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
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.