The original rockstar chef is an acquired taste. Marco Pierre White talks food, family and the importance of being kind, ahead of a $460 Taste of Auckland charity dinner.
Once, Marco Pierre White was cheekbones draped in prosciutto. Sharp angles and translucent skin in a monochrome photo. His face has fleshed with age but his skin has, perhaps, become thinner.
"We can see what kind of journalist you are," he says.
I repeat his statement, incredulously.
"Of course! I've done more interviews than you."
Rapid maths. My career began a decade before Google was founded. He is wrong and I tell him.
"And you're not an editor yet?"
Once, I say. Sort of.
"Did you not SURVIVE being an editor?"
It is 9am in the countryside just outside of Bath, England, where White has apparently decided to have a journalist for breakfast.
Why top chef Marco Pierre White feels guilty when he leaves NZ
White was 24 when he became head chef and co-owner of Harveys, the London restaurant famous for oysters and tagliatelle, celebrity clientele and astronomically expensive wine.
Writer Graham Erickson: "I vaguely remember a Pet Shop Boy, Richard Rogers and Billy Connolly being in the room at the time. I remember Marco commenting that there was nobody interesting there that night."
White is 57 now. His name is attached to the menus of 79-and-counting dining rooms across eight restaurant brands and P&0 Cruises. He is a brand ambassador for a company that makes stock cubes. In interviews, he espouses the need to be kind but media don't always return the favour. In 2015, the Guardian's Marina O'Loughlin described White's newest restaurant as a "sausage factory of mediocrity". The Observer's Jay Rayner once suggested the chef had entered a celebrity dead zone and was now "only news when he's shouting". British journalist Lynn Barber is arguably as famous as White. The pair drank wine, ate lunch and smoked cigarettes, then she wrote, "He habitually uses his mother's death as his Get out of Jail Free card."
In short, White ignites headlines. For example, when MasterChef Australia judge Matt Preston suggested his son and namesake Marco Pierre White jnr was off the rails, White snr told a reporter: "With my hand on my mother's grave I will get that man."
I wonder if White snr has ever regretted yelling at anyone?
"Well, give me an example."
Perhaps, I suggest, chef Gordon Ramsay - White's one-time protege and the subject of an epically ongoing he-said-he-said tabloid feud. (Sample anecdote: that time Ramsay reportedly gashed himself opening scallops and White allegedly grabbed his bleeding hand and buried it in salt.)
"Well, number one, I've never had an argument with Gordon," says White. "You should know better than me. You're a journalist. You're the fabricators. The exaggerators. Not me. You're the ones who try to turn boring stories into something exciting."
I had planned to ask White about his shift from chef to restaurateur. I had planned to engage him on the topic of the original Parisian restaurateurs of the 1700s who were the first to offer what the first famous food writer Brillat-Savarin described as "an ever-ready feast" devised by a man who "must have been a genius endowed with profound insight into human nature".
Instead, we have moved on to an argument about a reality television judge.
"You obviously don't know Matt Preston, do you?" says White. (I don't.) "Let me ask you a simple question. Do you have children?" (I don't; he has three.) "Then you might not understand but can you imagine having a child and I slag that child off? Now you tell me, where's your moral compass? What he should have said is, 'I don't know his son but I know his father and he's a very hard-working, very decent person.' But when you're blinded by narcissism ... "
Preston is a narcissist?
"Well, look at the way he dresses. Doesn't that say everything? His dress sense is larger than his personality."
If you can't stand the heat, get out of White's interview. My mistake, he tells me, was to read the clippings. Don't come with questions, he says, come with conversation. So I laugh. I call him a ratbag. And he softens, because he knows he has done his job. He has behaved like the legend that is Marco Pierre White.
White was born in Leeds to a home less posh than his accent suggests. He is the third son of Maria-Rosa and Frank. His mum was from Italy, his dad an English chef. White left high school with no academic qualifications but, by the age of 33, had amassed three Michelin stars - the youngest chef in the world with that accolade, the only one ever in Britain. White was trained by the greats (Albert and Michel Roux, Pierre Koffman, Raymond Blanc) and some of the future greats were, in turn, passing through his kitchen - his website lists a team that includes Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal; other sources reference America's Mario Batali and Australia's Curtis Stone and Shannon Bennett. White has been called the godfather of modern cooking, an enfant terrible and the first celebrity chef.
In late October, he will appear at Taste of Auckland. Tickets to the white-tie charity dinner are $460 a head. Inevitably, diners will be paying for his presence, not his cooking per se. He's travelling with executive chef Andrew Bennet, who will be joined by local stars Josh Emett and Gareth Stewart.
"A chef's allowed to stray from the stove but they must always stay close to the flame," says White.
I dutifully write this down and then discover he's given variations of this quote to a Singapore blog, several Australian food publications, a United Kingdom hotel trade magazine and the Shropshire Star. Clearly, I did not read enough clippings. Exclusive (as far as I can tell) to the Herald: "I've never planned anything in my entire life. The only time I plan things is when I'm in a kitchen."
An audience with White is an acquired taste. Equal parts philosophy and platitude. He has found a recipe he likes, and he's not messing with it - until he does. Then, what he says is so intimate, brutal or totally mad that you think: Yes. This is a man with the foresight to put tagliatelle and oysters on the same, glorious plate.
"My mother brought me into this world to be a romantic idealist," he says.
"What I have worked out in my life is that all I ever tried to do was replace what was taken from me as a child," he says.
"I just don't really have expectations in life really. I like to see things for what they are. I don't want to go with expectations because I may be disappointed. I just sort of almost blindfold myself - and then arrive," he says.
We were discussing at what point he realised fame (and infamy) was coming for him, when he said: "My entire life is a product of default. I suppose I had long hair and because I was young, the press found me rather fascinating ... "
He's glossing the detail. That infamous temper (no White interview is complete without referencing the fact that he made Ramsay cry), the turbulent relationships (three wives) and those photographs. Portrait of the chef as a young man with no shirt slumped over a tombstone. Portrait of the chef as a slightly older young man with no shirt, holding a small shark.
They were taken by Bob Carlos Clarke, the man sometimes referred to as Britain's Helmut Newton. One day, says White, his girlfriend told him they had been invited to afternoon tea by Clarke and his wife Lindsey.
"He just sat there, staring at me, and I thought, 'He's a rather peculiar man.'"
The tombstone shoot happened soon after. Later, Clarke did the portraits for White Heat, the iconic and partly autobiographical cookbook released in 1990 and re-released on its 25th anniversary.
"I suppose, in the end, I became his muse," says White.
Clarke killed himself in 2006. White sees his legacy everywhere.
"My vision was to give insight into the kitchen. No cookery book had ever given insight into the kitchen. So Bob came in, and that's when he took that photograph of me with the fag in my mouth, which I suppose, yeah, I suppose that's what the young must relate to today.
"All these young chefs, they buy White Heat. They think - bang - he's a bit different to a chef with a tall hat and a white apron and whatever.
"I mean, I've just come back from Australia. How many young boys have had tattoos? The one with the cleaver and the one with the fag, on their bodies? It's just extraordinary. I go around the world and I see these big, blown-up photographs of myself in these restaurants and I think, 'what's this all about?' It's rather peculiar.
"I suppose it's like the young relate to Eminem. Or Jay-Z."
Tagliatelle of oysters. Calves liver with lime. Pig's trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels. White cooked and the critics swooned and if it was sometimes reported that he didn't seem to care for his customers, then that is quite possibly accurate.
Here's the chef writing on his recipe for chocolate assiette: "This is disgusting; It's a horrible dish. It's vulgarity pure and simple. It's a dish invented for suburbia; it should be called 'Chocolate Suburbia'. Why do we serve it? Because we're commercial. Because, at the end of the day, you have to please the customer. And this does."
He once kicked 54 customers out of his restaurant on a single night ("They were dropping cigarette butts on the floor, for Christ's sake," he told a reporter). I've read that, more recently, he's tempered his attitude to paying guests but he's not having a bar of this analysis.
"I think they're so terrified, that they don't say anything. Yes, I have softened, like most men, but ... I think if I walk in the room, it just goes silent. I just think this is peculiar behaviour. I'm more interested in being in my garden, to be quite honest."
If three Michelin stars made White famous, his rejection of those stars created a legend.
He gave them all back in 1999 because "life became quite boring".
It takes imagination and emotion to get to the top, White says. "All of a sudden, you're now playing a defensive game to retain your position, to protect your reputation, to protect those three stars. It's a very different strategy.
"I know chefs say, 'Oh, the pressure to retain three stars'. Sorry, the pressure of winning three stars is greater, because by the time you win three stars, you've got this massive infrastructure around you. For example, I had 30 chefs in the kitchen. I had 45 out front. But it's boring, because you're a conveyor belt. Your whole strategy is no longer an attacking game."
The thing is: "I've never had ambition. I've just had dreams and visions. In fact, I don't really do what I do for money. I do what I do just to sort of make something beautiful. A lot of things that I do make no mathematical sense."
One of his newest projects is in Singapore. The English House is part restaurant, part hotel. It contains a dining room table that came from the Rolls-Royce boardroom, silver trolleys and ice buckets from his early restaurants and his extensive personal collection of cartoons. Photographs show what looks to be a feature wall created from old Michelin Guides.
"Oh, I just dumped them in there," he says. "I have so much stuff which I've collected over the years."
Later, he declares the world is obsessed with materiality. He, of course, is not.
"Not in the slightest."
Me: But you've kept all this stuff?
Him: "There's a difference between aesthetics and materialism. A very large difference. When I talk about materialism, I'm talking about flash cars, flash watches, flash phones."
A day in the life of the world's first rockstar chef includes books and violins and a pack of cards.
"I read. I listen to classical music for many hours. I play solitaire and I spend time in my garden ... I am not seen in public."
I ask him about oysters and caviar and what messages diners send to the world when they eat fine food in fine restaurants. White says you have to respect someone's curiosity, but the things that really matter to him now are kindness, the sharing of knowledge and struggle.
"If you possess kindness, true kindness, then you possess everything, don't you? You have natural charm, rather than superficial charm.
"By possessing struggle, you still go to work every day. By possessing struggle, you have value for the smallest things. If you make a million pounds today? Get rid of it. I don't own anything.
"My children own everything. In England, we pay 40 per cent death duties ... if you hand everything over seven years before you die, then there are no death duties."
At any given moment in any given Marco Pierre White interview, there are three people present. The famous chef. The journalist. And the famous chef's mother.
"Pain manifests itself into anger. Hurt manifests itself into anger," White had said at the start of our interview, when we were discussing his shouty reputation. "To be a young boy, watching his mother die, being put on a stretcher, being put into an ambulance, when the ambulance doors closed, that's her waving goodbye to you ... "
He was 6 years old when his mother had a brain haemorrhage. White returns, over and over, to the last time he saw her. In his autobiography White Slave (retitled The Devil in the Kitchen for North American audiences) he writes: "My mother's death was the defining moment of my life. That snapshot takes me back to a time when softness was stripped away. I would take up a career in which I would be bullied, knocked, pushed and worked, worked, worked."
Today: "That's why I don't take life for granted. I don't sit there and think that I am going to live until I'm 70, 80 years old."
Did you know, says White, that a boy's blueprint is created by his mother in his first six years of life?
"I think a boy who has complications with his mum will have complications with women in later life. That's something I just observed. What I have worked out in my life is that all I ever tried to do was replace what was taken from me as a child.
"I was petrified of dying before I achieved ..." He has paused, because at his end of this phone interview, someone has entered the room. "Marco," he says, presumably to his son. "I'm just having a private conversation. Thank you darling, I love you. Love you too, boy ..."
There is the flick-flick-flick of a cigarette lighter. Inhale. Exhale. He's back.
"... I was terrified, as a young man, of dying before I realised my dream but I lived and I realised my dream. On reflection, what I realise, is winning those Michelin stars were just little stepping stones to me discovering myself as a person.
"I can't imagine living a superficial life. I can't imagine paddling around in the shallow end of society. I prefer to swim in the deep end of life."
He would, I think, go on. But I interrupt him. Because his reality television credits include Hell's Kitchen, The Chopping Block, Celebrity Big Brother, Marco Pierre White's Kitchen Wars and MasterChef (Australia, South Africa and New Zealand - "with Al Brown and the boys. He's a nice boy. I like him a lot"). Reality television, as a genre, is not exactly over the average person's head.
"I try my hardest," says White with zero chagrin. "I don't abuse, I don't belittle, I don't swear. You make it as real as possible, rather than manufacture drama. I think you have a duty and a responsibility and by doing it correctly and well, then you can inspire young people to want to come into your industry. I look at the positive of reality, not the negative."
He's still inhaling, exhaling. Still has that fag in his mouth.
"I quit, I start, I quit. Look, I do things to extremes. That's all linked to my insecurities. When you do something, you do it to the extreme."
Some people, for example, plant gardens. White has planted an orchard, a butterfly meadow and "thousands and thousands" of trees. His "little toy farm" has beetle banks and beehives, because "it's got to start at grassroots, doesn't it? Without insect life, without bees, without butterflies, where's the songbird life? I remember when I used to drive down the road in England and I used to see insects stuck on my windscreen. No more. Because the countryside is full of pesticides."
Every farm in England, proclaims White, "should sacrifice 20 acres and give it back to nature". Mother Nature, he continues, was his surrogate mother.
"And so you have this enormous respect for her. And when you have tremendous respect, then you have tremendous care and through care, you find understanding."
Historically, White has not had a reputation for caring. Historically, he is more famous for cutting the back out of a chef's uniform when the chef complained the kitchen was too hot. He did it while the chef was still wearing the uniform. On the face of it, this does not fit the usual definition of care and understanding.
"Emotions are for the bedroom, my friend. They're not for the kitchen. You have a job to do. You don't turn around and say, 'Kim, in your own time, can I have two sea bass for table four' and 'Bryan, can we have that fillet of beef when you're ready?'"
Taste of Auckland: October 31-November 4, Queen's Wharf.
Dine With Marco Pierre White, October 31.
Tickets and more information: www.tasteofauckland.co.nz