India’s largest Gourmet Festival ‘World on A Plate’ hosted Chef Marco Pierre White’s South India debut in the ‘Garden of Eden’ edition in Bangalore. NAMITA GUPTA caught up with him at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel over a candid conversation.
Iconic celebrity chef, restaurateur, and television star, also known as the Godfather of Modern Cooking by Australian MasterChef, Chef Marco Pierre White shares his insight on not just cooking but on life in general. We know him as the youngest chef ever to have been awarded three Michelin stars, who later renounced it. He has been tagged as the enfant terrible of the UK restaurant scene and has trained popular chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali, Curtis Stone, Shannon Bennett and many others. He owns over 35 restaurants across the UK under five different brands and countless celebrities have dined with him, but that’s not it. He’s a force to reckon with, when it comes to life skills and has mastered them with equal panache. Know more on the celebrity chef who is so much more than just his pots and pans.
When and how did your journey begin towards being a chef?
I never had any aspirations to be a chef. I came from very humble beginnings. My mother passed away when I was only six and that changed my life. I was vulnerable. In those days, in the 70s, when I finished school, I didn’t know much, so I just followed my father’s profession of being a chef. From the age of six to 16, my father had programmed me to be like he was. At the age of 16 I started working at a busy hotel, blindly following my father’s profession as a chef and what I learnt there was how to use a knife, to absorb pressure, to organise and deliver consistency. The kitchen became my orchestra and I was the conductor. In the afternoon, I used to polish shoes to earn some extra money, when I found a guide book on hotels in Great Britain. After reading that I realised that restaurants had stars. I went back to my kitchen that evening and said to myself, that if I have to work as a chef it has to be at a three-star restaurant, which was in those days more powerful than a Michelin Star. It took me six months to muster up the courage to apply at Box Tree for a job. The week I applied there someone had quit and I got the job. Getting the job at Box Tree in those days was as rare as hen’s teeth. It was impossible to get it and the two owners were special. Lawson, the head chef who trained in the same kitchen as my father and their baker took me under their wings. They gave me an insight into their world and that’s what inspired me. All the waiters and chefs ran to a pub after taking their last orders and I was under age to go to a pub, so I stayed to say goodnight to the bosses, when they would tell me stories about the great restaurants of France and the big ones in London. I was happy to listen to their animated stories that I almost imagined myself being in those restaurants. That ignited something inside me and gave me my dream. They spoke about a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris and I cherished a dream to replicate that restaurant. When I won my three Michelin stars in 1995, I only had four black knives and forks. So, the next three years I spent all my energies not just in the kitchen, but into everything, the wine cellar, the service and in 1998 I won my three stars with five knives and forks, therefore realising my dreams.
What do you feel about Michelin stars and after working so hard towards what you achieved, you renounced the three Michelin stars you had been awarded five years previously for your eponymous restaurant at the age of 33, making you the youngest ever chef to be awarded three stars?
I soon realised that winning three Michelin stars was the most boring job on earth, because all that you’re doing is replication. You become a well-oiled machine, because by the time you get to that stage in life, you’ve got this massive systematic structure and there’s no creativity anymore. And after that all your energy goes into defending your reputation, not making it and that’s why I hung up my apron and took off my hat and said I’m retiring. That allows me to be in Bangalore today and wherever I want. If I have three stars in Michelin who’s doing the cooking? Why’re people paying those prices when I’m sitting somewhere else? I came from an old school of gastronomy where the chef was always behind the stove. After Bangalore, I spend time in Singapore and then I fly to Australia and then back to Singapore and I’m off for three weeks. Imagine if I had retained my three Michelin stars and I was away from my restaurant for three weeks, I wouldn’t want people paying for what they get. I’m not being controversial, just true to myself and to the diners. I wouldn’t like to dine at a Michelin restaurant where the chef is missing. I began to question my integrity of charging a high Michelin star price if I wasn’t cooking there myself. By letting go of my status, I got freedom and that helped me evolve emotionally and spiritually. In a kitchen all your energies go into your food and you become institutionalised. The outside world becomes scary as your only world is your kitchen. When I cook, I cook, I don’t pretend to cook. From the age of 16 to 38 all my energies went into my food and that was evolving, but I wasn’t evolving. Giving it up lets me free to do different things, because when you’re in that world, you’ve got blinkers and your world is tiny; a world where you’re wrapped in white and live within the white walls.
After Harveys in Wandsworth you went on to open several restaurants, won every honour there was, worked hard to reach that level and then realised that it wasn’t enough and renounced it all. What was going in your mind then?
I was ruled by my fears of failure, ruled by my insecurities and wanted to be a success for my father and for myself, but now when I look back, those Michelin stars were just stepping stones to where I wanted to be as a human being. I believe that true success is self-discovery, not Michelin stars. By discovering yourself, you have the opportunity to accept yourself and do things for the right reasons and realise your true potential. I put myself into the nature, in the woods, the sea, the river and in the fields analysing, dissecting and questioning everything. Writing my autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen was cathartic, as it forced me to relive every emotion from my childhood.
What’s the all-time favourite dish you have created?
I believe in a world of refinement not invention. I’m a classicist so I stick to the classics. I don’t try and reinvent. You can’t reinvent the wheel. The planes will have two wheels.
How have food trends changed over the years?
It’s turned into a canape party, where you get 12 courses of knick knacks. Give me two courses and maybe a little cheese and red wine. I believe in indulgence. Small portions are mostly not hot. I like my food hot. Mother Nature is the artist, we’re just the cooks. The emphasis is more on the presentation, than on the taste. Why waste four hours eating canapes and being told what they’re eating and how to eat something new. The most important part of dining for me is dinner with the person I sit with and the environment you sit in. That makes my evening. Food is just a vehicle.
What’s your take on changing classic dishes and deconstructing them? What’s your favourite dish that you like to eat at home?
I can’t think of anything worse. It’s shocking. I think people have their own insecurities about deconstructing dishes and changing classics. I like one pot meals. I like braised food that’s tastier than food out of the pan. I like a big bowl of pasta, stew or a risotto. I like straight food. I crave ordinary delicious food. If you look at the great three stars of Italy or Spain, you’ll see French methods introduced into their traditional cuisine. The man who refined British cuisine was a French man Anthony Michael Bourdain. French method of cooking is highly technical and maximises the flavours of any food, so you can take French methods and introduce it to any country’s cuisine and that will give you cuisine that’s refined and high bred.
Tell us something about being on the hot seat judging a reality show like MasterChef Australia?
When I’m judging a person by one dish at a live competition – I taste the food, I see the construction of that food, I check for the sauce or garnish and although it’s just a dish, it’s a representative of everything else of that person cooking the dish. Therefore, when I judge, I’m a judge of what’s on the plate, not of the person. If you know someone, then it might affect your judgement.
The most romantic meal you’ve cooked for your girlfriend?
Romance is the only thing that never dates. Everything else gets dated. So, if you create a romantic environment, it will never date, because the environment you sit in will always be remembered. If you have to rely on food to impress someone then it’s a very sad world.
Some advice for budding chefs?
Read, read, read! It’s all about focus and discipline and by having these virtues you can absorb information and have consistency. Consistency is the key at any level. Cooking is a philosophy, it’s not a recipe, it has to be an extension of you. Great chefs have three things in common – mother nature is the true artist, everything they do becomes an extension of them and they give you a little insight into them and the world they came from. If you’re running after stars, then there’s no emotions. A man who works with his hands is a labour, a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman, a man who works with his brains, his hands and his heart is an artist. As a young man I was condemned for being controversial, but that’s not the truth. There’s a foundation behind my statements. My reactions could have been described as volatile, but anyone who works from his heart is going to be volatile from time to time, because it’s a release of an emotion and without emotion, food can be delicious, but what makes it extraordinary is the emotion. It’s the sweat that comes when you’re making that secret sauce, because you’re giving yourself completely. Can you imagine you go to an Elton John concert and the curtains open and there’s number two and Elton John is missing, wouldn’t you be asking for your money back? Do what you do with integrity and not just use your work to make money. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but give yourself completely to whatever you do with conviction and integrity. Greatness comes from humility. I always asked my two sons and my daughter if they had a dream and tell them if they had one, then they have to have a responsibility to make it come true. For me true success is self-discovery and once you discover yourself you have the opportunity to accept yourself.