As Marco Pierre White opens his first restaurant in Scotland, he talks about why he gave back his Michelin stars, his love of golf and why everything tastes better with salad cream
WHEN Marco Pierre White celebrates his birthday this week (he’ll be 52 on Wednesday) he could probably afford to go anywhere in the world to celebrate. But, when it comes to blowing out the candles, he’ll be doing it in the humble surroundings of Harrogate, the Yorkshire town where he cut his chef’s teeth a lifetime ago. Leaving school on the Friday at the age of 16, with no qualifications to his name, he started work at the town’s Hotel St George on the Monday, following his father – and his grandfather before him – into professional kitchens. He earned £15 a week.
It’s a handsome hotel, right enough – a large Edwardian property set in lush grounds. But, for all his nostalgia, White won’t be staying there. “I’m going to stay at the Old Swan,” says the original celebrity chef, “and I’m going to have fish and chips.
“When I worked at the Hotel St George,” he adds, “the chefs all lived on the top floor and I used to look out the window and see that beautiful old hotel – it had a very good reputation – and I used to always be thinking, ‘I wish I’d got a job there and not here’.”
Perhaps it’s something to do with his looming birthday – a touch of à la recherche du temps perdu – but we find ourselves meandering, sometimes quite unexpectedly, along the nooks and crannies of memory lane as we talk. He’s looking weary and rumpled after his journey from London to Carlisle, then on to Dumfries, where he has just opened his first Scottish restaurant, and stops every now and then to dunk his shortbread in his cup of tea, musing on how this world of ours has changed.
For instance, based on rumours of his fiery temper, I have brought along a gift to show I’m a friendly sort – a Ryder Cup tartan scarf and tie, created by Lochcarron for the 2014 tournament at Gleneagles. Which prompts this particular reverie: “I used to spend a lot of my time on Alwoodley golf course, just on the outskirts of Leeds, which was a MacKenzie-designed course; it’s regarded as one of the prettiest golf courses in the world.
“The professional at the time was a man called Ian Duncan, a very nice man – he was a Scot. I was very close to him and he used to take me round the back where he would fix the golf clubs and give me a cup of tea. He told me a story one day that his father had invented the Ryder Cup. But because his father didn’t have the money, he sought sponsorship and found a man called Daniel Ryder, and he said it should really have been called the Duncan Cup. I never forgot this story.
“About six years ago I was in the Getty gallery, playing with the computer there, and tapped in ‘Ryder Cup’. One of the first photographs that popped up was of a golfer teeing off in plus twos and it said, ‘The start of the Ryder Cup, George Duncan captain, on the first tee at Moortown in 1929’.
“The birthplace of the Ryder Cup was Moortown golf course, which was in Leeds. And I sat back and I thought to myself, ‘So it really was him’. Because George Duncan was Ian Duncan’s father, and he captained Europe.”
Then, when I ask why he has chosen this particular part of Scotland for his first venture in the country, I get this: “I remember when I was a boy, one of the great restaurants of the time in Scotland was a place called Inverlochy Castle, owned by Greta Hobbs. I remember she came to the Boxtree [in Ilkley, White’s second kitchen] around 1979 for her 70th birthday. And there was the Central hotel in Glasgow, which had two stars from Egon Ronay. And if you remember, he was bigger than Michelin – he was before Michelin. Egon Ronay was the respected guy in Britain.
“I know this might sound a bit weird,” he adds, “but I suppose, technically, I’m half Scottish. My great-great-grandparents were Scottish, and I have lots of photographs of my grandfather in a kilt and wearing a sporran. So my roots are deep here somewhere.”
Born in Leeds, that exotic first name and the dark, dangerous looks come courtesy of White’s mother, Maria-Rosa Gallina, an Italian who had arrived in Britain to learn English. She fell in love with Frank White, the pair married and had four sons. But Maria-Rosa died suddenly, days after their youngest son was born. She was just 38; Marco was six.
“In those days,” he says, “you tended to follow your father’s profession. If your father worked down the mines, you went down the mines; if he worked in the mills, you went in the mills. My father was a chef – like his father and my uncle – so I went into it. Simple.”
After the Boxtree, he trained under the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche (Albert is said to have described him as “my little bunny”), then worked with Pierre Koffman and Raymond Blanc. In 1987 he opened his own restaurant, promptly winning his first Michelin star. At the age of 33, having overseen the training of, among others, a young Gordon Ramsay (in his Dumfries restaurant, a poster proudly proclaims: “The man who made Gordon Ramsay cry”), he was the youngest chef in Britain with three Michelin stars to his name. Cooking was the new rock’n’roll, White was its Jim Morrison.
“The media started getting interested in me in around 1986,” he says. “Newspapers didn’t like chefs before then. But all of a sudden, one day when I’m 25 years old, the whole of Fleet Street becomes obsessed with me.”
His face was on the cover of magazines, he was the subject of photographic essays, in-depth interviews, he had his own television show and, aided by tales of tantrums at work and a tempestuous love life, he gained a reputation as a glamorous monster; a sexy beast.
“Most of my reputation is the product of exaggeration,” he insists. “I never, ever raise my voice; never get angry; never get upset. It’s just something I don’t do. But your lot,” he says, pointing at me and speaking in an accusing tone, “love to label individuals. I can’t complain. When I was a very young man I was described as the enfant terrible and that label has stuck. The difference is I’m not young any more.
“But if it wasn’t for the press, the industry wouldn’t be what it is today. The media made it an exciting world and a beautiful world. Before then the only people who went into kitchens were from council estates. The middle classes and the upper classes and the aristocracy weren’t interested in it; cooking wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t rock’n’roll, it wasn’t fun. I suppose all those articles made people take notice and think, ‘This might be a good place for my son or my daughter to work’. Now you have every walk of life in kitchens. There are more shows on TV, there are more articles on produce and on food, people are dining out now.”
But in 1999, with the world at his feet, White simply gave it all up, handed back his stars to the nice people at Michelin and retired from the professional kitchen for good. “I didn’t want to be one of those individuals who lived a lie,” he says, “who pretended he was in the kitchen when he wasn’t. When I was cooking and we had three stars, I was there every night. And when you’re paying that sort of money you expect the man whose name’s above the door to be in the kitchen.
“I see lots of chefs set out to win three stars, but they haven’t made the commitment; they don’t look tired. If you want to win three stars you should be prepared to give your all. You should look exhausted. You should look like you’ve been in the kitchen. When I shake chefs’ hands, I always feel for the callouses.
“When I was a kiddie, no one ever rang in sick. No one questioned the hours. When you went for an interview you never asked how much you were going to get paid, you just hoped that you’d get the job. A lot of chefs never became head chefs – there were people in the kitchen in their 50s and 60s who had done their training and singled out what they wanted to specialise in and that’s all they would ever do. Today everyone becomes a head chef; everyone wants success quickly.”
What White does instead is run restaurants, creating places, he says, where people can have a good time in glamorous surroundings for a reasonable amount of money. In Dumfries, the tablecloths are chocolate brown leather; the concrete grey walls lined with framed Raymond Jackson prints (for years JAK was the cartoonist for the Evening Standard, and he often chose a wild-haired, cleaver-wielding White as his subject). “We’re in the business of selling a night out,” says White, “a package. You don’t spend £300 or £400 every time you go out to dinner. You might not want that whole, full-blown experience. The future of dining out is casual, very simple. I prefer to have two courses of something that is proper and substantial than 12 courses of knick-knacks and lukewarm food.
“I like hot food, I like real food, I like to get stuck in, and I’m no different from most other people in this world. I don’t want fluff. I don’t want pretence. I don’t do cliché. If we’re all honest with ourselves, if we’re asked what is our favourite restaurant, firstly it depends on an environment where you feel comfortable and relaxed, where you can be yourself; second, you like the service – it’s friendly, they may know you; and, third, you want your food delivered at a standard and a price point that you’re happy with.
“If people come here expecting three stars of Michelin, they’ve not joined up the dots. Join up the dots, look at where Marco is today in his life. I just think life’s too short, it’s too precious.”
So, while diners no longer get their steak cooked personally by Marco Pierre White, they do get the ethos behind his food, with a focus on local suppliers. “Wherever you go in Britain today, there are lots of individuals who produce fantastic produce. Farmers now are a lot more imaginative than they were, say, 30 or 40 years ago. And when you open something like this you have to use local supply. In England we buy all our beef direct from Scotland – it is without question some of the finest beef in the world, and it’s also consistently good. But local produce and dealing with local suppliers is very important. There’s something rather nice about building relationships with a local butcher, a local fishmonger. We have someone we buy pumpkins from every year – he turns up with his tractor and trailer with all these pumpkins. We have people who make marmalade and jams for us. We could buy jam which is actually cheaper and better but that’s not the point. And you’re supporting the local economy. The reality is if you don’t support the local economy, how can you expect them to support you?”
Then he reminisces some more. “When I started my career, there was no such thing as portion control. I never knew what that was. So when lamb came in the back door, it was always a whole lamb; the beef was the rib, the sirloin, the rump attached; milk was delivered in a churn, but somehow the world has changed. As a child, everything seemed so enormous, so big. When you got your fish it came in wooden boxes, not polystyrene boxes. It’s interesting how everything has changed.”
I wonder, then, if he’s trying to recapture some of that romance in his restaurants, but he says: “You can’t recapture what was. And you wouldn’t want to neither. Because what the modern day diner wants is not what was there 30 or 40 years ago.”
He has come under fire for promoting Knorr stock cubes, but White is unrepentant, and his newest book goes even further, including recipes that feature other less “cheffy” ingredients such as Colman’s mustard, tomato ketchup and Worcester sauce. “I love salad cream,” he enthuses. “I use things just as a vehicle purely to eat salad cream. I’m obsessed with it; really obsessed. I like HP. I love Sarson’s vinegar. I’m not a food snob.”
Nor does he miss working in the kitchen, doing what made his name. “Life changes,” he says. “What you are when you are young is one thing, but then your life changes and you have different responsibilities. And there’s something rather good about creating opportunities for people and watching them grow. In Wiltshire I’ve got a young man who’s 24 years old. He’s been with me since he was 16 and he’s executive chef of a restaurant. He has chefs a lot older than him under him. But he’s a young man who works very hard, and he’s never looked at a watch. If you look at a watch you can never achieve anything really. I’m always very suspicious of chefs with watches.
“Unfortunately a lot of people go into the industry to become famous. When I worked in the industry it was a job and you went to learn your craft and to do your job well. You never looked at a watch, you never rang in sick, if you had flu you still went to work – it was up to the chef to send you home. If you cut yourself badly you just wrapped yourself in clingfilm and salt and went to the hospital between shifts.
“It’s a different world,” he sighs. “The romance has gone.”