Q & A With Marco Pierre White: Escoffier, Television, Packaged Soup + The French Foreign Legion
marcopierrewhite.org Marco Pierre White in Afghanistan
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?
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?