Finding Marco: the chef on being beaten up because he was Italian
He is the most outspoken, brilliant and perhaps troubled chef of the last 20 years. In his most revealing interview ever, Marco Pierre White steps up to the plate and, over a very boozy lunch, tells Barry Egan about being racially abused at school; getting into fights; his alcoholic father; his new girlfriend; his love for his son Marco Junior; the lunch where he and some friends drank 49 bottles of wine, and how he is the happiest he has ever been.
Prepare to enter Marco Pierre White's head. The famous provocateur and chef is an uncommonly complex man, embedded with myriad psychological layers - some of which are, perhaps, unknown even to him.
And I say this as a friend of his.
A cigarette dangles from his Jaggeresque lips, and Marco looks like he is crying. "I was racially discriminated against for years as a child in Leeds because I was an Italian. I was called a coward. I was called a wop. I was called a spic. I was never beaten up. But I was picked on at school. It wasn't just because I was a spic. I was also different. I had holes in my shoes. My uniform . . ." he says, stopping.
"I had to dry my shoes every time I came home from school," Marco continues, "because they were wet. I remember one day being called to the headmistress's office. I was about eight or nine. She showed me empathy on a massive scale. She had gone to the lost-property office and taken clothes out of that for me. I went home with two carrier bags from the lost-property office."
I say to him that life must have been extremely difficult for his father, Frank, in the late 1960s - trying to bring up Marco and his two older brothers after their mother died of a brain haemorrhage when Marco was six.
"My father was a gambler," he replies. "My father was a drinker. He wasn't a very good gambler. He wasn't a very good drinker. Drink didn't suit him. It brought out the worst in him."
Still, it can't have been easy for him, Marco?
"You know something? It is not about being easy in life. It is about being correct. It is about being proper and decent and keeping your commitment - to, one, bring children into this world; and two, honour the memory of your wife, because you have a duty. Otherwise, hand the kids over.
"If you can't do the job properly, then give that job to somebody else and let them do that job . . . even though my mother's dying wishes were 'Keep the boys together'. But only do that and accept that responsibility if you are prepared to be a mensch [a person of integrity and honour], as the Jews will say. Be a man. I am a believer that if you bring children into this world, then you have a responsibility to do your best, and support and guide them until the day you die.
"There were four of us. I had two big brothers. I had one younger brother [Simon] who was 13 days old when my mother died."
Frank White sent Simon to Genoa to live with a childless Italian couple - uncle Gianfranco, and aunt Paola - while Marco and his two older brothers, Clive and Graham, stayed with Frank on the council estate in Yorkshire near Leeds.
Maybe your father had huge guilt about his son being taken away from him?
"No," Marco says shaking his head. "My father had no guilt. No guilt."
How do you know he didn't bury his guilt about your young brother with drinking and gambling?
"Because he was a drinker and a gambler before my mother died. It is as simple as that. It wasn't the death of my mother that made him drink and gamble. I was brought up to respect my father and not to love him. I respected him."
In his 2007 autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen, Marco seemed to share a completely different view of his alcoholic father - who died in 1997 - than the one he is expressing today in Dublin. In the book, Marco recalls his brother Simon saying to him at this father's funeral that Frank wasn't his father, really: "He did not bring me up. My father is Gianfranco."
As quoted in the book, Marco launched into him, telling Simon, "If that's the case, then Graham, Clive and I are not your brothers. You can't have it both ways. One thing about our father, what he did, he gave you a better life by allowing you to go to Italy. And he didn't put my two brothers and me in a children's home, which would have been totally acceptable in the 1960s. What he did was sacrifice his own life to keep us all together. And whatever you think of that is your opinion, but I think it takes a man to do something like that".
The late AA Gill was once asked by the London Evening Standard what was the best thing a London cabbie ever said to him. To which the feted food critic replied, "I've had that Marco Pierre White in my taxi and he's a bit of a pussycat, isn't he? I don't know what all the fuss is about."
After meeting Marco, you might perhaps come away with a similar conclusion to that London taxi driver. Or you might not.
In my experience, however, Marco isn't the grouchy growler, the hectoring macho bully of tabloid legend.
That said, he does know how to dole out the dog's abuse on occasion - he once called Tony Blair a c**t. And he certainly knows how to cast his big, bearish presence, too, when it suits him.
Lunch with him is nothing less than an invite to get the juices going. Ours started at 1pm in his restaurant on Dawson Street, and finished at 8.30pm at his other Dublin restaurant in Donnybrook. Day became night. No thought was left unsaid. No bottle, it appeared, unopened.
He had his driver bring me - positively pickled in red wine - to my door. Under my arm was also a copy of a book he had given me, plus a request to come and stay with him at his home in Wiltshire before he disappears Down Under for three months to shoot Hell's Kitchen Australia.
"Just turn up at the airport. I'll send my driver."
I have a wife and a baby, I tell him.
"I'll send my driver for them, too."
And he means every word.
To those who say that Marco doesn't do conversations, he holds court instead, I say that they are reading too many hatchet jobs in certain newspapers about him. He is a mercurial motormouth. Of course he is. You wouldn't be reading this article or watching him on The Restaurant on TV3 if he wasn't. Underneath that moody-bollocks bluster, however, is a gentle, vulnerable, sensitive soul, someone who cries in the middle of a conversation - as he does twice - and then hugs you.
Our seven-and-a-half hour GBH-of-the-liver included: passionate homages to people no longer with us - the aforesaid AA Gill ("I'll miss Adrian. Let's raise a glass"); Paolo Tullio ("a great character"); Gerry Ryan ("I regarded him as a friend. I was very sad when he passed"); tales of shooting parties with Madonna and Guy Richie; philosophy; God; Johnny Rotten; Leeds United; memories of cooking for Prince Charles, and the future King of England talking to him in French because he assumed he was French ("I had to tell him I didn't speak French"); and his friendship with the late Irish photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, who took the photographs for the 1990 cookbook White Heat - chef Anthony Bourdain described the shots as "borderline homoerotic in their near fetishistic lingering on a frankly beautiful Marco".
Marco has his beautiful girlfriend, Jane, with him in Dublin today. She is from Huddersfield. They met last August in Bath. (She joins Marco and me for an hour before going back to The Shelbourne.) They seem quite smitten. Is he in love?
"Now, that is a very large statement. You always know when you're in love . . . sorry, let me rephrase that: you always know you're in love when . . ."
"It's like when you go to work in an establishment as a young man, it is not until you leave that you realise how important those people were in your life and how much you learned. When you work for someone, you never realise how much you are learning. It is only when you leave and you reflect back on life.
"And," Marco says, eventually, "a woman is exactly the same. It is not until it is all over that you really know how much you love them, and how important they were in your life, because being a boy, boys all have one thing in common: we take everything for granted. We never think tomorrow will come. We never think it will be over. But the truth is, nothing lasts forever, including life." (Thank God Jane has gone back to the Shelbourne.)
You and Jane could last forever, I say.
"I don't take things for granted. I did when I was younger. I have got to that stage in my life when I take moment by moment, day by day."
You're 55. That's hardly old.
"My hairline isn't as thick as it used to be," he laughs, as we compare hairlines.
You don't have jowls.
"I have to thank my dear mother for that."
All the wine he drinks hasn't had too much of a noticeable effect on his figure, either. He had 11 bottles of wine the previous night with some pals for dinner in Dublin.
"Oh, that's nothing. I recently went to lunch in Koffmann's," he says - referring to the swish, expensive restaurant in The Berkeley in Knightsbridge - "and when I sat down, they reminded me of how many bottles of wine we had for lunch the last time I was there. Guess how many bottles of wine we had for lunch?"
"Guess again. It was 14 hours, the lunch. And we had friends come and go. We started with four at the table, then some came, some left, some went.'
"We didn't quite make it. 49! If I had known it was 49, I would have ordered another bottle just to bring it up to 50," he laughs.
What was the bill? (I have in the back of my mind the famous night in London when Marco and his pal Piers Morgan drank £28,000 worth of wine, complete with a 1911 Chateau D'Yquem pudding wine at, effectively, recalled Marco at the time, "£1,500 a glass".) "I'm not going to be so vulgar and talk about money! But 49 bottles of wine is a lot, isn't it?"
I ask him how his liver is these days.
"Oh, it's good," he smiles, "because remember, remember, I didn't start drinking until I was 38 years of age. So I have this big, giant liver. It can absorb masses of alcohol.
"My health? I'd like to think it's good, but I don't take it for granted. Three of my dear friends died in the month of December. That's life, isn't it? We all used to shoot together. It's extraordinary. You think back and you think, 'Wow'. It shows you how fragile life is and how special and how important it is. And that's why you must live and enjoy every moment. I wake up happy every morning."
You don't have 49 black dogs barking in your head?
"No. No. No. Every day I wake up and off I go. I don't get hangovers. What's a hangover? Share it with me. Why do you want to search for the negative? I never look for negatives. Why? It would be like trying to find Narnia. Or that village under the sea - Atlantis. Or Never-never Land. Alcohol doesn't depress me, no. What I think alcohol does is it opens the mind and expands the mind. If you think of those great poets, those great artists, it took them somewhere, and that's what alcohol does. It makes you think. It makes you reflect. It forces you to think. It forces you to be honest. I'm never drunk."
Even after 49 bottles of wine?
"Seriously. I also think alcohol effects people in different ways. But I was a really late starter. But I was always slow out of the blocks," he says, adding that "It is about looking at things for what they are and not what you want them to be. You hear that sometimes people drown their sorrows. I don't think you can ever drown your sorrows in drink. You drown in your sorrows. There's a difference. A very big difference. Ships sink. People drown."
Did you wait until you were 38 to start drinking because you didn't want to be an alcoholic like your father?
"No. I was just working too hard. I like the ritual now of a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta with friends."
Did your father ever say sorry to you for the way he treated you as a kid?
"My father was flawed. He had more flaws than Blenheim Palace. I have loads of flaws, failings, but I accept them. But if you accept your flaws, then you can dissolve them. It is all about being a real man, and if you accept who you are, then you have the opportunity to find happiness and fall in love. People who do not accept their flaws will never be happy. They may be successful, but they will never be happy."
Are you happy?
Have you accepted your flaws?
"Of course. I have been walking down that road of self-discovery for many years. Before that, I was ruled by my fears. I was ruled by the insecurities. I was a fantasist, wanting to turn my dreams into reality. But self-discovery is true success."
That self-discovery brings pain with it, doesn't it?
"It can be painful. You have met me lots of times. You can see I am not motivated by money. I don't care about money. Money can't buy me what I want. Money can't bring my mother back. I can't take my mother shopping today and buy her a dress. I can't take her for fucking lunch. Sorry for swearing."
Do you ever put your arm around your son, Marco junior (who appears to be having a large amount of personal difficulties of late) and tell him that it will be OK, but he needs to step out of the spotlight?
"He has to allow me to put my arm around him and say, 'Step out of the spotlight'. They have to want that. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to talk about it. I love him with all my heart." The message is pretty clear that he won't discuss his controversial son any further.
I ask Marco about his own childhood instead. "I had a beautiful childhood," he smiles. "It was full of colour. I had my mother, and every day I spent with my mother. When I started to go to school, my mother used to come and collect me every day and bring me home and give me lunch. This boy, who was a year older than me, was called Geoffrey Spade. He is no longer with us now, god bless his soul. Geoffrey's mother and father were deaf and dumb. They lived one door away from us.
"They used to leave him sandwiches in the shed. I can still picture him now, going to the shed to have his lunch. It was very sad. I told my mother that I saw Geoffrey eating sandwiches in the garden shed and my mother went and got him," he says."And every day after that, he sat down with me for lunch.
"I knew Geoffrey for about four years. He was a nice boy. He was a pal of mine. He used to use sign language with his parents. He moved away when I was eight or nine. He only moved away about two or three miles as the crow flies, but when you are that age, it is a long way in reality. I was his best friend. We grew up together. When he was 12, he came back to see me on the estate. I never saw Geoffrey again after that.
"Then, a few years ago, I got a phone call to say that he had passed away. I have fond memories of him. I can still see his mother and I can still see his father. And can still see him eating sandwiches in the garden shed. You know, even though he was offered food by my mother, he was always loyal to his mother and always ate his sandwiches. He was loyal.
"Barry, I love life," Marco says a few hours later - possibly around 7pm. "But I accept that we all have dysfunction."
What are yours?
"I wasn't talking about myself!" He roars with laughter. "We all have dysfunction within our lives; that doesn't mean we're dysfunctional. And nothing is perfect. Life is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing to be given. It really is. And the truth is, how I feel today, I'd never want it to end."
You were brought up a Catholic. Do you go to Mass?
"No. But I go to church. I like lighting a candle. My mother lost faith in the Catholic Church. That's interesting about my mother. My mother died when I was six, and she never told me herself that she had lost her faith. But my father always said that my mother lost her faith in the Catholic Church.
"I remember going to Italy one day with my mother," he continues. "I must have been four or five. I was in this graveyard in Genoa. I was fascinated by it. There was this wall, this very long wall, and within the wall, there were all these photographs. And my mother was very fascinated by the picture of her grandfather.
"Then we went to the post office in Genoa with my brothers, who were six and seven years older than me. She told them to stay outside, and she broke down in front of me. And she put her arms around me for me to comfort her."
After seven-and-a-half hours, it is time to exit Marco Pierre White's head and go home.
Marco Pierre White is the resident critic, along with Tom Doorley, of the new series of 'The Restaurant' which starts on February 23, at 9pm, on TV3
Photography by David Conachy
Sunday Indo Life Magazine