The Business of Fun
Marco Pierre White is sometimes a slave, sometimes a devil
Marco Pierre White was the youngest and the first British-born chef to win three stars from the Michelin Guide. In 1999, after years of relentless work, he handed the stars back and retired from the kitchen, spending time with his family and investing in restaurants. His memoir has just been released in this country as The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef—apparently the British title, White Slave, was considered a little untoward on this side of the Atlantic. It documents his life, from the tragic loss of his Italian-born mother when he was just six years old, to all the bollockings, sex with chef groupies, and broken friendships (Gordon Ramsay, Albert Roux, Michael Caine) you’d expect from someone so often referred to as an enfant terrible. I interviewed White when he was in Seattle on his book tour. He’s less gangly than he was in his three-star days, more relaxed—he speaks with a low, purring northern English accent—but he holds little back when he starts talking about lazy chefs and obnoxious customers.
I thought I should start with a word that is in the subtitle of your book: madness. Do you think it takes a certain kind of madness to run a three-star kitchen?
I think, first, that we all possess madness; I believe we’re all made of the same elements. We just have different amounts of each element. I think it takes discipline to run a three-star kitchen. Anything extreme, whatever that may be, takes on a form of madness. Just to do those hours, just to make that sacrifice—you’re not normal. And if the opposite of being normal is madness, then they’re mad.
Do you think a lot about food and cooking now that you’re not in the kitchen?
Yeah, I cook in my head. Always did; old habits die hard.
Do you execute them at all?
No, not really. I’m a restaurateur, I’m an investor. My dream today is to take good eating to a nation. When people go out to dinner, they want to be with their friends, they want to be with their loved ones. Food and wine is secondary. Do I want to sit at a restaurant on a perch of a chair, being dictated to, being told how to eat? Not really. You look at those great French restaurants from the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s—they controlled their environment by being subservient. They didn’t control their environment by dictating to you.
What do you think of the mode right now, at the higher end of cuisine, the Adrià and Blumenthal mode of experimentation?
Chefs have been scientists for many years. When you think pastry is chemistry, to understand what’s going on in your pan is a form of science. Why do we do what we do, why do we caramelize an onion? We caramelize an onion to remove the water content; by removing the water content, we remove the acidity; by removing the acidity, we bring out the natural flavor of the onion.
I was at one of these restaurants the other day—if I was blindfolded, I wouldn’t have known what I was eating. The food was cold; I was dictated to. I was told while I was eating I had no choice; I had a choice of two menus: One’s 12 courses, one’s 24 courses. I switch off. If you have too much of anything, you get lost, and then when they’re slipping in all these extra courses for me, which I never wanted, I’ve now lost my way. And so I think it’s all overworked, it’s all trying a bit too hard.
Great chefs, everything they do becomes an extension of them as a person. They give you an insight into their world and the world that they came from, like great artists, great poets.
You’re the son of a chef, and you started cooking as a teenager, but you didn’t discover your passion for food until a little later. Can you tell me a little bit about that awakening?
I went to work at a restaurant called the Box Tree in Yorkshire, which had two Michelin stars. In those days, in the ’70s, there were only four restaurants in Britain with two stars. Three of them were in London, and then there was the Box Tree in the middle of nowhere. I went to the Box Tree, and it was like my life went from black-and-white to color. The environment they serve the food in is still to this day the most magical environment I ever stepped in. They opened the front door, in you walked—you stepped into this illusion.
When you look back to some of the stories you tell about your interactions with customers, do you feel differently now that you are a restaurateur?
Remember, I asked people to leave my restaurant for two reasons. Number one, I would not accept and allow the staff to be treated badly. If you close an eye to that kind of behavior, you’re compromising your position. You’re saying the money is more important than your staff and your other customers. Let’s be honest: If you’re sitting in a restaurant, and you see a customer be awkward and rude to a member of staff, or maybe swearing at a member of staff, do you want to sit in that environment? You may have been spending a lot of money in the restaurant, but I have a duty of care to my clients, and anyone who wants to behave like an asshole, I’ll show them the door. If there’s an error, if there’s a mistake, don’t try to capitalize on it … allow us to rectify it. I always stood firm. I wrote the rules.
You worked with all the great French chefs at the time, and you hadn’t been to France when you were a young man—what kind of sway did France hold on your imagination?
I was on my way to France when one of my friends was suffering misfortune and tragedy in his emotional and business life, and I stepped in to help him. And then an opportunity came up a few months later, and that opportunity was Harvey’s. So I never made it across the Channel. You know it made it all a little bit sweeter, winning three stars without ever going to France. Because I proved it’s possible.
Tell me a little bit about your emotions after you won that third star, and your feeling about Michelin.
I didn’t lose respect for the institution. When I first won three stars, my race was over. I felt disillusioned with it in many ways. I started to realize that I’d worked for something all my life that I never truly wanted. It was more of an internal war. I started to lose respect for Michelin when the old head inspector, Mr. Brown, retired and a new head inspector came in, who I knew. I said, “Good morning, Mr. Bulmer.” He said, “Call me Derek.” It changed my entire opinion of him; what they are saying is they want to be your friends. I didn’t like that idea; maybe I’m too old-fashioned. As far as I’m concerned, Michelin is a brand. They have to sell guides. I don’t believe it has the same integrity it had all those years ago. I don’t think they do things the same way.
Do they benefit from having more three-star chefs?
I’ve dined in a few of those three-starred restaurants in America, and you know, in France they wouldn’t have stars. What are they doing? Buying the chefs? One day they’ll bring out the ax and start chopping them, once they’ve got their foothold in America. I don’t know … but they’ve turned their whole criteria upside down. We still accept that in Europe, Michelin did more for gastronomy than anybody else.
Tell me a little about the concept of the celebrity chef. You say chefs no longer look tired.
How many chefs spend time in the kitchen anymore? I don’t know. But they all look the picture of health to me. You see them doing marathons in London. You see them on TV. How can Michelin give chefs who aren’t in the kitchen stars? So what they should say is, “We don’t give them to the chef, we give them to the establishment.” If they give them to the chef, then he should be behind the stove. When I earned my three stars, Mr. Brown said to me, “Marco, never forget what made you great.”
Do you think it’s possible to run a proper business and stay in the kitchen?
I do—I used to make, 10 years ago, a million dollars a year out of my three-star. I used to walk through my restaurant three or four times in a night, just so customers could see I was in the house. My jacket was always stuck to me, I was always very tired because I worked very hard; when people cook, you can see it. Look at their hands—you can see the burns on their fingers, you can see the cuts, you can feel the calluses from where his knife rubs against the skin.
Do you think there is a way to negotiate publicity well today?
As I’ve always said, when you do what you do well, you’ll be acknowledged; you don’t have to orchestrate it. I wasn’t manufactured. And I made a reputation without being press hungry—let’s not forget that. I became recognizable in the UK and known because of what I put on my plate, not because I was on TV.
Are you very hands-on with the chefs whom you employ now?
Not really. As I said, I have investments, but they don’t just stay in the restaurant world. The most important for me is my family, is my children.
The one thing I do work a lot with the chef on is, on the Frankie’s chain, which is slowly going global. I’m opening the Frankie’s chain in Dubai, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi next year, and I just agreed to do the deal in Vegas.
This is your family-dining concept?
It’s about family dining. It’s democratic, so every section of society can sit in it. It’s where Mom and Dad can go for dinner with the kids, and the food is what they want to eat, and there is wine that they want to drink. How many times do you compromise what you want to eat for children? It’s got to be a bit more than one-dimensional.
Starting an individual restaurant is easy, but starting a rollout concept is really hard. Think of McDonald’s, with 50,000 outlets—consistent across the board. It’s genius, I’m fascinated by it. If you can create a concept that’s glamorous, it’s affordable, it’s an environment that people want to sit in, it amuses the eye … fantastic. Remember, I am now in the business of selling fun. A night out. I’m not in the game of selling gastronomy.
All customers are different. The Americans are one thing, the Japanese are another. The Arabs are another. The English are another. The Jews are another. You have to understand customer psychology, and what they want. And it’s a bit more than food; food is not the most important.
Since I’m American, I have to ask—what do Americans want?
Americans in England are coming as tourists, so you have to give them time, you have to share with them. They’re interested. The English say the Americans are naive; they’re not naive, they’re very nice people. But let’s not forget, the English, they like the caste system, and I hate caste. I like democracy; I like environments where it’s a cross-section of society.
Your mother, who was Italian, died when you were just six. Have you had the inclination to explore Italy at all now that you have more time?
No. I have an affection for Italy, and as I grow older I feel more Italian in my ways. Maybe I’m not ready to deal with it. She was my driving force; she still guides me today, from the grave. I think every young boy should build a monument to his mother. But that’s me—maybe I’m too soft.
And that seemed like the end of the interview. I packed up my stuff and turned off my recorder, but then White warmed up a bit—he asked me to join him while he had a cigarette, and somehow that led to a coffee, another cigarette, and a display of cooking scars on our arms and hands. One thing that had seemed odd in both White’s book and in his conversation was a certain dispassion about food: strange for someone who had achieved so very much with it. But as we chatted informally after the interview, White described—with verbal recipes, really—no fewer than four dishes, with a pure merriment in the specifics.
He detailed a peppered steak; then a fried oyster that was dipped in gelatinized velouté, and then breaded and fried, so that the sauce turned mysteriously liquid inside the crust; then he talked about a similar trick with cubes of foie gras and truffles, again breaded, so that the foie gras liquidized inside the crust. The fourth dish was one of the great Roger Vergé’s oyster preparations; I will attempt to describe it here. Forgive me if I missed any details.
Prepare oysters on the half shell on ice. Segment out the supremes of an orange and a lemon. Mix some lemon juice and orange juice, and reduce it until a little thickened but not syrupy; cool. Place an orange segment and a lemon segment on each oyster. Top each oyster with a drizzle of the citrus juice mixture and a drizzle of olive oil, similar to a broken vinaigrette. Garnish each oyster with a little crushed coriander seed and a very small tender coriander (cilantro) leaf.
White went on to say that this was a delicious dish no matter what, but if you were sitting in the Moulin de Mougins, with the Provençal sun shining on you, it was heaven (or some such superlative). Even if he claims he’s done with gastronomy, he still seems a little bit in love with every great dish he describes.