From humble beginnings, Marco Pierre White has risen to become one of this country’s most outstanding chefs, with one critic describing his Harvey’s restaurant as a “meteor hurtling down through the firmament.’ Back down to earth, he talked candidly to Laura James about his extraordinary career, his two AGA cookers and his plans for the future.
I left home when I was very young and my first kitchen in many ways resembled a teenager’s bedroom. Among the movie posters and pictures of Iggy Pop and INXS was a striking, moody, black and white image of a young chef wearing a striped butcher’s apron, a cigarette dangling lazily from his lips. That pouting, compelling pin-up was Marco Pierre White, and now, on my way to meet the same man many years later, I have to admit to being awash with nostalgia for my younger self.
When I arrive, I find I’m not the only one revisiting the past. “Look at this,” he says, handing me a small lead figure retrieved from pride of place on a bookshelf. I stare down and see a vintage miniature of Felix the Cat. “I buy a lot of antique toys,” he says with a broad smile that betrays his public image, which is more growling dog than cartoon cat. “It’s like I’m bringing my childhood back to myself.”
Marco is an enigma; hugely eloquent, insanely charming, just a little bit vulnerable and with a talent that has led to his being described variously as the first celebrity chef, an enfant terrible, the godfather of modern cooking and – perhaps my favourite – the Jagger of the AGA. Fittingly, we meet in his kitchen, which is a perfect marriage of the domestic and the professional, with gleaming antique copper pans; Kilner jars filled with bone-handled knives, forks and spoons; antique toys; and jars filled with all sorts of interesting curiosities. We chat over tea at an enormous table that stretches almost the entire length of a large, high-ceilinged dining room and which seems to act as a repository for his myriad passions. At one end is an outsize chessboard with each gargoyle-like bronze piece weighing in at several kilos. Reference books and paper litter the table, works of art are everywhere and a 13th century carved crucifix dominates one wall.
“The way I like to cook [is that] I like to feel like I’m in a professional kitchen,” Marco says as he gets up to provide a guided tour of its features. “If you look at my kitchen you can see it’s like a professional kitchen, but it’s domestic. It’s that balance. “I don’t have a dishwasher – I have an old Belfast sink because that’s the way I was taught how to wash up as a boy at the Hotel St George. They say old habits die hard and I’m sorry they do because a dishwasher doesn’t clean plates like washing them. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but that’s the way I am.”
There may be no dishwasher, but the kitchen is home to two gleaming black, 3-oven AGA Total Control cookers. Why two? I ask. “Because one is not enough,” he laughs. “It’s true. One is perfect; two is a luxury. It really is. Six ovens, four solid tops, lots of space. What more do I want? “I think a 3-oven AGA is perfect for a cottage. When you have a family you have to have at least a 4-oven. But in a perfect, perfect world two 3-ovens are better than one 4-oven because you have six ovens and four hotplates.”
"The reason I like the AGA cooker is because throughout my cooking career I worked on solid tops, so when I cook on an AGA I work it like a professional solid top. For example, I can have my sauce just on the side so it stays warm. It’s a much better way of cooking rather than an open gas or electric hob. In my opinion the AGA cooker is the closest you get to a professional stove. I’ve cooked on an AGA now for 20 years, always at home. But you know something, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have one in a professional kitchen because they’re fantastic things and they are so strong. It’s like having a workhorse next to you. They don’t give up on you and they’re very easy to clean. Say, for example, I’m doing roast chicken with all the trimmings. I’ve got my gravy on the side, I’ve got my bread sauce on the side, which I cover with cling film, and there’s enough heat on the edge of the AGA to keep it as hot as I want it. The reality is when I come home I am exactly the same as everybody in this country: I want to cook. And you know something, to cook well – to cook really well – it’s not just about knowledge and technical ability. You also need the right pans and the right oven. If you haven’t got the equipment it doesn’t matter how talented you are, you will never deliver perfection consistently without stress."
Marco Pierre White’s career has been extraordinary. After leaving Allerton High School in Leeds without qualifications, he began his training in the kitchen at the Hotel St George in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, and later at the Box Tree in Ilkley in West Yorkshire.
Arriving in London as a 16-year-old with what he has described as “£7.36, a box of books and a bag of clothes, he began his classical training as a commis under Albert and Michel Roux at Le Gavroche, a period that would lead the former to describe him as “my little bunny”. The youngest chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars, he has also worked under such greats as Pierre Koffman, Raymond Blanc and Nico Landenis. He has, in turn, been instrumental in building the careers of other well-known chefs – Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal among them. When he was cooking, his restaurants were truly legendary. Harvey’s met with a terrific reception when it opened in 1987, with Good Food Guide editor Drew Smith describing it as “a meteor hurtling through the restaurant firmament powered by the extraordinary passion of one young man”.
Marco has also appeared in television shows, including Hell’s Kitchen, Marco Pierre White’s Kitchen Wars and Masterchef Australia. “I never look at what I do as a job,” he says as he lights the latest in a string of cigarettes. “It’s a way of life to me. It’s been a way of life all my life and that’s why it’s never really tiring.” He retired from the kitchen at 38, but life has been far from quiet. Instead, he’s been busy with television and books and has become a successful restaurateur, opening a number of well-received restaurants and breathing new life into the Wheeler’s of St James’s brand.
Now he tells me he has three book projects on the go, including a Wheeler’s of St James’s book, and a couple of surprising projects, which are all firmly under wraps at the moment, but are bound to create quite a stir. Now 51, his disarming blend of laid-back good looks and old-fashioned charm render him possibly even more attractive than he was when he appeared on my kitchen wall. He flits from one subject to another while juggling phone calls, but always appears to be intently focused on the questions being asked. He is, in short, one of the most eloquent people I have ever met.
He is passionate and knowledgeable and he talks about food in a way that makes one want to rush home and cook. He can describe something as prosaic as an omelette and make it sound the most desirable dish in the world. “One evening last week,” he says as Clive, his lurcher, trots in and curls up at his feet, “I had an Omelette a la Suisse. It cooked to perfection on the AGA. For me, an omelette cooked perfectly has no colour and inside it’s almost like perfect scrambled egg. I had it with a simple green salad. “Another evening I had delicious lamb chops. The AGA is perfect for this because I can put my pan on the stove and never need to move it because the temperature is perfect. I place the lamb chops fat side down and I slowly bring the heat into the pan from cold and render the fat out. “Most people scorch lamb and that’s why it is inedible. I caramelise it on both sides, throw my herbs in at the end and a little crystal salt and it’s delicious. “Today for lunch I had gulls’ eggs with mayonnaise and celery salt. I like bread and English butter. I don’t think anyone makes butter like the English. I like salted butter.” Embarrassingly, at this point I feel compelled to confess that I love Anchor butter. “Anchor butter is the best,” he agrees, gallantly ignoring the inanity of my statement, “and if you’re making potted shrimps you have to use Anchor butter. It’s delicious.”
Then the interview takes a confessional tone. Marco leans in – reading glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose – as if to share a closely guarded secret. “I’ll be very honest with you: I like salad cream; I like Sarsons malt vinegar; I like HP Sauce; I like Branston Pickle.” Heinz ketchup? I ask. “No, I don’t do ketchup. I’m a northerner. I think it’s about being real. I have instant coffee because my assistant likes instant coffee. I have PG Tips because I like PG Tips. I’m not really into posh. Remember, I was brought up very working class. A person’s palate is borne out of their childhood.”
After a short break – during which he took a phone call in his small but elegant, almost Romanesque garden – I ask him about his greatest influences. Rather than citing the great French chefs, perhaps of Maxim’s in Paris, Marco remembers his mother, who died when he was just six. “Definitely my mother,” he says, “without question. Because I was exposed to very beautiful memories as a child. To nature, to good food, to lots of love. “She was the person who influenced me the most. I was six when my mother died, but I still have plenty of memories. Had she lived longer, no doubt those memories would have been replaced, but when someone is taken away from you then you hold on to those memories; they never leave you. “I remember my mother making toys. I remember her making patchwork quilts. I remember her making lots of things, clothes. [With] things like that she was very clever and I remember sitting watching my mother and my Nonna preparing the vegetables. So all of this had a huge influence. “When you are exposed to beauty, when you’re exposed to creativity and you’re a visual person like I am – and I take the majority of my inspiration from what I see – it’s very powerful.”
Marco believes it is where one comes from that influences food most. Food is essentially autobiographical. “Great chefs have three things in common. First, you have to accept that Mother Nature is the true artist and you are just the cook. The produce you are working with is the star of the show. Second, everything you do is an extension of you as a person. It comes from within you. Third, great chefs and great cooks give you insight into the world they were born into. “They give you insight into the world that inspired them. And they serve it on their plates. It’s as simple as that.” They say one should never meet one’s heroes, but I am happy to say that – in Marco’s case at least – they are mistaken. He was exactly as I had hoped he would be. Urbane, intelligent, engaging and generous, not only with his answers, but also with chocolate. When I left he pressed three bars on me: “Two for cooking and one for the journey,” he explained.