‘Marmite’ chef Marco Pierre White (people either love him or hate him…) talks to Al Gordon about reputation, respect, and a newly rediscovered
passion for the country.
The grey Range Rover is cruising very comfortably along the A12, heading towards East Anglia. Marco Pierre White is in the passenger seat, a mobile phone almost glued to his right ear, while his Japanese assistant, Mr Ishii, is at the wheel.
They say that behind every great man is a great woman, but the chef-turned-restaurateur-and-hotelier has, in fact, been thrice married. Behind the Great White (as he is known in the restaurant world) is his devoted assistant, Takanori Ishii.
“The people I trust most in this world,” says White, now 50 and living in Holland Park, West London, “are myself and Mr Ishii. I call him Mr Ishii because of my incredible respect for him. And by trusting my own judgement there’s no conflict of interest.”
At the age of 33, White was Britain’s first – and, at the time, the world’s youngest – chef to win three Michelin stars. Yet in 1999, at just 38, he officially retired from the kitchen, turning his back on the exhausting and gritty daily madness of professional cuisine; these days he’s mellowed. When you’re with him now, he is something of a philosopher, a sort of gastronomic Chairman Mao.
During the journey into the countryside, for instance, he says that, “Strategy will compensate for talent, but talent will never compensate for strategy.” Then there is: “The poisonous sauce in the kitchen is the chef’s ego.” And, as we whizz past a forest, the sight prompts him to say, “A tree without roots is just a piece of wood. My mother taught me that.”
Another conversation-starter comes with his observation that “gastronomy is the greatest therapy to which any misfit can be exposed”.
Why does he believe that? “Well, going back a few years I was certainly a misfit,” he says. “As a teenager, I was a shy person, didn’t have girlfriends. I didn’t even sit my O levels – just turned up at the Hotel St George in Harrogate and asked if they needed a kitchen apprentice. The answer was yes and my life would change.”
White is evangelical about cooking as a force for good. “If I can do one thing, then it is to inspire young people to take up cooking because I have seen how it can change people’s lives for the better.”
He recalls how his confidence grew with my passion for cooking, and adds, “but you know, great chefs respect their roots. I grew up on a council estate in Leeds, but I spent my childhood sneaking into the estates owned by aristocrats. That’s where I’d fish… and maybe do a bit of poaching.
His forays onto the land back then gave him an appreciation of rural England that endures to this day. “I love the countryside,” he declares, “and that’s what’s drawn me to Suffolk and Norfolk. They are not manicured counties. I find them quite beautiful and the produce is stunning.”
In recent months White, a father of four, has bought a couple more hotels – or rather, quaint inns with comfortable rooms and affordable but delicious food. In Suffolk he has the 15th century Angel in Lavenham; in Thornham, Norfolk, he has the Lifeboat Inn. “It’s all about comfort food…” he says, “…wonderful smoked salmon and crab, roast game or the perfect shepherd’s pie, maybe Cambridge burnt cream or Eton Mess to finish. Nothing too fussy – just honest, proper food, and it can’t be honest if the ingredients aren’t good to start with. I hate all that Michelin-starred, seven-course stuff with little tasting plates and waiters spending more time talking to me than my guests; it’s horrible.”
Meanwhile, he is also producing his own beer and cider called The Governor. “I’ve never been a big drinker,” he says, “but I do love a pint.”
He has also been buying elsewhere. In the Cotswolds he has the Pear Tree Inn, the Horse and Groom, and the Black Boy Inn; in Newbury, Berkshire, White’s inn The Carnarvon Arms is popular with the stars of Downton Abbey.
What drives him on still, what propels him through life? “I want security for my children, Lettie, Luciano, Marco and Mirabelle.” But surely he has already amassed a vast fortune, and could retire tomorrow (or even today)?
“What would I do with myself?” he asks. “I’d be bored rigid. I’ve been working since I was a schoolboy; milk rounds, paper rounds, a golf caddy, and then I became a chef. I don’t yearn to go on holidays. Relaxation for me has always been found in the kitchen. A lot of chefs will say the same, even once they’ve retired. We’re all living on adrenaline and there’s a great rush to be had from service.”
We are at the Angel now and White wants to check progress in the kitchen but before he dashes off, there’s time for one last question. I’m curious to know how he’d like to be remembered?
He scowls. “I don’t want to be remembered. I can’t imagine anything worse.”