His name strikes both awe and fear into many a chef’s heart, and now Marco Pierre White, the fa­mously volatile rock-star chef, is head­lin­ing a new re­al­ity TV cook­ing show. GE­ORGE EPAMINONDAS en­ters the lion’s den

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents -

Marco Pierre White strikes fear into the hearts of Hell’s Kitchen con­tes­tants.

An au­di­ence with Marco Pierre White evokes dread. In his hey­day, in the late ’80s and ’90s, White was the hot-tem­pered king of the Bri­tish din­ing scene, known for tor­ment­ing un­der­lings, an­tag­o­nis­ing cus­tomers and evis­cer­at­ing his ri­vals. You ex­pect to en­counter an un­holy mix of Richard Bur­ton, Lord Volde­mort and Han­ni­bal Lecter.

But on a re­cent sun­lit af­ter­noon in Syd­ney, the orig­i­nal bad boy chef is mer­rily hold­ing court on a bal­cony over­look­ing Bondi Beach. Aside from a slightly sin­is­ter, Lecter-like ac­cent, White is charm­ing, ef­fu­sive and sen­si­tive to oth­ers. “Mind if I smoke?” he asks, beam­ing. “Would you like a drink?” So far, so good-na­tured.

The English chef, aged 55, is in Syd­ney film­ing Hell’s Kitchen, a new re­al­ity se­ries for the Seven Net­work.

Based on the UK show, celebri­ties work in a kitchen over­seen by White, vy­ing for his ap­proval and the chance to win money for their des­ig­nated char­ity.

The pro­gram is pred­i­cated on White’s fear­some rep­u­ta­tion. In one pro­mo­tional shot, he is pic­tured hold­ing a pair of gleam­ing cleavers.

Was he aware of any of the celebrity con­tes­tants? “No,” he says, fir­ing up a ci­garette. “Once you put them in chef’s whites, who are they?” Lambs to the slaugh­ter, I sug­gest. “I like that,” he says, laugh­ing. “And it’s one of my favourite meats. Look, I’m not there to be their friend. I’m there to guide them, pro­tect them and en­cour­age them to win.”

Aus­tralian au­di­ences will recog­nise White from his two-year stint as a benev­o­lent guest judge on Masterchef Aus­tralia on Net­work Ten. It was widely re­ported he de­fected to the ri­val sta­tion af­ter Masterchef judge Matt Pre­ston com­mented on White’s son, Marco Jr, a tabloid fix­ture in the UK, in a ra­dio in­ter­view. Yet in­dus­try sources sug­gest White inked the Seven deal be­fore the com­ments were made.

“I don’t like TV,” White says. When he talks, he ges­tic­u­lates wildly like a con­duc­tor. “But I like teach­ing peo­ple. We all have to earn a liv­ing, we have fam­ily. It’s also a way of re­tain­ing my po­si­tion in my in­dus­try af­ter re­tir­ing 20 years ago from the stove.”

White’s culi­nary ca­reer ig­nited at 16, and he col­lected his first Miche­lin star a decade later. Two more would fol­low, but they failed to bring him any sat­is­fac­tion. In 1999, aged 33 and ex­hausted from work­ing 100-hour weeks, White an­nounced his re­tire­ment from the kitchen.

“I didn’t want to live a lie and pre­tend I cook when I don’t,” he says.

In­stead, he mor­phed into a restau­ra­teur and now over­sees an ar­mada of more than 40 eater­ies, even if he doesn’t know the pre­cise num­ber. White re­sides on a prop­erty in Wilt­shire in south­west Eng­land, with a menagerie of an­i­mals, in­clud­ing pigs, hens and tur­keys. His pas­sion project is a ho­tel near Bath that he is avidly restor­ing. “It’s the most frus­trat­ing job, but I love it,” he says, wist­fully.

Over the years, White has re­leased sev­eral books, in­clud­ing 1990’s White Heat and a 2006 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, White Slave, bur­nish­ing his legacy as the first le­git­i­mate rock-star chef.

“When I was a young man, I was fu­elled by my in­se­cu­ri­ties, ruled by my fears and driven by my dreams,” he says. White has a ten­dency to speak in a grandiose man­ner, as though he was nar­rat­ing a biopic. Sure enough, movie plans are afoot. Ri­d­ley Scott has op­tioned White Slave and Michael Fass­ben­der has been men­tioned as a po­ten­tial star.

Count­less lead­ing chefs credit him as an in­spi­ra­tion, while many oth­ers, in­clud­ing Cur­tis Stone and Shan­non Ben­nett, have passed through his kitchens. He­ston Blu­men­thal is an­other grad­u­ate, though White finds his whizzbangery un­ap­petis­ing. “You can’t rein­vent the wheel,” he says. “I don’t need ear­phones with sea noises while I’m eat­ing my food.”

White is equally con­temp­tu­ous of tast­ing menus. “It’s con­veyor belt cui­sine,” he says. “And it’s served tepid. Give me good food at a fair price. Don’t tell me how you cre­ated the dish.” His most beloved res­tau­rant in the world re­mains La Colombe d’or in the French Riviera. “I don’t get bored of eat­ing de­li­cious food. I don’t need the show.”

Un­less it’s a TV show he’s helm­ing, that is. Hell’s Kitchen (both UK and US ver­sions) made Gor­don Ram­say a global sen­sa­tion. White, who hosted two sea­sons of the UK se­ries, is less pro­fane and more dig­ni­fied than Ram­say, his one-time pro­tege.

The two have been ad­ver­saries for decades. Not long ago, they broached a cease­fire dur­ing a boozy flight from Lon­don to New York. “We had a won­der­ful chat. He’s a good boy,” says White, sip­ping his wine.

White has been mar­ried three times and has four chil­dren. Only his son Lu­ciano, presently work­ing at a res­tau­rant in Madrid, has cho­sen a ca­reer in food. “He’s clev­erer than his fa­ther,” says White with af­fec­tion. “He will do things I never did.”

At this point, I move to a shady po­si­tion out of the in­tense sun. “You’ll never make it in the kitchen,” quips White. The com­ment re­minds me of the story of him slash­ing the back of a chef’s uni­form when he com­plained about the heat. For­tu­nately for me, there are no knives in the vicin­ity.

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