“There are no rules in gastronomy”
after what some might call a lengthy hiatus, en f ant terrible—no longer an enf ant—Marco Pierre White is going back to basics with his new cookbook… and he has more than a mouthful to say about the michelin guide and to bud ding chefs
“He’s just a British bloke named Mark White,” is what the publisher of Marco Pierre White’s latest cookbook Essentially Marco tells me while I wait to speak to the man himself. I’m sure that’s what he says to everyone who is about to meet Marco. Perhaps it calms the nerves. Maybe I can use that if he starts shouting at me, although that might backfire. Terribly. I’ll stick to Mr White, thank you very much.
Marco certainly exudes some of his enfant terrible persona when you’re up close, particularly because of his towering height. But a smile and warm handshake says another story. Marco, like many great artists — he cites how Andy Warhol or Pablo Picasso went from creating highly technical pieces in their youth to looser and simpler artworks in their later years — has reached a phase in life where less is definitely more. “This book is not about trying to turn cooks into Michelin starred chefs. That takes years and you can’t hope to become one through recipe books. This cookery book strips away all the complexities of restaurant cooking, keeps things simple and shows people what I like to make at home.”
He is quite proud of this cookbook and is happy to be in Dubai for its launch ( which happened a few weeks ago — incidentally it was launched here before other markets). “Cookery books are not about the recipes. It’s about giving people inspiration, and that’s what Essentially Marco is supposed to be,” he says. “If you like the ideas, you can adapt them to your own tastes. There are no rules in gastronomy. The palate should dictate, not the cookery book. The point of a cookery book is to guide and inspire you, not to impress you. If you want to impress, cook with heart,” he says.
There are plenty of recipes out there to tell you how to make a hollandaise sauce or to teach you how to make a type of stock, he explains with dead serious eyes. But Marco is keener on changing the way people cook at home and how they preserve cooking simple food. “If I make a risotto at home, I bring it out in the pan to the table. I serve people at the table. Food should always be on the table like that, which is why I quite like the way people eat here — everything is served together and you take what you want, how much you want, when you want. Also, if you serve your food in the pan or pot it was cooked in, at least it continues to stay warm. Most cookery books have all these great pictures of plated food, and home cooks try to replicate that. But they don’t realise that they don’t have the infrastructure to make that happen at home. The food doesn’t take centre stage.”
He also laments about how things have gotten too formal for him in the West, when compared to the big family- style sharing meals more common here. “You sit down and they bring you your first course, and then you wait for your main course and then you
The point of a cookery book is To guide and inspire you, not To impress you. if you want To impress, cook with heart
wait for the next… It’s little portions, and 18 courses of them! Who wants to eat that? They’re always tepid and cold. I hate cold food,” he says, dismissing it with a wave of his hand.
But wait a minute, isn’t that what he did all those years ago? And what about all the chefs who are learning to do this very thing as you read this? “I go to culinary schools and tell the young chefs to stop trying to replicate that. I explain to them why it’s very important to cook what you want to eat.”
Of course, he doesn’t dismiss the technical skills you learn in culinary school. “When you’re young, you put all your energies into learning the technical details, like an artist who has to learn to be a draughtsman first. Once you’ve mastered that very technical aspect, then your confidence grows and you start to discover yourself. You start to draw and paint, and cook, outside the lines. And you start doing what you enjoy. You have to learn the technical abilities, of course, but that’s the road to simplicity,” he explains. “Our parents and grandparents didn’t fidget around with their food. They just cooked with what they had and often it was meat on the bone, with the skin, with all the odd bits. That’s what cooking at home needs to be like.”
Talking about Essentially Marco, Marco weaves in stories of his childhood and why there’s a sense of romance in cooking and why you have to love what you do. “A recipe can confuse you, but a story can inspire you. When I used to watch my mother and my grandmother cook, they’d always tell me stories. Those stories have always had a strong connection with food for me. And that’s where the romance of food comes in — the stories that they inspire. But most importantly, you have to love cooking,” he adds, “Because if you don’t, you’ll taste the difference. You can tell when a menu is decided by accountants and when it’s done by a chef. You can go to great restaurants where everything is technical. That’s not food because it’s not love.
“My favourite restaurant in London — Koffmann’s at The Berkeley in Knightsbridge — doesn’t have any Michelin stars. The chef used to be my boss years ago. He cooks food that you want to eat. And that’s what a true three Michelin starred chef does — cooks food you want to eat on a daily basis.”
At the end of the day, cooking is within you, Marco tells me, which sounds like something a 50- year- old chef who just happened to be, at the time, the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars would say. “But,” and there’s always a but, “you have to bring it out of yourself. No one can teach you, they can only show you. You teach yourself. You make mistakes and that teaches you how to be perfect. You have to understand food and be able to analyse it. And remember that it’s not about impressing people, but inspiring people. Most cookery books are about trying to impress your guests. But that’s not the end goal. It’s about the emotional impact of food.”
Great chefs, he says have three things in common. First, they accept and respect that mother nature is a true artist and they’re just the cooks. Second, everything they do is an extension of themselves as individual people. And third, they give you, the diner, an insight into the world which inspires us all.
Marco is also very vocal about everything that’s happening in restaurants these days, and for a moment revisits his ‘ 18 course of cold and tepid food’ comment. “The more you do to food, the more you take away from it. Just stop with the strange combinations and trying to do what you’re not,” he says. Chefs, you have been warned.
And while his blood is at this elevated pressure, he takes the opportunity to lambast the Michelin guide for distorting its sole purpose of existence. “Michelin today is completely different from what it used to be. In the old days, to win a star you had to work really hard. To win two stars, you had to prove that you were consistent. To win three stars, you had to do that over many, many years. Today, they go to New York or Tokyo and on year one, some new restaurant has three stars! Last year, there were 150 restaurants in the guide, and guess how many had stars?” he asks, but I’m a bit afraid of getting the answer wrong. “All of them,” he quickly interjects. “I have no respect for Michelin anymore,” he adds before talking about his experience at a restaurant in New York recently. “About halfway through the meal, which was just average, I was informed that the restaurant had a Michelin star. The next day, I went and bought a Michelin guide and I was horrified to find it was true.
“Earlier, you never got a star if the waiters wore jeans — you had to have a uniform,” adds Marco. “I know what you had to do because I won three of the bloody things! You had to be consistent over a period of time, too.” But, the most important thing about being a Michelin starred chef, according to Marco, is being behind the stove. “If I’m going to go a three Michelin starred restaurant, I want the man whose name is above the door to be cooking for me behind the stove. I’ll pay my Dh500 a head to eat there.” It was the reason he left the kitchen in 1999. “I didn’t want to be behind the stove anymore, and it was not the right thing to do to keep my name up there if I’m not cooking. When you have those stars and you’re not there, then how can you hold your head up high? I would question my integrity.”
But now there’s more clarity, says Marco. “I can do what I want to do and go where I want to without having that pressure. I was able to put this cookbook together and think about all the things I had learnt from all my years behind the stove… And I hope that the lessons in here will help guide and inspire people to cook and share stories of food.”
rohit@ khaleejtimes. com