Spellbound by an interview with the great White

By Nici Wickes

The temperature rises as Niki Wickes falls under the spell of chef extraordinaire Marco Pierre White.

Marco Pierre White. Photo / ITV/Rex Features
Marco Pierre White. Photo / ITV/Rex Features

He is regarded as one of the greatest chefs of all time. Before the overblown rages of Gordon Ramsay or the disdain of Anthony Bourdain, and way before the Jamies and Nigellas gave life to the "TV chef" tag, there was only one rock star in the world of cooking - Marco Pierre White.

Born to an Italian mother and English father, by 28 he had earned his first Michelin star.

By 33 he had two more, making him the first British chef to be awarded three stars as well as being the youngest chef world-wide to have achieved such a feat.

His revolutionary cookbook White Heat hit the shelves in 1990 and read like a cross between a music magazine and a hardcore thriller rather than a book of recipes.

It told the story, in graphic black and white photographs and brutally honest quotations, of the gruelling reality of being a top chef - and somehow he made it look sexy.

In it the 28-year-old proclaimed "You're not going to see the true Marco until I'm 35 or 40" - how true that turned out to be.

Five years on from gaining his third Michelin star, he made history again by controversially giving them all back and retiring from the kitchen. He still had a voracious appetite for the industry so went on to build an empire of restaurants that he continues to oversee today.

When I travelled to Sydney, where he was going to be for a few days, to interview him, I spent the entire flight re-reading his autobiography White Slave and getting more nervous by the minute.

His rise to greatness has been well documented - his obsession with perfection, his single-minded commitment to anything he embarks upon, his uncompromising high standards.

In the closing chapters of the book, published five years ago, he declares that he no longer finds any enjoyment in cooking and he expresses his discomfort at chefs becoming TV stars and mere product endorsers. However since then, he himself has hosted a number of TV cooking competition shows and his website reveals that he is not averse to putting his name to various products either. Indeed his reason for being in Sydney is to promote a new ready-made, jellied stock range by Continental.

Had the great chef sold out? Would I be brave enough to broach the topic with the man they used to call the "enfant terrible" for his angry outbursts? I felt it my duty to ask, even if only to protect the pristine image I personally held of this kitchen hero.

I am the first of the 10 invited guests to arrive at the designated venue, a private residence overlooking Sydney harbour, and suddenly there is White, towering over his chopping board, long hair tucked beneath a bandana, meticulously peeling asparagus. He looks up from his prepping when we're introduced and fixes his disarming gaze on me but says nothing. Nothing at all. Just stares.

Even without the back story, I think anyone meeting MPW for the first time would find it unnerving - he burns with intensity. I start babbling, trying not to appear too sycophantic, then excuse myself so that he can get back to prepping ... and I get back to sweating about the upcoming interview.

Suddenly my allocated 15 minutes feels as though it may be twice as long as I need! But first there is a cooking demonstration by him and, as the last of the guests arrive we're ushered in to sit at the kitchen bench and White begins to cook for us.

He's awkward and paces like a caged lion during the introduction but as he begins to cook, he relaxes. Speaking softly, he explains that he's going to cook pumpkin soup and a simple risotto for us. I think to myself that it might be like watching Roger Federer play swingball but I'm wrong - for the next 30 minutes I'm spellbound by his movements.

Whether he's furiously dicing an onion to within an inch of its life or gently coaxing the starchy creaminess from arborio rice, the deep-seated familiarity of someone so adept at their craft is mesmerising. What is perhaps most surprising is the tenderness and patience he shows when working with the ingredients.

He claims to have given up cooking 12 years ago but I seriously doubt that he could stop cooking even if he wanted to. It's in his bones, you can see it in the way he holds his knife - it's an extension of his arm. And he's sincere, passionate and blunt when talking about the stock he's using.

"It's simple. If it wasn't any good, I wouldn't be using it. Some chefs and cooks have an aversion for "ready-made" but if it's better than what you can make, why not use it?"

He warns us against becoming slaves to trends and tells us that even at Harvey's, that career-changing bastion of fine dining that was his first restaurant, he always used canned butter beans over dried. Why? "The dried ones are almost impossible to cook without them splitting so why not use the canned ones - they're perfect."

Someone from the group asks if he's mellowed with age and for a moment the room falls silent, but for the simmering risotto.

"I've become more realistic." Again, the quiet voice.

Then, more clipped, verging on terse "But let me be clear, I've never cared for how you get there, as long as the quality is there - I will never compromise on that because then it's not worth it."

Another person asks what he thinks of the current trend for degustation dining.

"It's like a continuous canapé party don't you think? But I understand the motivation - it's all about control. Chefs these days want to be more in control and this is one way of achieving that."

He might have a point but he also concedes that he's from the old school when kitchens were heaving, steaming, cramped domains where the pressure was unhealthily high most of the time.

Does he have any advice for up-and-coming chefs?

"Not really. All I can offer them is my own experience and that is to work hard. I never wanted to be a celebrity, that was not my goal. For some of the young ones coming through, that seems to be their focus."

Too quickly the demonstration is over and, before I have a chance to sample either dish properly, I am summoned out to the deck for my one-on-one interview with the great man himself.

By now, my prepared questions seemed banal. Instead, I take a seat beside him and when he offers me a cigarette I take it, even though I don't smoke.

So we sat in the Sydney sunshine, White and I, and we talked about what continues to drive him and whether he ever gets dinner cooked for him.

In trying to explain what motivates him he ventured that perhaps he will always be trying to make up for something gone and lost to him forever - his Italian mother, who died when he was just six.

He shares something that he'd scribbled down in 1987, and came across many years later. He'd written "the Italian man always competes with the memory of his mother's cooking".

White gave up cooking when he was 38 - the same age his mother was when she died. A psychotherapist might have a field day with that coincidence but MPW makes it sounds less complicated: As he saw it, he was faced with three choices - continue cooking, thereby missing out on seeing his children grow up; have others do the cooking in his restaurants, not telling anyone so as to protect the all-important Michelin stars; or, a suggestion from his wife at the time, give the stars back, freeing himself up from the pressure of having to cook.

It was in September 1999 when he made the phone call to the Michelin authorities and requested that he not be included in the next Michelin guide. He wanted his freedom back.

He ceased cooking but continued in the industry, building his gastronomic empire, because "I love the industry and I know it so well. Besides, it's still so romantic don't you think - dining in a restaurant?"

He tells me he underwent therapy - his version of it anyway. He went fishing and game-hunting until he'd restored the balance in his life.

He mentions at one point that he's stopped striving for perfection a long time ago and perhaps this is the biggest change MPW will admit to - he is no longer a slave to perfectionism. He still works incredibly hard "to support my family" but also too, I suggest, because he's been at it so long, it's all he knows.

And I still have to ask, why the TV shows and the rest of it?

"What I do now is different from cooking for 18 hours a day but I still commit everything I have to it, whether it's a TV show or a charity event, I only know how to do it with full commitment. I care deeply about everything I do, I always have done. I work hard to support my family."

And does he find any enjoyment in cooking these days?

"I cook for my children. When I ask my 8-year-old daughter where she'd like to go for dinner her reply is: "I want you to cook for me Dad," and that, for me, is enough."

And what does a Michelin star chef make for his 8-year-old?

"Softly scrambled eggs with lots of cheddar. It's simple, to her liking, not mine. I'd prefer parmesan, but we enjoy them together all the same."

In White Heat he wrote "I'm never satisfied with anything I do, never." He was 28 then and now he's nearly 50. He's still obsessive. Only now he's obsessive about different things and he seems almost content. Almost.

Our 15 minutes had turned into 20, then half an hour and by the time we'd finished talking and I'd returned to the kitchen, the pumpkin soup had cooled but as I tasted a spoonful, I marvelled at how anyone could make layers of flavour using so few ingredients. It was undeniably the best soup I have ever tasted.

My faith was restored.

Tips from Marco Pierre White

* Always warm strawberries and lemon-based desserts to bring the sunshine back into them.

* Reduce sauces fast to preserve the freshness.

* Always add herbs at the last minute to capture their full flavour.

* Be generous - a mean cook is a failed cook, watching food costs too closely comes at a cost.

- NZ Herald

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