant, toss one of his cooks into a trash bin, or reduce them to tears -- which is what he did to his young apprentice Gordon Ramsay. A kid named Mario Batali also earned his stripes under Marco. He, Gordon, and Anthony Bourdain are touted as today’s bad boys, but White’s new book leaves no doubt that he was the original gastronomic gangsta -- and, far from incidentally, one of the greatest chefs in British history.
I once asked the critic for Michelin, ‘Mr. Brown, when you go into a restaurant, what do you look for?’ He said ‘Marco, I go to enjoy myself.’
THE ONE THING HE HAS LEARNED ABOUT GREAT CHEFS:
They all allow Mother Nature to be the artist.
It had to be done right. If it meant that the fish would stay in the pan fifteen seconds longer if I didn’t burn myself, I didn’t give a fuck, I’d burn myself. Fifteen seconds when cooking fish is a lifetime.
You look at a lot of chefs on TV and they’re one dimensional. Jamie Oliver is one dimensional. Gordon Ramsay is one dimensional. One’s a little cockney boy, ones a bloke who swears a lot.
HELL’S KITCHEN (which he will be hosting this season):
I’m not a fan of the program. When they showed me the DVD’S, before I’d made the decision, I said, ‘Where’s the food? I want to see the food. Where’s the romance? Where’s the education? Where’s the inspiration? I can cope with the bollockings. I can cope with the word ‘fuck’. But show me balance. One of the reasons I’ve stepped back into the ring after eight years is that I think I have dues to my industry. So those mothers and fathers at home might think ‘that would be a nice role for my son or daughter.’ If you see Mr. Ramsay on Hell’s Kitchen, do you want to send your boy or girl off to that world? No, you don’t. The damage I think he has done to the industry is extraordinary.
WHETHER HE FEELS RESPONSIBLE FOR TURNING RAMSAY INTO WHAT HE IS TODAY:
I can’t make someone a nice person. I can only teach them how to cook.
BATALI AS A YOUNG MAN:
Mario worked hard, he played hard, and he couldn’t get up in the morning. And that was fine. We’d get him up.
I love going to New York because Mario always kidnaps me, and I love being taken hostage by him. His kindness is extraordinary. He is a gift to humanity, Mario, he really is. He gets it. He sells fun. He sells happiness. He touches so many peoples’ lives.
A bollockings a bollocking, and we all accept that. And service is service. You can’t say, ‘Pardon me, Peter, could we have the garnish for the beef please, when you’ve got a moment?’ It’s not like that. You’ve got to bring it together. You’ve got a job to do. People are coming in for a special evening and are paying a lot of money.
GIVING BACK HIS THREE MICHELIN STARS:
I hate to see people staying on just for status, clinging by their fingernails. It’s ugly. Like Roger Vergé, one of the great chefs of France. He went from three stars to two stars, and then he went to one star. You’ve had your run -- bow out at the top. How many times have we seen a boxer have one fight too many?
If they put the knife in me, it was always about me as a person, rather than what I did. Just to sex up the article. That’s journalism, and that’s fine. It can’t be I love you I love you I love you for six or seven pages. If they just say how wonderful you are -- which is never true -- the reader isn’t going to finish the article.
DINING ROOM ENVIRONMENT:
I think it’s all gotten too precious at times. When it’s precious you don’t feel comfortable. No matter how good the food is you won’t head back there. Environment is the most important aspect of any restaurant.
A MOLECULAR-STYLE DINNER:
I went to this restaurant, and the choice was twelve courses or twenty four courses. I don’t like to eat like that. It means you get a course, one mouthful, and they come and take it away. You can’t get in any conversation. And then you start getting bored by it all. I just want to sit down and eat some good food.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GREAT CHEFS OF YESTERDAY AND TODAY:
I saw the golden age of gastronomy. I cooked with Roux, Pierre Koffman, Nico Ladenis, Raymond Blanc...those boys didn’t cook by numbers. Their food gave you an insight into the world they came from. And they weren’t figureheads. They were heavyweights in their kitchen. You look at the heavyweights who have replaced them, and they’re not in their kitchen. And that’s the difference.
WHY “KITCHENS ARE LIKE THE FOREIGN LEGION”:
They accept everybody through their doors. It doesn’t matter what background they’re from, it allows everyone a chance to better themselves as a person. It gives them a stage to express themselves. Whether you’re black, whether you’re white, who gives a fuck? Everyone deserves a good life. So many people I saw come into this industry damaged from their childhood, or of humble beginnings, and those boys now have done fabulously well.
The great chefs don’t believe in invention; they believe in refinement. They allow the classical cuisine to be their foundation. They have a saying in Italy: A tree without roots is a piece of wood. You’ve got to have roots.
THE PRICE OF PROGRESSION:
One of my friends shoots deer, and he hangs them, and skins them. Then he takes fifty percent flour and fifty percent ground white pepper, mixes it together, coats each joint, and then hangs it a bit longer. I said ‘Why do you do that?,’ and he said that in Ireland, before they had refrigeration, they would do this to keep the flies away. OK, so I said, ‘You have refrigeration now, why do you still do it?’ He said it tastes better. Meat doesn’t hang well in the fridge. If you have a cool place on a winters’ day in England, or even if it’s not winter, and you hang it that way, it’s different. It’s like the difference between chalk and cheese. There’s a price to pay for progression, and that’s the loss of knowledge.
THE AMERICAN DREAM:
I buy into the American dream, but it’s branded incorrectly. It should be immigrant’s dream, because everyone was an immigrant somewhere along the line. I mean it’s a global fucking dream. By calling it the immigrant’s dream you include everybody.
FOOD IN AMERICA:
The standards in America are high. You’re such a food nation. And the one thing I have noticed is that your love for natural produce is extraordinary. America’s revolution in gastronomy hasn’t even started yet. You’ve got all these talented young chefs...the best is yet to come.