Marco Pierre White
The one and only Marco Pierre White.
If you’ve never heard of Marco Pierre White then perhaps you’re in the wrong industry.
The original bad boy, chain-smoking, pot-throwing culinary genius who gave up cheffing at the age of 38 after reaching his combined goal of Three Michelin Stars and Five Red Knives and Forks – the only chef to ever hold both.
Now White is restaurateur or owner of some 23 restaurants globally and ambassador to numerous brands.
He’s not the man he used to be, but he’s certainly not short of an opinion.
“I stepped into [Auguste] Escoffier’s world, the tale end of Escoffier’s world,” says Marco Pierre White of the days he started cooking professionally.
“The bible was Le repertoire de la cuisine and menus were basically the same everywhere in the good restaurants. Meaning they had the same sauces or dishes on their menu.
“Chefs were these mysterious characters because they hid in their kitchen. In the finer restaurants, the chefs were acclaimed, [but] they weren’t famous.
“The star of the show was the brand above the door. No one knew who the chef was, and if there was a star it was the Maître d’hôtel. He was the conductor, the one who created the show every night.”
White is nothing if not frank when asked to compare the service in restaurants in our times as compared to what he considers ‘the golden age of food’ when he was plying his trade.
“Well when you think today in the UK there is only one restaurant that has Five Red Knives and Forks (highest possible award for service), but it has no Michelin stars – The Ritz,” he says.
The only restaurant in the history of Michelin to hold Three Michelin Stars and Five Red Knives and Forks was Marco Pierre White’s.
But White went to extremes.
“We had over 3000 wines on the wine list and it was a great wine list – the list was all hand written. All the bills were hand written using calligraphy. The change you got was a brand new note and brand new coins never touched by anyone's hands but the receptionist's.”
“For every lady that comes to sit down a little table is put beside her to put her handbag on, because the lady doesn’t like having her handbag on the floor.”
White ensured that there were 75 staff for 75 customers every service. One staff member for each customer.
“It’s the romance of the old world which I loved,” he continues.
“It’s stepping into the illusion, being part of the show, part of the theatre the eyes amuse, carving at the table, the smells are in the room. The customer is the most important element.
“So have we lost that romance?” I ask.
“What are the top restaurants today? You have 18 courses, yes? You have 18 courses of little knick knacks. Number one, it’s like going to a glorified canape party, there’s no show, there’s no romance, it’s all been stripped,” he says.
“It’s all about control and it's conveyor belt cuisine controlled by the kitchen.”
“The problem with the chefs in those kitchens is they will never be able to do a proper service. Because there is no service anymore.”
White believes that was the beauty of the old world.
“When you walked into restaurants you smelled the food, the eyes were amused. They were romantic, they weren’t soulless. I was very fortunate stepping into that world.”
“It was a hard world, a really hard world. It was like stepping into the army, you were institutionalised, but let’s not forget it was the world of the working class boy and the working class girl back then.
"It was a craft, you worked to learn your craft. You did your apprenticeship, you did your job and you worked a lot of hours and you worked hard without questioning it.”
White explains today's chefs are no longer working class and it is not a working class world anymore – that everyone has access to restaurants now and the sense of occasion and grandeur is lost forevermore.
“Every section of society walks in the doors of restaurants,” he explains.
“When I was a boy and you sat on the chair in the chef's office for an interview, you never, ever asked two questions – you never asked ‘how much am I going to earn’, and ‘how many hours am I going to work?’
“You felt privileged to be sitting in the company of the great man, praying for the job.
“I was turned down by Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire because he had no vacancies so I said alright I’ll work for nothing.”
Three weeks later after putting his head down and working Koffman pulled him aside and said “I’m going to have to put you on the payroll”.
He believes modern chefs carry an air of entitlement rather than doing the hard yards and earned their strips.
“A lot of people come into the trade these days because they want to be a celebrity, they want to be on TV. I’ve never been that sort of boy.
“I remember the old days when I was a boy, Albert Roux screaming at 20 chefs and them saying ‘yes chef’. Screaming and running for the old man,” he says.
“The chefs back then, in one hand they would hold a whip and in the other a feather.”
“I saw at the end [when he retired from cheffing] the trade changing. Boys came in for jobs, [they were] interviewing me! I thought, it’s a different world today.”
He explains that when he was an apprentice chefs were ‘socially inept’, for no other reason than they had no time for anything other than food.
“All their time had all gone into their food, everything they did had gone into their food. They weren’t kind to themselves. They were hard on themselves.
“I used to start at 7am in the morning ‘til late at night six days a week. You had to break through the pain barrier everyday.
“I started work at la Gavrosh at 7am but I would get in for 6:30am so I would be ready because perfection is lots of little things done well. That extra time allowed me the time to make sure everything was right.”
In 1999 White had realised his dream to replicate the great French restaurants and claim Three Michelin Stars and Five Red Knives and Forks and he felt he had nothing left to prove. In fact the pressure of keeping them, and the ramifications of losing a Michelin Star as opposed to the journey of chasing them, was completely unpalatable to White.
Instead he handed back his Michelin Stars and stepped away from the heat of the kitchen.
So is there too much pressure placed on operators to chase the accolades? Should that be the goal of young professionals?
“The best way for me to answer that question is if a young man came to me today and said Marco give me some advice and I would say put yourself in the right establishment,” he says.
“Put your career in the hands of the right chef. Keep your head down and learn your craft, learn your trade. Do your job and everything else will fall into place. It’s as simple as that.”
He concedes that it is a different world, and putting your career in the hands of the right chef is a different proposition to when he was an apprentice.
“I was very lucky, I saw the golden age of gastronomy, when these chefs like great heavy weight boxers stood behind their stove, so therefore you walked into the same kitchen as the great Albert Roux, Nic Ladenis, Raymond Blanc or Pierre Koffman
at La Tante Claire.
“You could go for three hours without speaking because no one had a position at La Tante Claire apart from one – a cook. No apprentices, no chef de parties, no sous chefs. He was the chef and you were the cook.”
“You learnt by working and watching the great man at the same time – you learnt to do two things at once.”
“You watched what he was doing while you worked. That’s how he taught you, not by saying come over here and learn.”
White likes to reminisce, and rightly so, the weight of his culinary past has few peers, but White has emerged as a different person after the heat of the kitchen days.
“I read an interesting quote the other day which I had seen many, many years ago. I’d just finished one of my TV shows and one of the contestants brought an article from 1989.
“He said do you remember this Marco, and it totally surprised me.
“I’m looking at myself, but almost 25 years ago, and I thought to myself, wow. And I never read my press and my curiosity of what on earth I said as a young man got the better of me.
“We think we know who we were, but who were we really?” he says.
“My quote that was in that magazine was “my success will be measured by my Michelin Stars, not by the amount of money I make.”
“And that was from a young boy in his 20s,” he says.
This is true. But White has courted a lot of controversy in recent years by becoming ambassador of different brands, causing some media and professionals to question his motives and even suggesting the once most revered chef had actually sold out.
On tour as brand ambassador for Unilever’s Knorr brand, it seemed the obvious question to respond to the notion he had sold out.
To his credit White approaches the suggestion of such head on.
“About six years ago I was interviewed by Hotelier and Caterer magazine,” he explains.
“At the end of the interview the editor said ‘come on Marco, give us one of your secrets as to why you got your Michelin Stars’.
“I said I used Knorr instead of salt. Thought nothing of it.”
Two weeks later the publication came out and White received a phone call from Unilever asking to meet him.
“[They said] we’d like to meet you, what do you mean you use [Knorr] instead of salt?”
“I’ve used Knorr instead of salt all of my life,” he confesses.
“When I was a young boy of 17 I went to work in a restaurant in Ilkly, West Yorkshire (Box Tree restaurant) which had two stars in Michelin – one of only four in Britain at the time. The chef there used Aromat (retail brand of Knorr) which is the granules in all the chicken mousses, the hollandaise, the beurre blanc, the fish sauces.
“I just used it because I was introduced to it as a young boy.
White is quick to justify his position.
“It is a necessity in the domestic kitchen in my opinion, and, it has its place in the professional kitchen,”
“English mustard comes out of a jar, you get tabasco out of a bottle. I used to work in Two- and Three-Michelin Star restaurants as a boy and we used ketchup, we used Worcester sauce.
“I’ve always used it as a seasoning.”