The Devil Next to Me
A day and night with Marco Pierre White
“Do you want to know what’s sexy to me now?” demands Marco Pierre White.
It’s a rhetorical question. No one says no to the original bad-boy superchef, whose new memoir, The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef, portrays him getting in fistfights in his own restaurant dining room, throwing food deemed unacceptable against his restaurant’s walls, shagging women in the ladies’ loo, and generally carrying on in outrageous fashion. The book also contains inklings of his sixth sense about food, and his convictions that ingredients don’t need overwrought preparation and that nature is always the star.
What is sexy to him now? “Developing a concept,” he says. Each word is emphasized. He’s both handsome and haggard, completely imposing and all charm. We’re having lunch at the W Hotel in Seattle. Ethan Stowell, chef-owner of Union, which will host a posh $125-per-person dinner in Marco’s honor later tonight, has joined us, saying he’s nervous about meeting one of his culinary idols. The staff of the restaurant is scared witless, given only the most offhand directives by Marco (“A nice bottle of dry white wine, a very nice bottle”). We’ve got food but no flatware; it seems unlikely that Marco would fly into one of his trademark rages in someone else’s establishment, yet the possibility lurks, slightly terrifying.
He lets it slip that he’s just come from Las Vegas, where he is opening a branch of his Frankie’s pizzeria/family restaurant chain. He loves Las Vegas, he says. With Frankie’s, he’s not selling food: “I’m selling fun.” He doesn’t own restaurants anymore; he “has interests.” He discusses replicating the Frankie’s concept in Shanghai, in Dubai; he speaks of profit margins and many deals involving many millions of pounds sterling, helpfully converting figures into USD.
Marco’s displeased with his deconstructed niçoise salad—its hard-cooked egg rolled in black sesame seeds, its seared ahi. Niçoise should have canned tuna, he says; “I don’t like my food fucked with.” But he thanks the server at every turn. He’s impressed when Ethan and I are game for another bottle of wine. He calls Ethan “Chef.” He initiates a little male bonding about what men will do for a pulchritudinous (female) posterior. It’s absurd, occasionally offensive, entertaining, exhausting.
A few hours later, as dinner begins at Union, the PR people want to trot Marco out to meet diners and sign books, but he declares he doesn’t wish to interrupt their meals. He wears a dark blazer, yellow suspenders, minutely polka-dotted cuff links on a shirt of splendid white fabric. We discuss local asparagus. He eats exactly none of Ethan’s multicourse tribute in food (including local asparagus).
A lot of wine is consumed; many forays to the sidewalk are made for “fags.” Panhandled by downtown passersby, he gives out a couple of $50 bills. “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” says an incredulous, confused crackhead. “Get something to eat,” replies Marco magnanimously.
The chefs—the ones at work in Union’s kitchen and the ones in attendance at the dinner—are visibly awe-struck. “I’m head over heels to meet that guy,” one of them (male) says. Marco discusses football, hunting, Frankie’s, his love for his lawyers in the midst of his ongoing divorce. A local editor arises from the table to depart, and her ample bosom instantly becomes the object of Marco’s attention. “I love a well-hung blouse,” he says, leaping up to put his arm around her and hustle her out the front door, past Union’s enormous windows, and out of sight.
Marco keeps mentioning “the house cocktail” (which house goes unspecified). It involves a champagne flute full of sambuca set afire, extinguished by clamping one’s hand over the glass; then the entire contents are gulped down, followed by the inhalation of sambuca fumes through a straw. “Mario [Batali, one presumes] says it’s like drinking liquid heroin!” he proclaims more than once. Dinner’s over, a crowd of admirers is circled around, supplies materialize, the PR people look stricken, and Marco demonstrates as cameras flash. I sit to his right; it takes very little goading for me to follow suit. It’s exhilarating, disgusting, idiotic. During the sucking-of-the-fumes part, Marco leans in, his face inches from mine, shouting, “SUCK HARDER! YOU’RE NOT SUCKING HARD ENOUGH!”
I awake the next morning lying in a wet spot in my bed, monumentally hung over. The wetness is from a leaky ice pack I went to sleep clutching; my hand has a perfect circle the circumference of a champagne flute burned into it, and blisters at the tender base of my thumb. A couple of days later, Page Six reports that while enjoying the house cocktail at the Spotted Pig with Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, and others, Marco set himself on fire and sustained a stab wound to the hand, glasses were broken, mayhem ensued. He refused to go to the hospital.