The gospel according to Marco Pierre White
Marco Pierre White, once dubbed the 'original gastro Godfather', has cooked for Madonna and Johnny Depp, feuded with Gordon Ramsay and was the youngest-ever chef to win three Michelin stars, before he handed them back and walked away. Over a bottle of wine, he tells our man why, despite three failed marriages, he has never had a low point in his life, how he has never lived a rock 'n' roll life, and reveals the reason he feels he has not moved on psychologically from when he was six years of age. Portrait by Kip Carroll
Published 30/11/2015 | 02:30
When Marco Pierre White started talking four hours ago, it was bright out. Now, as it gets dark in the courtyard outside his restaurant in Donnybrook, the chef's words are literally coming out of the shadows. Marco is beginning to resemble Hamlet, when the Prince asks: "What is this quintessence of dust?"
"I never met a man who worked harder than me," the gobby gastronomic godhead, and soon-to-be resident critic on TV3's The Restaurant, begins. "It's a little like Ali. I'm not comparing myself to him, but there will never be another Muhammad Ali. There will never be another Cassius Clay. Because the world will never allow it.
"And there will never be another Marco Pierre White, because the world will never allow it," he adds.
Asked why the world won't allow another, Marco smiles - his eyes vivid with the passionate intensity that characterises him and his life.
"Because you can't push to that extreme any more. Boxing is 13 rounds, not 15. If it all gets a bit bloody, they stop the fight. I gave back the Michelin stars because the world had changed. When I was a boy and you went for an interview, you never asked how many hours," Marco says, meaning the fateful day, when, as a 15-year-old, he knocked on the back door of the Hotel St George in Harrogate, and got a job.
"You never asked how much money. You never rang in sick. You were never late. You always said, 'Yes, chef'. The world changed. And I no longer believed in that world. I lost my belief."
At 33 years of age, Marco was the youngest-ever chef to win three Michelin stars. He handed them back to Michelin five years later. He had had enough. The driven, volatile genius - dubbed Britain's original gastro Godfather - grew up on a council estate in Leeds. He says that his father Frank "thought Michelin made tyres". I ask him if he's joking. He says it very much isn't a joke.
I ask Marco if being from the north of England protected him from some of the bullshit of London, where he made his name. He answers that Dublin reminds him of Leeds. "It reminds me of my home," he says. "The people are very down-to-earth. They're very honest. They're very giving, very giving . . . very forgiving. Good people are always forgiving. They close an eye to one's failings."
What are your failings?
"I've got a mountain of them."
Give me five.
He gives the flippant request some serious forethought, before giving the requested five personal failings as he perceives them.
"One: I'm too soft.
"Two: I'm too trusting.
"Three: I'm too giving.
"Four: I'm too accepting.
"Five: I'm too loving.
"Of life," he explains.
"And," Marco continues, "when you have those qualities, they become failings, because people take advantage of them. But you know something? You still have to stand by them, because you believe in life. You have to give people the benefit of the doubt."
Do you feel you haven't been given the benefit of the doubt, and, in fact, have been judged? "That is not important. I have been judged by many people. Many, many people. You have spent many days with me over the years. You read what The Observer wrote about me," he says referring to what he terms a "hatchet job" in that newspaper in January of this year.
"Am I that man? Am I? How nasty she was," he says of Rachel Cooke, the journalist who wrote the Marco-offending article, in which she said, "His manner is so hilariously disdainful, I can't help feeling that it's not a Michelin star he's missing, but an Oscar".
"I've been called controversial in my life," he continues, on a roll. "Why? Because I fought for what I believe in. Because I stood up for what I believe in," he smiles, adding with a typically, massively over-the-top, even poetic, Marco flourish: "That's who Marco Pierre White is. That's the kind of man I am."
He continues, "You know, I have never had a low point in my life. I've had lots of painful points. Lots of sad points. But not low points, because life is a wonderful, wonderful thing. That's how you have to look at life."
He has been married three times. The wives, in order of appearance in his life, are Alex McArthur, Lisa Butcher, and Matilde Conejero, the mother of his three children - Luciano, Marco Junior and daughter Mirabelle.
Do you look at the break-ups of your three marriages in a philosophical way?
"The reality is, if I reflect and I look back on my life, it's . . ." he says, and pauses. "When we're young, a lot of our decisions are born out of insecurity." He takes a sip of wine.
"That's why we make so many mistakes, because we don't have sufficient knowledge to make a decision."
This is the same philosopher who once jested that he perhaps knew on his wedding day, at Brompton Oratory, on August 14, 1992, that marriage to his second wife, then 21-year-old model Lisa Butcher, was a mistake, because she looked as if she had dressed to go down the catwalk rather than the aisle.
"I treated the Catholic Church like a supermarket," he jokes now.
"When we are young, we have all the correct intentions in the world, but we are ruled by our emotions. As we get older, we start to understand life and start to accept life. That's when we can make decisions. Our emotional growth is limited when we are younger. Our understanding of one's self is minimal.
"So how can we make a decision? We can't! And that's why we end up in failed relationships. That's why we end up in broken marriages. That's why we end up the way we are. The system forces us to make decisions too young."
Marco is 53 now and a lot wiser, presumably. Would he get married again?
"Of course! Of course! But, you know, I don't believe it is necessary to get married. I think to prove your love for a person doesn't mean you have to walk down an aisle. It means you have to go home on time. It means you have to do what's right. And, you know - we boys are easily led astray. Another bottle of wine! Another pint of Guinness! We always turn up late.
"We have to be strong and say no," he continues. "I have been very guilty in turning up late; where I've sat at the table with the boys too long; lunch has been too long; dinner has been too long."
Would you apologise when you get home?
"How can an apology be accepted when you are intoxicated? And an apology the next day, when you are sober, is too late. Be strong. Be brave. And go home," advises Marco, who lives in Salisbury in Wiltshire, "by the cathedral". (He has two basset hounds - one is called Mouton, the other, Rothschild - to protect, he says, his hens.)
"That's what I'd say," he continues. "It is too easy to get lost with the boys."
Is that what you've learned along the way?
"Of course. Being a restaurateur, mid-afternoon - 'another bottle'. Down the pub - 'another pint. Another plate of cheese. Let's have the menus for dinner'. Boys are boys. If you are a single man, that's fine, but when you have a wife and children, you can't do that."
"If you're going to commit," Marco says passionately, "commit."
"Would you like a sweetie?" he says, offering me a chocolate sweet he got from the hotel he is staying in at the moment, the Shelbourne. He pops it in my mouth. "The problem is, most people want to paddle around in the shallowness of society. I want to swim in the deep end. Do you?"
I don't want to drown in either end.
"I would prefer to drown in emotion than drown in materialism."
Despite his protestations, his life seems stuffed with seductive glamour. In 2010, Piers Morgan recounted a night out with his pal Marco and a gang: "There was the night that four of us drank £28,000 worth of wine, and I've still got the six bottles, all signed by Marco - including a 1911 Chateau D'Yquem pudding wine on which he wrote simply: '£1,500 a glass, love Marco'."
Madonna sat next to Marco at his 40th birthday party in London. "She was wearing a jockey's cap," he recalls. "And when Bernard Manning arrived, he said, 'Who the fuck do you think you are? Lester Piggott's sister?'"
Marco recalls the incident with a chuckle. He also recalls a night at the Mirabelle, his old Mayfair restaurant back in the good old days, when Johnny Depp, after spending £17,000 on a meal, chased the paparazzi down the street with a plank of wood - the movie star was then arrested and later released, on the condition he autograph the aforesaid paparazzi-unfriendly plank for the police.
Marco says he is going to Jamaica and Sri Lanka for Christmas and then on to the Maldives for New Year, "all for work. Work. Work. I'm cooking, not lounging around in hotels."
Marco Pierre White has seen The Grand Budapest Hotel seven times. "He's very good, Ralph Fiennes, isn't he? It's such a beautiful story. Every time I watch it, I see something different."
Could you run a hotel like that?
"I'd like to run a hotel like that. That would be my dream. But that will never happen. I am not rich enough. And to run something like that now you would need lots. Hotels like that are either corporate, or it has been in the family for a century. To be able to buy a hotel of that nature, you would need millions; many, many millions."
You could get a backer. I can see it now: Marco in the Alps.
"I don't know whether I'd like to be in the Alps. The thing is, we live in a world today where it is all corporate. When someone invests X, it has to return Y. That's why I love Rudloe," he says, referring to the Rudloe Arms, his hotel in Bath (Marco and I played croquet on the lawn in the rain there last year). "It doesn't have to return anything."
You don't want to own a chain in Las Vegas?
"No. I couldn't imagine anything more vulgar. Can you? Who'd be a chain in Vegas? Can you imagine? Let's dance with the devil. Would you like to dance with the devil? That's why people like me struggle with the world that we live in, because we don't dance with the devil."
If you were offered 10 million cash to open a worldwide chain of Marcos?
"That's never happened. So the devil has never crossed my path. Has the devil crossed your path?" he says, going on to discuss Casino, Martin Scorsese's movie about the death of Vegas. "He could read the numbers, couldn't he, that boy De Niro?" he laughs of Robert De Niro's mobster character in the film, Sam 'Ace' Rothstein. "I'm not into gambling."
What are your vices?
"I've got lots of those."
"They're not a vice. Fishing. I love watching a float. Fishing is a vice, because it becomes an obsession. Anything that is an obsession is a vice really, isn't it?"
Would you be sad if you didn't catch the big fish?
"I don't know, because I have always caught the big fish. That's very phallic! I always, always, always catch the big fish. I've been very lucky. It always pulls my line."
Dwight Garner once wrote that Irish photographer Bob Carlos Clarke (who took his own life in 2006) shot White's kitchen at Harveys in the 1990 book White Heat "as if it were a war zone. The black-and-white photos were filled with blood, with cigarettes dangling from lips and with rattled, unshaven young men who appeared to be on a mission up the Congo". (Tonight, Marco is on a mission to up the ratings for TV3 and The Restaurant.)
Because of Clarke's myth-making-style photography of you in White Heat, do women expect you to be fiery in bed?
"Well, they don't have that opportunity."
"No. I didn't say I was celibate, but I am in a relationship," he says, referring to actress Emilia Fox, his girlfriend of three years. "So therefore I am always courteous and polite, and I excuse myself and I move on. It is like that every night. I go home. It is like when I finish this show here tonight," he says, sitting outside his restaurant in Donnybrook, where TV3's The Restaurant is filmed. "I get in my car straight away and I go home, back to my hotel."
When you started off in the business and you first became famous, were you living a decadent life then?
"No. This is what I find really fascinating. People think I live this very rock 'n' roll life. I have never lived a rock 'n' roll life. I never lived an extravagant life. I have never lived a glamorous life.
"Because to win three stars in Michelin, it becomes your life," he adds. "You work every day of the week until very late at night. Then, when I retired from Michelin, I hid in the countryside. I went fishing. I went deer-stalking. I hid from the world."
White Heat projected the wrong image, Marco believes, because he was "so disciplined, so driven. I had won two stars by the time that book came out, and it is sort of a contradiction really, because I was focused and hard-working. What the book portrayed was this rock 'n' roll character."
But you are a bit rock 'n' roll. You threw a group of bankers out of one of your London restaurants, once upon a time, because they had the temerity to ask for chips.
"That didn't mean rock 'n' roll. It meant you got rid of the bankers. You kick bankers out and you kiss pretty girls - that doesn't mean you're a rocker."
But rock 'n' roll is also when one of your wives texted everyone, saying that you were shagging someone you shouldn't have been shagging . . .
"But I wasn't actually. I wasn't." The story involves his third wife, Matilde 'Mati' Conejero, allegedly finding texts on Marco's mobile phone in 2003, which she believed indicated that he was having an affair. She then sent a message to everyone on his phone's contact list, saying, 'Marco Pierre White has left his wife and three children for Robin Saunders'. He furiously denies the alleged affair now.
But it was a great story. Your wife texting your whole contact list. "Oh, everyone. The list was extraordinary. I haven't kept the text."
On another occasion, in 2006, Mati supposedly "marched into his restaurant, Luciano's, and fired a waitress, telling her: 'You are the second waitress my husband is fucking'." White has always denied this claim made by Lynn Barber in a piece in The Observer magazine many moons ago, which only added to the legend of Marco Pierre White.
Apropos of bankers et al, GQ magazine described Marco ejecting a customer from one of his restaurants thus, "with a battered face and minus the sleeve of his jacket. [He] was last seen on the pavement screaming, 'This is Gucci, for Christ's sake. Gucci!'"
"It was called 'the whoosh'," noted the New York Times in a 2015 profile of Marco's particular style of ejecting customers, adding that in his heyday, Marco "resembled Jim Morrison, Sweeney Todd and Lord Byron. He wielded a cleaver the way Bruce Lee wielded nunchucks. He seemed as if he popped supermodels into his mouth like ortolans. (If the British tabloids are correct, he more or less did.)".
It's just another late afternoon, sharing a bottle of wine with Marco. We've become kind of friends over the years. It follows a pattern: two or three times a year, I get a phone call about a lunch that becomes a night out.
We put the world to rights over wine and Guinness. He has a heart as big as the steaks his restaurants serve. He talks about his kids, adoringly, off the record, for over half an hour. "Children are the most magical creation on earth. They really are."
He is full of surprises: an eccentric showman, a saucy shaman, who describes himself as "the perfect introvert". "That's me being brutally honest with you," he says. "If you ever see me in my restaurants in Donnybrook or Dawson Street, I always hide. Have you ever noticed that about me? I take myself off to a corner."
What goes on in your head when you are in the corner?
"I feel safe."
You don't feel safe in the spotlight?
"No. I am not comfortable in the spotlight. I don't want the spotlight. Can you imagine? To crave the spotlight? To crave the spotlight?" he repeats, as is his fashion. He then quotes a song by John Lennon, Watching The Wheels, "I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round".We sing it together.
Where are you in your life at the minute?
"In a courtyard in Donnybrook. You mean psychologically, don't you? Where am I? I'm really in the same place I was when I was six. I have not moved on."
Have you been to psychologists to help you move on?
"No, of course not. Why would I want that? I don't want to move on. I'm quite happy where I am. The only people who go to see psychologists are people who want to move on, because they are not happy where they are. We've got to allow logic to dictate."
"So, why would I want to move on?" he laughs.
To move on from the darkness of seeing the woman who gave you life dying when you were a young boy. When he was six, Marco saw his mother Maria-Rosa collapse and die from a brain haemorrhage.
"There weren't dark sides to my mother dying. There were painful sides. And there is a difference between dark and pain, because pain is hurt," Marco says. "Hurt may manifest itself into pain, which may then manifest itself into dark. I never allowed that.
"I always allowed the hurt within me to manifest itself into creativity. And that's what I've done all my life. That was my choice. I could have done the other road, but I chose not to. I chose to go down the creative road."
What would have been the other road for you?
"The dark road."
"I've never contemplated that."
Marco looked like he contemplated murder in 2009, when Angus Deayton, who presented ITV's Hell's Kitchen with Marco, made some disparaging remark about Marco's name. "Angus, the eyes you look at are the eyes that watched my mother die," he told him with a terrifying glare. Marco's outbursts make Dylan McGrath's tantrums look like a four-year-old at tea-time, demanding that the televison be switched back on for another episode of Peppa Pig.
Is cooking a form of therapy?
"Everything we do is a form of therapy. Fishing is a form of therapy. Deer-stalking is a form of therapy. Sitting with you is a form of therapy. You are my psychoanalyst! I've never been to one. It is all about self-discovery, really, whether you're an artist or a cook.
"And if you ever discover yourself, then you are a very lucky person. I think self-discovery is really about acceptance of oneself, and I think if you have the courage to accept yourself for who you are, then you have the opportunity to realise your true potential as a human being. And you do things for the right reason, not the wrong reason. You have the opportunity to fall in love for the right reason - not the wrong reason."
Have you fallen in love for the wrong reason?
"I did lots of things for the wrong reason. I'm no different to any man, whether that man is a barrister, a lawyer or a banker."
Do you have regrets?
I remember when I first started reading about this utterly cool, slightly mad but real figure, who was eulogised as the savage messiah of modern cooking in one breath, and demonised as an moronic inferno of ego in the next. I thought it was even cooler that when he was 38, Marco walked away: he handed back his three Michelin stars, quit cooking, and gave two fingers to the industry. He wasn't the Byron so much as the Brando of the back-burner.
"You see, the way I look at three stars in Michelin, which was a stepping stone, is I had to achieve it to get to where I am today. Had I not got there then," he says, "I would have lived with regret. I would have felt that I had failed within myself. I only set out to achieve things that I believed are within me. If you ever reach the tallest apple in the tree," he adds, "make sure you don't drop it."
Prince Hamlet pauses for a second. "As I say to my little daughter, who is 13, 'Mirabelle, do you have a dream?' I ask her every week. And every week, she says, 'Yes, daddy, I have a dream'. I say to her, 'If you have a dream, you have a duty and a responsibility to yourself to make it come true'."
Marco Pierre White will be a resident critic on the new series of 'The Restaurant' which airs on TV3 early next year