"This is very surreal" Selma who is sitting next to me says "I mean Marco Pierre White is making us pumpkin soup" she whispers.
We're in a house in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs and the sparkling waterfront is the backdrop. I walk in and Marco Pierre White is chatting to the others on the couch and is sporting a tea towel wrapped around his head hiding his trademark dark curls. Marco Pierre White really needs no introduction to the foodstruck fooderati among us. He is of course the man that trained Gordon Ramsay (and reportedly made him cry), Heston Blumenthal and Mario Batali in his kitchen. He was the first, youngest chef to have been awarded three Michelin stars at age 33. Now 49 years old, he grew up with an Italian mother and English father in the town of Leeds.
Photo from marcopierrewhite.org
Cooking during the Golden Age of Cooking he was devilishly handsome, smoked like a chimney and has been married three times, once to a model who he separated within weeks or the marriage. He has also been called tyrannical, brilliant and egotistical and famously stopped an interview with journalist Jenny Eden from the Radio Times taking offence at her question "Do you have high standards" saying "You're the worst journalist I've ever met. Go. The interview is over. You are insulting me. I wish you luck with your career with the Radio Times but sometimes northerners should stay in the north."
So you can see why I was very nervous when the car was running late and I was going to interview him after a cooking demonstration. Would he object to any of my questions? Would he object to me taking photos (I didn't dare bring a flash just in case). I've only interviewed someone once that I thought was so awful to interview that I never published a word that they said. I didn't want another to add to my list.
We move into the kitchen where there are seats set up for the five of us and we settle in. "How are you?" he says to me as we are sitting down and we quickly chat about when he arrived in Sydney and how he only just got his first night of sleep the other night. He speaks softly and looks us all in the eye and holds our gaze as he speaks. I sneak out my camera and take a cautious shot ready for something to happen. Nothing...he carries on. Relief!
Photo from marcopierrewhite.org
He is the most famous and a long time proponent of Knorr stock powder (Continental here in Australia, NZ and the US)and he is in Sydney for the launch of Continental's Stock Pot product which is a jellied concentrated stock. Marco explains that he will be demonstrating two recipes for us. He starts to make the first dish, a pumpkin soup, a recipe that he only became familiar with 2 days ago. In England pumpkin is "cattle food" and certainly nothing that you would aspire to have at your table. And in the process of formulating this recipe he discovered that the Japanese pumpkin gives off a lovely amount of pumpkin water which actually tastes like melon water which he will use instead of water in the soup.
The soup is simple and with three ingredients: pumpkin, carrot juice (which he uses to top up the pumpkin water) and the Continental stock pot pod. He proceeds to cook down the pumpkin with a little oil and then add the vivid orange pumpkin and carrot juice. During the demonstration he tells us that the best corn soup is made with tinned corn. Are there many similar short cuts in a commercial kitchen? The answer is an emphatic yes from him. He tells us of how he makes a ketchup vinaigrette at home and how he used to serve diners a kidney dish cooked in a sauce made predominantly from HP sauce yet it didn't taste like HP sauce.
Within twenty minutes (and he knows everything down to the minute) the soup is done and he asks us if we would like some cream or parmesan cheese with it. "Both!" everyone answers and before long he is ladling us up some soup with some parmesan and freshly ground black pepper. The soup is creamy and rich but not too thick and quite remarkably he tells us that he doesn't need to season it. His reasoning for preferring to use Knorr and Continental seasonings is that they are more forgiving when it comes to overseasoning.
"Would you like another cup?" he asks and I can't help it and have a second and a third. I mean really, how often is it that Marco Pierre White makes soup for you?
In a Le Creuset he has had a pot simmering away with some of vegetable stock pot pods as well as some of the asparagus peelings and woody parts. He takes the sieve and then sieves out the moisture by pressing...and pressing and pressing for a good few minutes. We remark at the amount of liquid that seems to be coming out and how we would have given up by then. He tells us that he was trained to use everything and that Albert Roux used to check the bins to see whether they had wasted scraps such as this and if they did, they were in trouble.
"What is carb loading?"
He asks us how much risotto we want to eat and Xanthie mentions that she is carb loading. He puts down the rice and gives her a quizzical look and asks "What is carb loading?" before adding more rice. He points out that the stock pot is also good as the onion has already been added which can help out those who have trouble cutting onions (me!). It's a straightforward risotto and he adds the stock a ladle at a time which he incorporates slowly into the mix. He asks us how wet we want the risotto and a comparison of "porridge" is offered.
As for the types of restaurants that he himself likes to visit, it's not the high end fine dining experiences that he is after and he makes particular mention of his dislike of food being served cold. He prefers family run places. He tells us during this that the thing that in common with the best, longest standing restaurants is romance and that restaurants seem to have lose their romance. Now restaurants are about the celebrity chefs rather than the atmosphere and he tells us that the atmosphere is the most important thing.
He quickly cooks the asparagus tips and a short time later the risotto is ready and he scatters the tips over the top and decorates it with the aniseedy herb chervil which he chose because it goes well with asparagus. It's creamy with perfectly cooked rice and perfectly cooked asparagus. "Most importantly, does it taste like it was made from a bought stock?" and we have to admit that it doesn't at all.
Before everyone leaves he asks "Does anyone support any children's charities?" and offers to sign the apron that he used today to auction off for charity and even rubs it against his face upon request. The apple of his eye is his 9 year old daughter Mirabelle who loves to cook with him. He marvels at the fact that she can eat anywhere and yet she chooses to cook with her dad. He talks about his 21 year old daughter Letty who is currently staying in Sydney. In between the class and my interview with him he asks if I mind if he calls Mirabelle with a smitten look on his face as she is just about to go to school.
Marco Pierre White Interview
I hear a tap at the window and Marco beckons me to come outside where he is having a cigarette. He offers me one but I decline. I'm a former smoker I explain and he gives me a look. He has taken the tea towel out of his hair and shaken the dark curls out.
Marco Pierre White: Well you've got to ask yourself where has that obsession moved to?
NQN: It goes to eating of course.
Marco Pierre White: It's extraordinary these obsessions. You conquer one but then you move onto another.
NQN: Do you have any obsessions?
Marco Pierre White: I was speaking to my best friend in the world last night. I've known him since he was four years old and by pure coincidence he happens to be editing Masterchef in Australia (the television show). And it's not about what you achieve, it's actually what you do for your industry and that's what I think is important. And when people look at me and they see my achievements with the restaurants do you know what I think? I think I did more than that. What I achieved was teaching young men and young women when they were young and inspiring them. The three Michelin stars, that's irrelevant. And the people that gave me three stars had less knowledge than me.
NQN: Is that part of the reason why you gave back your Michelin stars?
Marco Pierre White: Yes once you grow up and discover yourself as a human being you look at things for what they are. It's like today what I did to show you so that you can write it in your magazines and it will enrich the lives of families. Two ingredients and some stock pot and look how delicious it was.
NQN: Recently you travelled to Afgahnistan to cook for the soldiers there. Tell me about that.
Marco Pierre White: Yes I went to Afghanistan, Bazrah, Iraq. I'm not pro the war, this is me personally to support the troops. I tend to go every year around Christmas depending on the situation. The last time I went to Kabul and Kabul has got to be the scariest place on earth. A bomb went off 300 metres down the road and we were shot at at Swimming Pool Hill.
NQN: Swimming Pool Hill?
Marco Pierre White: It's a Russian swimming pool on top of the hill and they never filled it with water because they couldn't get water up there so they built the pool but they didn't have any water. The Taliban used to march their prisoners up there and make them jump off the top and if they didn't jump they shot them. When you experience places like that and you walk down the street of Kabul your values for life changes, they do change. People assumed that because of Michelin I had a passion for food. It wasn't a passion, it was an obsession, which was unhealthy. Today what I do is a passion.
NQN: So where do you channel your obsession?
Marco Pierre White: Ah my children.
NQN: You've got both sons and daughters?
Marco Pierre White: Yes two boys and two girls.
NQN: What do you want them to be like?
Marco Pierre White: I just want them to be happy. And to be good people. Proper people. That's all.
NQN: You were six when your mum died. That must have been devastating.
Marco Pierre White: She's my guiding force It took me a long time to understand and overcome the pain as a young man. All of the knowledge from her made me what I am as a man...
His phone rings and it is food critic A.A. Gill who is also in Sydney along with Anthony Bourdain with whom Marco is having dinner tonight.
Photo from marcopierrewhite.org
NQN: What do you think of food critics?
Marco Pierre White: I've known Adrian (A.A. Gill) for 20 - 25 years...I don't really have an opinion of them to be quite honest. I think you've got to... it's all a contribution to what the world has become. There's a lot of chefs out there who would have never had the recognition or the opportunity if it had not been for the media. So you can't criticise them, you can't. And let's be honest, I'm going to be really honest, it's one person's opinion.
NQN: So what do you think of food bloggers?
Marco Pierre White: Again I think they spread the word. They share their knowledge, they share their experiences, they inspire people.
NQN: So you're not anti food blogger?
Marco Pierre White: No, no why would I be? How can you criticise somebody who wishes to share their passion with the world?
NQN: You've had a lot of famous chefs work under you like Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay. When you first saw them did you think that they had potential or something different?
Marco Pierre White: They all had something different and they've all gone on to do great things. And Gordon and Heston they became a member of that very elite club. The 3 star club. It's a very elite group and there are people like Mario Batali who I took out of a bar and put in the kitchen. He was a barman when I met him and I said to Mario 'Someone who loves food as much as you do should not be behind the bar.' Out of all the chefs in the world he is my favourite. He cooks the food that I like to eat. He's a great cook and he knows how to feed people. That's special.
NQN: And so what would your last meal be? One cooked by him?
Marco Pierre White: It's not about the food really, it's about the people that you're with, the atmosphere. I like hot food. Some of these restaurants are like going to a very posh canape party.
NQN: Do you eat out very often?
Marco Pierre White: In London I'm not seen in public. I don't go to award ceremonies or gatherings. I just don't go because I like my privacy. I like being with my family and I like being in their company. I work very hard and I don't have much time so I just want to be with my family or in the English countryside. I don't take holidays.
NQN: You have quite a reputation before one meets you. Before I met you I would have thought you'd be quite terrifying but you seem perfectly nice.
Marco Pierre White: A lot of my reputation is a product of exaggeration and ignorance. I came from the old world of gastronomy. Many years ago I walked into the kitchens of the Hotel St George and I feel very fortunate that I worked for chefs that were behind their stoves. I saw that world of gastronomy. I can sit here today and say that I saw the golden age of gastronomy. It's gone, it's gone. It's never going to have that anymore, once the accountants get involved the romance fades. That's the reality. Look at the city skyline (points at Sydney skyline) ...created by accountants. We're in a world that is run by accountants and I think that it's sad in many ways.
NQN: Is that why you stopped cooking in the kitchen? (In 1999 he cooked his last meal for a paying customer and became a restaurateur)
Marco Pierre White: The chefs were changing. Chefs were coming into the trade with different ambitions. They wanted to be stars. I've never tried to be a celebrity chef, people call me that but I was that young boy that the media chose.
NQN: How did you cope with the attention if you didn't choose it?
Marco Pierre White: Well... I wasn't manufactured. I was cut from the cloth of the very old world of gastronomy. There was no such thing as celebrity chefs, chefs were trained and I like to think that I still represent those old values from that world and the opportunities that I am offered I often say no to. I'm not really that interested.
NQN: What offers would interest you?
Marco Pierre White: I like things that are educational and educational. I like things that are inspirational. I think if you've been given something in life you have a moral duty to give things back. If you've been given opportunities then you have to create opportunities. If you're given knowledge by people, share your knowledge. If you were born with talent, show your talent off. I like to make a difference. I came from very humble beginnings. Chefs today choose to step onto that treadmill where they have to be seen. Every day they have to go to this party, they have to go to that party. But then you think Who is doing the cooking?.
(Paul) Bocuse came up with a line when asked 'What's the food like when you're not in the kitchen?' and he said 'The same as when I'm in it.' The reality is you know when the boss is in there. It is different. You walk into a restaurant when they're not there and it's different. The magic isn't there. Why pay top pounds when the chef is not in the house? I feel cheated. I don't mind paying big money for food but if I go to Paul Bocuse's restaurant I want Paul in the house.
NQN: Is that true that Gordon Ramsay stole a reservations book from a restaurant and blamed you for it?
Marco Pierre White: Yeah but that's Gordon isn't it. People do peculiar things in life and they do for whatever reason but I think one of the greatest crimes in life is when you lie. And that came out in Gordon's biography and he also said he played for the Glasgow Rangers but he never did. The reason why I stopped dealing with Gordon is because he brought a camera crew to my wedding. They hid in the bushes...I've never argued with him.
NQN: Who do you admire?
Marco Pierre White: I admire lots of people but they aren't famous but they're good people. It's not what you achieve. People who can give themselves every day. They're the people that I admire, they're real people. The answer to your question is that I admire the real people. I like restaurants that are run by couples. I do. There's a restaurant I go to in London run by a woman called Nancy Lam; she's been my friend for many years. When I go there her three daughters are working there and she is upstairs or downstairs and they work very really hard, they work really hard.
I have no regrets in my life. If not for the mistakes that I made I would not be the man I am today.
NQN: Thankyou for your time tonight Marco_
Marco Pierre White: Thank you, you are very charming.
And yes Dear Readers, I can say with certainty that Marco Pierre White is very charming too.
So tell me Dear Reader, are you ever nervous about meeting people? And who would you be the most nervous to meet? And do you agree with him about restaurants today and celebrity chefs?