Marco Pierre White was the first Britan and youngest chef to achieve three Michelin Stars - before he famously gave them up four years later. He tells KATHRYN MCKENNA why he stands by hanging up his apron
Marco Pierre White is a name which likely conjures up very different reactions depending whom you are speaking to. It seems a tempestuous reputation perhaps unfairly precedes him, what with his famous showdown with one-time protégé Gordon Ramsey and his previously self-confessed harsh regime at Harvey’s which he once described to the Telegraph as being “brash, Thatcherite times and I was a part of the jigsaw”.
But conversing with the staff at his namesake restaurant in Park Avenue Hotel, east Belfast recently, one cannot help but be taken with the way his staff have warmed to him since he opened his only Northern Irish-based Steakhouse and Grill in the four-star hotel in October 2015.
“Marco loves coming here”, enthuses restaurant manager Lauren smiling fondly. “We’ve had him here a few times now and I always get the impression he really enjoys it. He insists on everyone having red wine and laps up all the attention from the ladies - I think the feeling is certainly mutual”, she laughs.
It certainly seems so, as during our chat well-mannered Marco is the perfect gentleman, leaping to his service staff’s defence when I bring up a recent conversation I had with Michel Roux Jnr, who encouraged more youngsters to view the service industry as a “lifelong profession,” rather than just a stop-gap part-time job. Marco responds protectively: “I don’t really understand that - we have no shortage of young people wanting to join the industry, and they are filled with enthusiasm, it is amazing.”
Indeed, despite his often formidable perception, he is charming, well-spoken and clearly passionate about food and good service. In town to launch his hotly-anticipated new summer 2018 menu, which is once again packed full of Marco’s British cuisine with a French twist, he is filled with enthusiam.
“Northern Ireland’s local produce will always be of strong focus. I always say, ‘Where possible, buy local.’ That is what I think”, he enthuses. “After all, it is the local economy who are supporting you, so you have a duty to support them as well. It is as simple as that - it is not complicated.”
It comes as the chef-turned-restaurateur, TV star and author now owns more than 35 restaurants across the UK that are focused on delivering great food at affordable prices. His restaurants are not about Michelin cooking standards but his desire to “make good, quality restaurant food that is accessible and affordable to varying budgets”.
“We are not one of those restaurants where you can get 12 courses and they tell you what it is and how to eat it and then later they ask you if you enjoyed it”, Marco pauses thoughtfully, “I do not want to have dinner with the waiter.”
Marco’s words come after the Leeds-born chef-turned-businessman, who first drew attention to himself by throwing out customers if they asked for salt and pepper, famously hung up his apron and retired from cooking in 1999 in what was regarded as a shock move to many.
But Marco’s story is an inspiring one. Having left school with “no qualifications”, at just 19 years of age he “turned up at Le Gavroche direct from Yorkshire with no appointment and only £7.36 in his pocket”. The esteemed chef Albert Roux gave him a job at Le Gavroche and at 19 he began his classical training.
At 24, Marco became Head Chef and joint owner of Harveys with a kitchen staff that included the young Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, Eric Chavot and many more greats who would go on to wonderful things in the culinary world. Marco would eventually make history in 1995, by becoming the first Britan and youngest ever chef to attain three Michelin stars at just 33. But in 1999, Marco was cooking his last meal as commercial chef at the Oak Room in the Le Meriden Piccadily Hotel.
Make no mistake, Marco is polite, friendly and charming throughout our chat, but he makes no apology for his passionate opinions, and I am left with the distinct impression that this is one man you wouldn’t be quick to cross. It seems Gordon Ramsey, who famously cooked under the once-irascible Marco, would tend to agree. The duo had a famous fall-out with Marco previously accepting ‘some responsibility’ for creating what he calls the “monster Ramsay”.
“That was a long time ago”, Marco laughs when I bring up the question of achieving a staggering three Michelin Stars at just 33, becoming the first Britan and youngest ever chef to do so. Explaining his bold move, Marco exclaims: “If I want to film a TV show, I can. If I want to go travelling, I can. If I want to open a restaurant in Ireland, I can.
“When you are working at that level of three stars, a chef’s place is behind his stove - it is not making TV shows, it is not travelling around the world and it is not opening up multiple restaurants.
“When you are a chef you do not have the time or the energy, because all of your time and your energy must go into creating a three-star restaurant. And when people ask me which restaurant I recommend when we are talking about two and three Michelin starred restaurants, I always say: ‘One where the chef is behind the stove.’ I’m not interested if it is just their name above the door.
“Achieving three Michelin Stars is a very exciting journey. Retaining them is the most boring job on eath.
“That is why so many two and three star Michelin chefs are never behind their stoves and they just wander around the world doing whatever they are doing.
“I do not want to be one of those individuals who walks around in a jacket and pretends he cooks, when he doesn’t cook”, Marco declares with fiery passion.
“What I will say is chefs who are to stray from the stove must stay close to the flame”, Marco pauses once more for effect, adding: “I always stay close to the flame. I tell the world that I don’t cook, that I am retired, I have hung up my apron. I do not pretend I cook when I don’t.
“I do cook at home, but I have that freedom now to travel the world. If I want to come to Northern Ireland for a few days, I can do so.
“But if I had three stars and people paying those high prices, and my name was above the door but I’m not in the kitchen, then I do not think that is correct. “When I buy tickets to see Elton John, if the curtain opened and his number two was performing instead, I would not be happy. I would be asking for my money back.
“That is why a chef with two stars or three stars must stay in the kichen. One; he has a reputation to protect and two; he has a duty to his clients that every single thing that leaves that kitchen has either been touched by his own fingers, seen with his eyes or tasted by his palette.
“That is not me trying to be controversial - that is what I believe. I hung up my apron so I could have my freedom and do what I want.
“I don’t want to have my cake and eat it too. I chose to let go of status and do what I do now.”