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Brighid’s Diary: Tales of mouse-sized mischief with the real chef Marco

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Marco Pierre White. Picture by David Conachy

Marco Pierre White. Picture by David Conachy

Marco Pierre White. Picture by David Conachy

On Tuesday I was worried about Marco. Yes, Marco, the infamous Michelin star chef. You see, we keep in touch. I noticed that the videos of him on his Instagram account were a bit off kilter. Don’t get me wrong, they were droll, witty portraits of boredom during Covid.

In one he sits depressed-looking, a doppelganger for the comedian Tommy Cooper, his wild, mad scientist hair askance, staring at a wooden duck. In another, his hand is on his face, as he watches an old telephone shrill. Finally, he answers it. The handle of the telephone is a giant fresh lobster. I cracked up laughing. He really doesn’t give a sh** what people think of him. I love that about him.

When we talk on the phone on Wednesday he is in top form though. “I just got my jab, Biddy, I am feeling great.” We’re both the same age. Both December babies. He can’t believe I haven’t got mine yet. “We are super organised here,” he laughs.

I first met Marco outside Cavistons three years ago. He was absolutely pickled, yet the gamey eye was still on the look out. “How are you,” he purred, with that sexy English accent.

“Very well,” I laughed.

“Come join us?” He was sitting with his friends and business partners, Paddy and Audrey Fitzpatrick. He has always been a massive flirt, but I wasn’t fluttering my eyelashes for no one. I was all too familiar with stories of his womanising, his three marriages and break up with the gorgeous Emilia Fox, so I declined.

Months later, Audrey called me. “Marco would love to see you. Could he call up?”

“Of course,” I said. Not much phases me. But to say I was rattled is an understatement. You see, I adore cooking and this man is the legend of all legends, with three Michelin stars under his belt – which he famously returned. I was studying culinary arts in Cathal Brugha Street at the time and my class mates were so in awe. As was I.

I mean the Marco was coming to the cottage. Naturally, I played it cool.

At 7pm on the button, a huge shadow darkened the cottage window. I saw the bould Marco outside, pacing slowly past the cottage, then back again. Eventually, I heard a knock on the door.

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When I opened it, all light disappeared, he literally “darkened” my door. The man is huge. At 6’3”, he had to duck his head to get in. Wearing an Irish tweed jacket, an enormous cashmere scarf tucked under his chin, glasses perched on his nose, he looked more “tom cat” than “tiger”. The hair as always was wild. “I have never washed it, ever,” he said, “I just use conditioner on it.”

We chatted for ages, watching the rosy pink glow of a turf fire. Oddly, we spoke, not of food, but furniture. We both love Mouseman furniture. Marco collects it. Robert Thompson is his hero, a British furniture maker from Yorkshire who carved a little mouse on almost every piece he made. It’s the sweetest, simplest, most sentimental furniture. I could see how it would appeal to Marco, who has a childlike side to him.

“I have booked a table for dinner, would you like to join me?”

“Yes,” I said. I’d be delighted to.” I was so relieved I didn’t have to cook. Can you imagine? Off we went to an Italian restaurant in town.

 

As always, Marco’s entrance provoked drama. There was an awed silence, followed by a rush of whispers. A gaggle of middle-aged female admirers squeezed by us to chat. Women follow him like poodles. Sure the bould Marco was only purring with delight. Boy, this old cat got charm.

When we sat down, all eyes were upon him. The Italians either didn’t know or else pretended not to know who he was. Off the booze, Marco ordered Bresaola, an air-dried salted beef as a starter.

The Bresaola arrived covered in brown chessboard drizzles of balsamic vinegar. He stared at it. Said nothing, The punters stared at him, then the meat, then me. He pushed the plate away from him ever so gently.

Any normal chef would be curled on the kitchen floor howling at such an insult, but not here. The waiter never batted an eyelid. Nothing.

But it got better. Nobody expected Marco to order pizza. I could hear the horrified murmurs, “He is ordering pizza, mushroom pizza!”

The pizza arrived. It too, was completely drizzled in a thick, gooey Balsamic dressing. By this stage, I was mortified. Ignoring the drama as best I could, I tucked in to the seafood pasta, no bother to me. Begod, Marco didn’t eat a thing.

 

Gradually, I’ve got to know the real Marco as friends. Over the years, he’s given me an unsparing history of his working-class life in Leeds, the death of his Italian mother when he was five, something I believe he has never recovered from; how his father, also a chef, had him up at 4am in the morning doing milk runs before school.

“I was sent on a train aged 16 to London with a bagful of books, a few clothes and very little money,” he says. Despite the hardship, it was the best training he ever had. He literally knocked on kitchen doors for a job. The man is driven. And he’s a grafter.

If you want to know the real Marco, not the hellraiser, just watch his address to the Oxford Union of Students on Youtube. I shed a few tears when I saw it. It should be compulsory viewing for any lazy youngster. In fact, it should be required viewing for every schoolchild in Ireland.

He rings me regularly now to see if Johnny and I are OK, do we need anything. I mean how sweet is that? In real life, he is nothing like his public persona. Instead he is very “proper”, courteous, calm, there is mischief, but it’s mouse size. “I am very much a loner,” is a constant refrain and it’s true. He is.

The Marco I know is a culchie, deep down. The one-time rock star of gastronomy is now blissfully happy pottering about his land, petting his black pigs and Wiltshire Horn sheep, fishing and dry stone walling. He is giving Prince Charles a run for his money.

I am fierce fond of him. But Johnny is having none of it. “He can suck his lobster over there, Mum,” he says, completely undoing the spirit of hospitality.

One thing is for certain, there will be no big pussycats putting their claws over our half-door anytime soon. Grrrrr.…


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