Nearly eight years after she first interviewed Marco Pierre White, DOMINI KEMP reconnects with the chef and all-round culinary hero for lunch in Dublin and finds a happier gent who still believes in the foundations of fine food.
When I first interviewed Marco Pierre White, a culinary legend and a personal hero of mine, back in 2007, the world was a very different place. Looking back now, it is spooky to think how much has changed in such a small space of time. During that first interview, we talked about the opening of Marco’s first foray into the Dublin restaurant scene:a pizza restaurant (aptly named “Frankie’s”) with jockey Frankie Dettori in the Point Village, in conjunction with Harry Crosbie. “Casual glamour” is how it was all going to be, so all very Celtic Tiger then, really. Fast-forward to 2014: the Point is now the 3Arena, Harry Crosbie is in Nama, and their alliance no more.
Frankie’s opened and then closed in Temple Bar, and the premises has been taken over by McDonald’s. Marco’s ties with Dublin are with the Fitzers Restaurant Group, which operates two successful restaurants bearing his name and serving food he himself says he likes to eat. The interview back in 2007 didn’t start well: my plane to London had been delayed, andIwas late arriving to meet him. He started off the day snarling and contrary, though eventually–after a delicious lunch and an Irish Coffee lesson – he became a fun person to interview. SoIwasn’t sure what to expect this time. He and his former wife, Mati Conejero, had started and stopped divorce proceedings, and he had been through a custody battle.
Was he going to be an angrier version of his former self ? Bitter and older? Suddenly, I’m a bit worried that some things might be better left unsaid. For some strange reason,Igo to the Marco Pierre White Courtyard Bar & Grill in Donnybrook by mistake, rather than the Steakhouse & Grill on Dawson Street in the city centre, where the interview is supposed to take place. Being an absolute stickler for time – thanks to my very punctual husband –Ibreak into a bit of a panic. Is this déjà vu or cruel fate? I abandon my car in Donnybrook, jump in a cab, and am there only seven minutes late (but still late). As I navigate the deafening Luas roadworks, I see a familiar silhouette, all kitted out in smart tweeds, smoking outside the restaurant.
“Marco?” I ask hesitantly and perhaps a little scared. He turns around with a big smile–much better than a snarl – and it’s clear this is a different person. He looks so much better, in a healthy sort of way: slimmer and happier. Yet he shouldn’t, particularly if he’s still furiously smoking cigarettes at the age of 53. Then the penny drops: he is clearly a man who has found love again. It’s such an obvious before and after; love, the great makeover. But more of that later.
We talk about greatness in the kitchen of different chefs, what it all means nowadays, and how the “marriage” of strong women and male chefs is so vital to the ultimate success of Michelin-starred restaurants – despite how they may rot the home. Drills are tearing up the street, but he’s still smoking and my tape recorder is going to pick up nothing except the howl of machinery. But we sit outside until he’s done, then head into the warm and soothing interior of the restaurant to enjoy a glass of Valpolicella and a perfectly pink grilled veal chop with delicious béarnaise and thick-cut, duck fat-roasted chips.
He is greedy and a bloody magnificent cook. The food is slashed and burned in minutes, although to be fair, he does eat slower than most chefsIknow. He insists his chips are better than mine, as he has slathered them with butter from the breadbasket. He thinks they should become a side dish: called “buttered chips”.I have always maintained that old leather boots slathered in warm butter and salt would taste good, so it’s not surprising the chips are seducing him. Finally, he settles on Chips MPW. To eat with Marco while he talks incessantly about food is a real treat. To have him cook for you at home would probably be one of the last great gastronomic experiences to be had; he really seems to enjoy it now that he does not have to do it for a living. He gushes – in a genuine rather than conceited way – about dishes he had cooked and about the dishes he enjoys: roast chicken, bread sauce, roast parsnips with apples and butter, roast woodcock, chip butties, roast plums … with double cream … there is nothing too great or small to enjoy or beyond his remit for pleasure, including salad cream and HP sauce.
I’m a classicist. I don’t like strange combinations. I like things to make sense. I don’t get peculiar combinations.I like salmon, and I like liquorice, but salmon and liquorice … I don’t get it …” We talk about gravy, béchamel sauces, the difference in cooking stocks per different restaurants he worked in as a young lad: Koffmann’s, the Roux brothers’, The Box Tree, La Tante Claire … Nerdy stuff talking about beef shins versus pig’s trotters in the stock, mushrooms being added to the stock–but only later on – and the incredibly varying cooking times of the stocks of the great masters of gastronomy.
“When you walk into a three [Michelin] star restaurant, it should smell like a three-star. But one-stars are different. The problem with so many one-stars is you can’t smell the food: it’s all water baths and foams and gels. Where’s the smell of good cooking?” He enjoys talking to young chefs and likes to talk to them about his experiences in his early days, what he learned and things he feels obliged to pass on: “In my first job, I learned how to say ‘yes chef’, to run, to multitask … and those early lessons are vital.I always tell young people: turn up on time; never call in sick; never, ever walk out, and always turn up in your best suit for an interview. It’s all about respect.
We order a second glass of red wine, more sparkling water, and he goes out for another fag. When he comes back, I am determined to ask him all about his relationship with actress Emilia Fox, especially after he declares, “I’ve always been ruled by romance.” “But last time we met, you were very anti-love,” I say, waiting for him to answer the question by manoeuvring himself far away from its origins. “Well, love is a double-edged sword … ButIlove gastronomy and we were fortunate enough to have worked at the tale end of old-fashioned gastronomy.I like eating at Pierre Koffmann’s–Iwas there last week with my girlfriend – and we had the most beautiful turbot, on the bone, with some beurre blanc and a bottle of Meursault.I love the butteriness of the beurre blanc and the Meursault.
I cooked a beautiful lobster macaroni dish last week … I love good food.Iwant to indulge in good, classic food.I don’t want to be preached to,I don’t want to eat 18 courses and be served tepid food full of foams and gels. I want to eat and indulge. The other place I go is Riva in London: a beautiful Italian; andIhad suckling pig, veal chops Milanese, and the first white truffles. I want to be fed!”
I bring up his association with Knorr, and he is adamant about his enthusiasm for a mass produced product. “Look, I am not saying you should make stock with Knorr. I don’t. I make my own stock. But I use Knorr to season, always have.” We discuss the home “arsenal” and he compares my love of Worcestershire sauce – which Iwould consider part of my arsenal, along with tamari, honey or maple syrup, verjus, salt, pepper, wine, anchovies and mustard–and he says Knorr is part of his arsenal, and it’s no different for the home cook. He has a point. But the cynicism of others has to do with snobbery about a former three-star Michelin chef now promoting a brand of such magnitude. But he’s genuine, and I get it: he does use them, so why shouldn’t he endorse them …
“I say to my daughter, Mirabelle (who is training to beaballerina), if you have a dream, you have a duty and responsibility to yourself to make it come true.” I agree, but remind him that it’s hard work that probably counts more. He thinks about this. “I would say success is born out of good luck. It’s awareness of mind that takes advantage of the opportunity … and the opportunity is the luck … Luck is the opportunity you get in life.”
His Nokia phone – possibly the same model he had in 2007 when I first met him–rings regularly. He does apologise, but they are the same conversations most chefs have: “What? Andy? Yeah … yeah … waiter stations? Yeah, put them in the water mill … Ok … then put them in the Grand Hall … where? No, just stack them up in the shed. They’ll be fine there …” the conversations rumble. The unending screaming employees looking for decisions to be made … by the boss. He’s sold up his London restaurants, although he still has his “stake in the steakhouses” (geddit? His gag, not mine) in London, but other than that, he’s out and has moved into the hotel business. He consults for P&O (Ferries) and has a new book coming out in February, celebrating the 25th anniversary of White Heat, updated with plenty of unpublished photographs, which will be a glorious homage to the last days of a true culinary genius in London town. An era where Britain took the helm, with many great French chefs and their protégés giving it socks.
He reckons that many chefs nowadays do not understand the emotional draw that food has on us–everyone has a palate and can cultivate good taste–but understanding the way food impacts us, he is only too aware of. “I’m at that stage in life … I eat to live, not to grow. I’m less aggressive. I like cooking at home. For me, it’s all about eating … that veal chop we just had; it’s enough for me. It’s that indulgence: that’s been my failing in life: everything I do is a double-edged sword.
I’m a romanticist – and romance is a double-edged sword. Indulgence? It’s a double-edged sword too.” “But,” I argue, mouth full of duck fat-fried chips, “You’ve always been commercially savvy …” He tries to deny this, and then goes on with one of his many Marcoisms … “It’s the battle of your brain, which is savvy – against your heart, which is romantic. It’s obvious: for me, my heart will always win.”
Again, I counter that it’s easy to say this, as he’s done well for himself. “When you’re young, you’re gorgeous, everyone is. But it’s like when I met Emilia – she’s such a wonderful, kind person, and most people think kindness is a weakness, but it’s not … to be truly kind, you have to have great confidence … she is truly kind and pure. I’ve known her for years, and I guess I sort of fell in love with her in a magical way.”
It’s approaching 3pm, we’ve gone an hour over our allotted time, and the PR folk are hovering. They need to bundle him into a car to go to Westmeath to shoot an episode of The Restaurant. He seems happy, less furious, and genuinely more content with life. It’s nice to see the great man mellowing and philosophising. “The kitchen is a wonderful place … it’s a great equaliser, and restaurants are cool. Everyone wants to own one and hang out in them. That’s why I like coming here. I like Dublin. There’s never been a city that has been as kind to me.” And with that, he’s off.
Moved to London at the age of 16 and trained under Albert and Michel Roux, and later, with Pierre Koffmann, Nico Ladenis and Raymond Blanc.
Ran his breakthrough restaurant, Harveys in Wandsworth Common, London, and won his first Michelin star in the first year at the age of 26 (he was awarded his second in 1988). His cookbook, White Heat, was published in 1990.
1992 – 1999
Acted as patron-chef of The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel and won his third Michelin star at the age of 33 (the first British and youngest chef ever to do so, until an Italian chef took the record in 2002). In 1997, he relocated to the Oak Room in Le Méridien Piccadilly.
Retired as a chef, returned his Michelin stars, and became a restaurateur.