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Food
Marco Pierre White in his New York Italian in Oxford’s High Street

An interview with Marco Pierre White

"Nature is the true artist": Jack Rayner talks Keith Floyd, the pressure of success and ‘canapé parties’ with Marco Pierre White
Marco Pierre White manages an empire of restaurants and hotels.

"I don't think I'm a celebrity."

Very rarely do I get nervous in this job, save for the gnawing background anxiety of near-continuous deadline weeks. Most of the people included in OX are more than happy to talk about their art or product at length, and typing up copy at a desk is usually less than hair-raising. There are few opportunities for large-scale mistakes.

Having said this, in the half hour or so before I spoke to Marco Pierre White, my nerves of steel failed me and I was reduced to sitting at my kitchen table, pen in hand, thinking of anything to ask Marco that hadn’t already been covered multiple times across almost every media outlet. His sizeable existing presence in national and local press, combined with a famous disdain for journalists (“Today, I turn down 90% of interviews. It doesn’t do anything for me.”), meant that your usually fearless correspondent was worried that a stilted, monosyllabic interview would be shoehorned into print, my inflated but fragile sense of self-regard would be burst like a soap bubble and my cornflakes would become soggy from over-saturation of tears.


 

Luckily, it seems like Mr. White is going through something of a self-reinvention. As he speaks to me from his colleague’s car on the way to his new venture in Bath, he seems more bon vivant than enfant terrible, getting audibly excited about food in a way that I couldn’t imagine came from a famously jaded, 54-year old veteran of the industry. What had changed? I endeavoured to find out…

The first thing I wanted to mention was that when you were starting out in your career, you were very young to be given the Michelin stars and so on. What's the challenge like of being particularly young and at the top of your game? Is there extra pressure on you at that age?

Not really, I didn't think of it in that way. What you may lack at that age is management skills, but hard work is something I was always used to and it just becomes the norm. You don't think anything of working 80-90 hour weeks, it just becomes the norm and you accept it to be part of the job. Winning stars is exciting, and it has to be the most exciting journey for any chef, but once you have won three it becomes rather mundane because all you are is a well-oiled machine. There's so much at risk that you're no longer being creative. To win three stars, you have to be extremely creative, but to maintain them you have to be consistent.

Do you think, looking at, for example, the tragic loss of Benoit Violier recently, that the pressure to perform becomes negative rather than positive past a certain point?

The game changes. As I said, to win three stars is all about creativity, but once you've won your third star, you have to adopt a different strategy, and it becomes about consistency. Also what's changed is that when you're young and you're working these hours in the kitchen, you tend not to have a family, but by the time you've won three stars you tend to have children, so the dynamics of life change and your desires in life change. In my case, once I'd won my three stars I'd realised my dream and found it all rather boring, really.

So once you have the stars, the job loses its excitement?

Life becomes one-dimensional. We change, life changes, and there's more to life than spending 6 or 7 days a week, every week, in a kitchen. There's more to life. In my opinion, when I retired from the States, I thought that maybe I'd made the wrong decision, but when I reflect back it was definitely the right decision, because I never wanted to live a lie, to question my integrity or to pretend that I was in the kitchen when I wasn't.

Am I right to assume that you now have more time to spend with your family than back in the day?

I have time to do everything now. If I want to fly to Australia to film Masterchef Australia, I can do that, but if I had a three-starred restaurant I couldn't do that.

Do you still have the same passion for food when you cook at home?

I love cooking at home. I love cooking. Now, I'm building a hotel and farm just outside Bath, and I feel just as enthused whilst building this than I was when I was that young boy trying to win three stars from Michelin. If I'm honest, there was a period in my life where I was a little lost and I didn't really know what to do, because going from that intense lifestyle to living quite a mundane life, I found it very difficult to settle on something that I truly wanted to do. I've achieved that now, and that whole passion for making and creating things has been reignited.

You were arguably the first celebrity chef. Can you still see your influence in the young chefs of today?

I'm not sure. Firstly, I don't think I'm a celebrity. I don't think I have the personality to be a celebrity. I always think of celebrity chefs as being individuals who tend to have cooking shows because they can't really cut it in the industry, but they're very good at assembling food. I think the first ever true celebrity chef was Keith Floyd. OK, he wasn't a professional chef, but he was the first pioneer of that style and he just did it. Oh my god, he was just amazing.

His attitude to the social side of food was a true inspiration.

He was a raconteur, he was funny, he was always talking to the cameraman... Also, he could assemble food in the middle of nowhere and make people believe it was delicious. Sensational. He was a great friend of mine and I loved him very much.

I didn't realise you knew him personally.

Oh, yeah. He did more for gastronomy, more for the industry and more for good, fresh produce than almost anyone else has done.

What was Keith like off-camera? Was he the same?

He was exactly the same, just without a frying pan. He was a great showman as well.

Obviously you now manage an empire of restaurants and hotels. How much control do you have over the changes of menu at your chain restaurants nowadays?

A lot. I was actually in Oxford last night to talk through some changes, as well as to talk at the Oxford Union.

What's it like to speak on the same platform as US presidents and global pop stars?

It's a privilege to be asked. The first thing I thought was "I'm not an educated man". I didn't do particularly well at school and all of a sudden I'm speaking at the Oxford Union. I found it quite nerve-wracking. I'm not normally nervous but I definitely was before I spoke.

Is it the grandioseness of the surroundings?

Oh no, it isn't that. My whole career has been in grand buildings. I've dined in three-star restaurants all my life and stayed in some of the world's best hotels. Walking into a grand environment doesn't intimidate me, but to step onto a stage where you know that everybody who's in the room is more intelligent than you is very humbling.

You said Keith Floyd was a great influence, and his outlook towards food was very simple. What's your attitude to the ‘molecular’ cooking of today?

What is 'molecular'? It's a label which very few people mention now. When I was a boy, there was nouvelle cuisine… It's all just an extension of classical French cuisine. That's all it is. When you go to these restaurants nowadays and they serve 12- or 14-course menus, what is each dish? It's like canapés on a plate. They've turned dining into a canapé party. It's always tepid. I like to eat hot food because for me, eating hot food is comforting, and it's all about the emotional impact it has on you. Give me a well-roasted chicken, or give me a steamed chicken with tarragon sauce with rice on the side like they used to do in the seventies: beautiful. Who wants to see the chef getting tweezers and pipettes out to do little dribbles of sauce? Come on! [laughs]. The emphasis is on the “show”, and not the eating. The reality of it is, that style of cooking goes against everything I believe in, because for me it's about eating. My favourite restaurant in England, for example, is Pierre Koffmann's restaurant Koffmann's at The Berkeley. It has no stars in Michelin, but Pierre is one of my great friends, my son is working with him at the moment, and he's a truly great chef. I went there recently and had a whole turbot with pommes vapeur. A whole fish, steaming, and the "show" is the maître d' taking it off the bone, putting it on your plate. Sensational.

Do you have any advice for home chefs like myself who perhaps don't have the time to produce restaurant-quality food?

One-pot cuisine. Teach yourself how to make a great pan, a great risotto, a great stew, or a great slow-roast shoulder of lamb. Learn how to cook belly pork well. You see now they cook it sous vide, so they put the pork belly in a plastic bag and cook it for ‘x’ amount of hours at a certain temperature. Here's my question: where's the flavour? I tell you what, put that same pork belly on a rack and cook it in the oven so you get that great caramelisation, so when you chop it, you hear that 'crunch'... I don't care about things being square [laughs]. Nature is the true artist.

What's next on your horizon?

At the moment I'm focusing on my new farm. I've got 18 pigs at the moment, but I'll move it up to 32 and there all Oxford Sandy and Black. They're all going to be made into charcuteries, so we'll build our salt room and we'll have them all hanging. It's the old coal cellar that's been converted. Turkeys as well: 60 hens that just walk around the orchards. That's real sourcing and real ingredients. There's no service any more with all the "cutting-edge" molecular stuff, because a lot of it's pre-cooked. It's not like the old days where you had to cook on the stove, your chef's screaming, and food has to be hot. That's real food.

 

- Jack Rayner

 

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