It's probably safe to say that Marco Pierre White, the English chef who famously earned three Michelin stars at the age of 33 — at the time the youngest chef ever to do so — and just as famously gave them up six years later when he retired at the age of 39, has invented as many genres as he's broken. His book White Heat, a gorgeous jigsaw of confession and photography and recipes, has been credited for inventing the chef memoir, for lack of a better word. White invented the chef-as-rock-star persona, as the man who screamed at Gordon Ramsay before Ramsay screamed at anybody else. He may well have invented Mario Batali too (see Bill Buford's memoir Heat). Then he abruptly left the kitchen, leaving a beautiful Marco-shaped hole in the culinary landscape, and became a businessman, buying and selling restaurants instead of cooking in them.
Recently White, who is not yet 50 and still more drop-the-tea-set charming than anyone has a right to be, was back in Los Angeles on a book tour for his latest cookbook, Marco Made Easy, a title that is not without irony, chatting about simple home recipes and the joys of Knorr, the soup and bouillon cube products that White has endorsed since 2006. In a patio chair at the Chateau Marmont, amid the weather front blown in from two packs of Marlboros, White held court, discussing the old world of Escoffier, how he got into cooking in the first place and why he eventually relented and went on television. Oh, and soup mix and his childhood and boxing and Picasso. One listens, happily trying to match espresso for espresso, if not cigarette for cigarette. Wouldn't you?
Squid Ink: You retired in 1999. Have you cooked professionally much since then? Nothing? Do you miss it?
Marco Pierre White: I realized my dream as a young man. I'll just wait for that lorry to go by. [Truck passes.] I had that great fortune of being a very young boy who worked in a 2 star Michelin, which was just down the road from where I was brought up. There were only four 2 star restaurants in Britain in those days, and the one in the north of England was called the Box Tree. The bosses were very special people, and every alternate weekend they used to go to France and they dined in the great restaurants of France. Like Maxim's. Like Bocuse. And they used to come back and tell me these stories. And that obviously ignited something within me.
And my dream in life was to replicate one of the great French restaurants. So I opened my first restaurant in January '87. '88 I got my first star. '90 I got my second star. And January of 1995 I got my third star. But I hadn't realized my dream, which people thought I had. What I had was 3 stars and 4 knives and forks, black. Not 5 red. So I set my target for those 5 red knives and forks, because that's what those great restaurants had. In January of 1998, I got my 5 red knives and forks, so I had my 3 stars and 5 red knives and forks; I'd realized my dream. I'd replicated everything that I'd dreamt of all those years ago. With never stepping inside a great 3-star restaurant in France.
I just memorized all the things that the boys and the bosses had told me, and about the emotional impact it had. Because that's what they were really sharing. So when I eat food in restaurants, what's important to me is the emotional impact. Because when you think about it, when you take yourself back to being a child again. You didn't realize that as a kiddie, but the excitement and the emotional impact of the flavors on your palate are just extraordinary. Our palates are born out of our childhood.
So the things we like as adults… For example, I like salad cream, because that's what I had as a child. Before Mum died, it used to be oil splashed over salad and vinegar and mixed up. That's how Mum did it. When Mum died and Dad had to do the cooking, it was salad cream on a Sunday supper. So I like salad cream, I like Branston pickle with my cheese. I used to go to this restaurant in Mayfair years ago. The owner died, but it was a throwback to the '50s. I used to go and have spaghetti Bolognese, but what I really went for was this old-fashioned vanilla ice cream. Which was yellow, made with the essence. Do you remember it? With a fan wafer stuck in the top. Because it was incredibly comforting; it took me back to my childhood. And that's why food is so important. It takes us back to our childhood. That's the importance of feeding children well.
That's why smells and the visual in restaurants are key. And that's what's sad today with modern-day restaurants. You don't get that. It's too controlled by the chef. Small plates. Eighteen courses. No choice. Bang. Conveyor-belt cuisine. It's like going to a very posh party, with tepid food. How can you serve something so small hot? You can't. It's impossible. When you take a whole duck into the room, or a Poularde de bresse en vessie, chicken in pig's bladder [see Fernand Point], bang, you've got the heat. You cut it open, you slice it, whatever, you've got all the smells. You've got the visual show, haven't you?
Because the only thing within the world of gastronomy which never dates is romance. Everything else dates. We live in a world of refinement, not invention.
SI: So the trick is to get that back, somehow?
MPW: The old world will come back. If you look at these modern-day chefs who are at the top of their game, if you look at the foundation of their cuisine, it's classical. They may not admit that, but it's classical. British food now is very good. Italian food, very good. Spanish food, very good. But if you look at it, it all goes back to one country: France. It's all made with French method. Simple, isn't it?
If you look at fusion cuisine, it's the French foundation and the French techniques. Because the French cook with their brains. It's intellectual. Look at the Italians: It's from the heart, isn't it? It's more emotional, and that's the difference between the two cuisines.
But I came from that old world of gastronomy. I stepped into Escoffier's world. And I saw the tail end of Escoffier's world — and that's why I retired. Because I was always brought up that a chef's place was always behind his stove. And so the day I no longer wanted to cook was the day I had three options. Option No. 1 was: Marco, stay what you're doing. Six days a week, you leave home in the morning, your boys are still sleeping, you come home at night, your boys are sleeping, six days a week. That affected me; that bothered me. My second option was: Live a lie. Pretend I cook when I don't cook. Retain my status. Question my integrity and everything I've ever worked for. That was option No. 2. Option No. 3: Have the courage to let go of your status. Tell the Michelin that you're retiring. Tell them to take me out of the guide and accept that tomorrow morning you're unemployed. The next day I was unemployed.
There were my three options. One day a little thought came into my mind. And what I realized was that I was being judged by people who had less knowledge than me. So if I'm honest with myself, everything I've earned, what is it worth really? Not much.
SI: “It's just food.” [See White Heat, p. 52].
MPW: I did my bit for my industry. I did my bit for my trade. I'll be honest: I'm very happy today enriching the lives of domestic cooks. Sharing my knowledge and what clever tricks I have that can assist them in the kitchen at home, which helps them feed their families better. That is more admirable than cooking for strangers. I had no regulars at the 3-star level. A regular is someone who comes once or twice a year. The dishes are so expensive. When you think, in 1999, my average price per head was 300 pounds sterling. You're cooking for strangers. I'm much happier sharing my knowledge, bringing people close, showing them how to make risotto. Simple as that, isn't it?
And you know something, you cannot be a snob about food. Why should gastronomy be snobbery? What makes our industry amazing is that giant jigsaw made out of all those little pieces. The guy here who makes you a nice sandwich with your coffee. The guy who's making 3-star food up the road. The guy who's got a tapas bar. The guy who sells good hot dogs. We're all doing it for the same reason: to create security for our families. Full stop, isn't it?
SI: You said 20 years ago that it's about money. It's pragmatic.
MPW: You have your two girls; I have my two boys. We want to give them something that we never had. One of the most wonderful ways of giving is through food. And the greatest meal is at the dinner table at home, isn't it? People say, What was your greatest meal? Every night I'm at home with my family. That's the greatest meal. Not in a restaurant.
SI: As you said earlier, you've been in Escoffier's world. And now here we are today. What effect do you think food television has had on the industry?
MPW: I'll answer that question in two parts. Firstly, I think TV, I think journalism, I think bloggers have created great awareness. Which has inspired families to buy better ingredients. Inspired families to spend more time in the kitchen at home. So that's a big plus. I think professionally, it attracts young men and women into our industry. Especially in England, a lot of young men and young ladies come into our industry from humble beginnings; they may not have done particularly well at school. I was one of those individuals. Some of them are damaged or have challenges from what has happened to them in their lives. The beauty of food is that, even though you may have been damaged, you get instant gratification. That's the beauty of food in restaurants. Even if you make something as simple as a prawn cocktail or a salade Niçoise, it's a life skill.
So even if you don't stay in the industry, the time that you spend in that industry is now going to enrich your family's life. It gives people the opportunity to better themselves. It's a way of expressing yourself with your hands if you can't do it verbally. So I think it's very good. I think that some individuals may portray my industry in not such a nice way. When I put my chef's whites on and I step onto the stage of TV, I'm an ambassador to my industry. I have a responsibility and a duty to inspire people and to attract the young into my business.
The difference between today and when I was a boy is that then men and women came into the industry from humble beginnings. They went to work to learn their trade. There was no such thing as a celebrity chef. Chefs were admired, that's what they were.
SI: It was like a guild.
MPW: It was like being a joiner, being a plumber, being an engineer, being a blacksmith. And when I was leaving my trade, when I retired in 1999, young boys were coming through the door and asking: How many hours? How much do we get paid? They wanted to be celebrities.
See, I made my name and became who I became because of my cooking. TV didn't give me my fame. I stepped into the ring four years ago doing TV. I'd turned it down for years and years and years. Why do I do TV, you could ask me.
SI: Well, yes.
MPW: In no specific order. One: to retain my position within my industry. Which is important for me to continue to earn a living. Two: to inspire people to eat well, to have a go at cooking. Three: to inspire people and attract them into my industry. Because my industry, my world, really is the French Foreign Legion. If you're prepared to work hard, be respectful, there's a future for you. They don't ask too many questions. You don't need any qualifications. They don't question the world that you came from. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves, keep your head down, work hard, you've got a career. Because I say, I came from the old world of gastronomy, and it was a very different world.
SI: Does it still exist?
MPW: The old world, no. Maybe in France it exists, because you've still got those classical temples. You go to Marc Meneau, you go to Bocuse, things haven't changed. The old boy is still at the top. The world's changing.
I was talking this morning about la cuisine nouvelle. I don't know if it was the same here in America, but la cuisine nouvelle was misinterpreted in the U.K. They thought it was small portions, strange combinations. That was not la cuisine nouvelle. The man who founded it was a man called Fernand Point, who had a restaurant just outside Lyon called La Pyramide. 3 stars Michelin. Twelve of his disciples went on to win 3 stars from Michelin: the Troisgros brothers, Bocuse, Louis Outhier. Amazing, really. And la cuisine nouvelle is very simple: it's classical cuisine with the concept lightened. Nothing to do with strange combinations or small portions. Today there are very few places that serve great classical French cuisine. But look at the great restaurants today. Look at Thomas Keller. His foundation is French. And it's French method. Look at all the great restaurants in England: French method. The French are the masters, they really are. No one makes great restaurants like the French; they're so well-rehearsed. I think all the great chefs will admit that they're classicists.
SI: Like Picasso starting with realism.
MPW: Look at Picasso. As a young man he worked incredibly hard to become the world's greatest draftsman. Look at how through his periods, whether it's pink or blue or whatever, how his style loosened, how it simplified. The same thing happens with a chef. When he's young, like in White Heat, I was a young boy of 24, 25 years old, it was of a time. But it's forced. The reason why people make pictures is really to hide their lack of technical ability. Or their lack of confidence in what they're doing.
And that's why I said — there's a book coming out in America next month [Marco Made Easy] — and I said in the forward that great chefs have three things in common. Firstly, they accept and respect that Mother Nature is the true artist and they are the chef. Two, everything that they do becomes an extension of them as a person, a part of them. Thirdly, they give you great insights into the world they were born into. The world that inspired them, and they serve it on their plates. That's what they do, even if it's classical.
If you sit down and you talk to chefs and you question them about food and listen to their stories and philosophy and then eat their food — is it consistent? You sit and listen to Bocuse, you eat his food, it's consistent. You sit with Marc Meneau, it's consistent. Painting by numbers is one thing, cooking by them is something else. If you look at those masters, their understanding of produce, their respect for Mother Nature, they don't try and hide it. You take a beautiful pigeon breast, you cook it perfectly, then what do they [the other chefs] do: They slice it very thin and fan it out. By doing it, what have they done? They've stripped the natural beauty from the bird, they've lost texture, they've lost juice, they've lost flavor.
SI: And it's cold now.
MPW: They've lost heat. It's all about eating. It's as simple as that. And feeding people well. They walk into that illusion of a 3 star, because that's what you want a 3 star to be: a beautiful illusion. You know you've arrived before you've sat down. You can smell it. You can feel it. That slight intimidation. You sit there for two and a half or three hours, then you leave. There's a little bit of you that misses it. That's what makes it special.
Am I boring you?
SI: God, no.
MPW: I do talk a lot. The old world of gastronomy was very beautiful. So in a way there's a part of me that misses it, but in a way it's like the heavyweight boxer. He's got to know when to step out of the ring. Because I could not have been one of those chefs who lived a lie. And I'm also a great believer that when you get to the top, pass the baton off. That's one of the problems of the hierarchy of my world. A lot of them can't let go of their status.
SI: It's hierarchical. Otherwise, the system breaks down, not unlike the military.
MPW: They'll go against you. You've got to step to one side. Because of your achievements, they keep you up there. It's not a good policy. Allow those young men and women who you've brought along, it's their turn now, isn't it? Success is born out of arrogance, but greatness comes from humility. So when you've achieved what you wanted to achieve, step to one side. I believe that if you've been given opportunity, then give it back. If you were given knowledge, share it. If someone tells you their story, do the same. It's a very simple philosophy. And that's what I do every day of my life. I share my knowledge and my story. Young men and women are fascinated by the old world of gastronomy, the world that I came from. Because the sad thing is that the golden age of gastronomy is now gone. It's like the golden age of boxing, it's gone. When I was a boy in the '70s, with the likes of Cassius Clay, Foreman, Frasier, Norton, you know: one belt. That's what was special. Now there's four or five belts. You don't know who the world champion is now. When it takes over the romance, the game goes.
And so, unfortunately, I suppose I'm an old-fashioned chef who still romanticizes. But I feel very privileged that I saw the old world, and I saw the modern world. I remember the old world coming against me, how they tried to crush me. Because I wouldn't be pigeon-holed by them. What they wanted to do was suppress you to retain their position. They didn't want the maverick challenging them.
SI: That's one of the things that was so interesting about your first book.
MPW: The American chefs, it's extraordinary, because a lot of the big American chefs today were young when I was young, or maybe a bit younger than me.
SI: You're 50 now?
MPW: Fifty this year. Not quite yet.
SI: Well, you're very young to have done what you've done.
MPW: I was very lucky. You know something, success is born out of luck. Out of luck to begin with. Because luck is being given the opportunity; it's awareness of mind that takes advantage of the opportunity. Can you imagine? I may have lived 50 miles away from that 2 star restaurant. Do you know how I discovered that 2 star restaurant? I used to work in a terrible hotel called the Hotel St. George in Harrogate, and in the afternoon, because I was the apprentice, I used to go round the back with Bill and Ben the porters, and one day I walked in and there was a little guide, about this big by this big, of the hotels and restaurants in Great Britain. So I started flicking through it, and that's when I realized that restaurants had stars. And the best restaurant in Britain was the Box Tree, according to the guide.
So I thought to myself, if I'm going to work in a restaurant, in a kitchen, maybe I should work in the best. Getting a job at the Box Tree was rare: no one ever left. And one day I plucked up the courage. Someone had given notice in the kitchen — amazing, eh? I bought that same guide off eBay, so I'm going to frame it and give it to my little girl. Because that's what started it all, really. And I flicked to see what it said about the Hotel St. George, and you know something; it wasn't even in there. It wasn't good enough.
And so that's why I think success is born out of luck. The opportunity arises, you take it, you learn from it. And because of that opportunity, others arise. Those two men, they taught me, they ignited something within me. They made me dream. From humble beginnings in the north, working-class, hard.
MPW: Leeds. And then they took me by the hand and took me in. When I was a child, all TVs were black-and-white, and then one day on my council estate, somebody bought a color TV and we heard about it. And me and my two friends, we spent the afternoon watching this man watch his color TV, looking through his back window. We couldn't hear anything. We were mesmerized, it was that extreme.
SI: You know The Wizard of Oz was filmed right down the street. [This part of the interview took place at Akasha in Culver City, where that film was made.]
MPW: From black-and-white into color; they took me from that old world into the modern world. I knew I had to follow that road. And then my next moment of luck was that I wrote two restaurants for a job. One was Le Gavroche in Chelsea, and one was the Chewton Glen in Hampshire. Le Gavroche sent me an application back in French, and the Chewton Glen sent me one in English. I couldn't read the forms, it was in French. So I went to Chewton Glen and they offered me the job, but in pastry. You know, I didn't want to be a pastry chef. I wanted to be a saucier. Because in those days, people decided they wanted to be a saucier, for example; they were never going to be a head chef. Chef garde manger, chef entremetier, chef saucier. That was their job. That's all gone now, that world of Escoffier, in many ways. And so I got offered pastry, I didn't want to be a pastry chef, even thought the pastry chef was a very nice man, an old man. I came back to London, I missed my train, and I asked where to get a taxi. So I've got to walk the streets because I don't have enough money to get a hotel or anything, and I walk up the road and I see this posh restaurant. It's about 11:30 in the evening. And I look at the name on the door and it says Le Gavroche. In the morning I knock on the door…
SI: You were 19 at the time?
MPW: 19. And the pastry chef told me where the head office was. I don't know where I'm going, I'm walking down the road and I see this scruffy office saying R-O-U-X above it and I thought, that must be it. And I walk in and guess who's sitting at the desk. Albert Roux. I said, “Good morning.” I was tired, I'd walked the streets all night. He said, “What can I do for you?” I said, “I'm looking for a job.” “Sit down. Where did you work?” “The Box Tree.” And that's how I got my job. That's why luck is the most important thing.
[Coffee. Traffic. End.]