Monday 22 January 2018

Marco Pierre: still cooking up a storm

Marco Pierre
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

What's eating Marco Pierre White? With three marriages, matching divorces and a trinity of Michelin stars under his belt, the enfant terrible of the British haute cuisine scene has a reputation as a provocateur as much as a culinary genius. The loss of his mother when he was only six has had a profound impact, he tells Barry Egan

BEFORE going in to have lunch with Marco Pierre White, I ring one of his friends, fellow chef Richard Corrigan. "He's a very passionate man," Corrigan says, "passionate about shooting, passionate about life, passionate about food ... "

I ask Corrigan if it's true that White once threw 54 bankers out of his restaurant because they asked for chips. "That's typical Marco. I'd have got paid by them first before I fired them out the door."

"I suppose I should have made them pay before I chucked them out," says White himself, with a devilish chuckle, two minutes later at a table in his eponymous restaurant on Dawson Street in Dublin, "but Richard is far sharper than me. I am just a daft lad from Leeds." He once said that in those days, he was "totally ruled by emotion."

These days, for the legendary chef and provocateur, self-control is true power. He is one of the most charming, charismatic men I've ever met. Within five minutes of meeting him, he's given me his mobile phone number and invited me to stay in his house in London the next time I'm over. "I'll sleep on the couch," he says as his girlfriend Chloe Willoughby raises her eyebrows at the thought, "you can have my bed."

I may be his new best friend but the glowering, gifted godfather of British haute cuisine has fallen out with everyone from Michael Winner to Gordon Ramsay to Michael Caine to Albert Roux. In the early Nineties, he ejected a customer from one of his restaurants, GQ magazine noted, "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!'"

White has cooked for the likes of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, Mick Jagger, Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson and Madonna. Madge sat beside him at his 40th birthday party. "Madonna was wearing a jockey's cap," White recalls. "And when Bernard Manning arrived he said: 'Who the f*** do you think you are? Lester Piggott's sister?'," he says with a laugh. On hearing his story the whole table including Geraldine Fitzpatrick, co-owner of the Marco Pierre White restaurant, and White's girlfriend Chloe cracked up. White is full of raw wit and poignant rhapsodising about life.

The flamboyant, self-styled Byron of the Backburner was, at 33, the youngest British chef ever to get three Michelin stars. He gave them back he says because he was "bored defending them". He has three ex wives. He laughs that he does everything in threes.

He orders two steaks in his restaurant in Dublin -- one for him and one for me. I wasn't sure I wanted to ask him some of the questions I had in my head with the infamously volatile chef holding a steak knife. I tell him that the late Bob Carlos Clarke, the famous photographer, once told me that White had turned up at his house one evening with a burly man intent on killing him because he believed, mistakenly, that Cork-born charmer Clarke was pursuing his wife.

White roars with laughter at the story, says he is not going to verify its truth or otherwise because Clarke is dead but says that the aristocrat's son was adept at spinning stories where the truth was lost in the beauty of the telling. "I loved Bob. He was great. We had our moments," he says. "I am not going to give you clarification but what I will say is Bob was one of those wonderful men with huge artistic flair who had the ability to make the most boring story sound really exciting. Genius." White adds that he spoke to Clarke in the Priory every day in the weeks before he committed suicide in 2006 by leaving the Priory and walking in front of a speeding train.

The famous images Clarke took of White for the 1990 book White Heat are hung all over the restaurant on Dawson Street.

It is far from the glitz of D2 that White was raised. Born in 1961, he grew up on a gritty council estate in Leeds. He says that his father Frank "thought Michelin made tyres". When he opened his first restaurant, Harveys in Wandsworth, in 1987, he won his first Michelin star straight away. White says with a wry laugh: "My father never dined in my restaurant. He felt if he left his council estate he'd drop off the end of the world. He was quite happy in his bubble."

White's bubble had earlier been burst irreparably in one of the saddest ways imaginable; his mother died when he was just six. Aged 38, she suffered a brain haemorrhage. Her famous son, you feel, suffers to this day. His eyes fill with sadness when he talks of her. He credits her for every success he has had in his life. White always remembers February 20, the day she died, and November 30, her birthday. On those days, he visits Brompton Oratory in South Kensington and lights a candle and sits by himself for an hour in the beautiful church that is an exact imitation of the Church of the Gesu in Rome. His Italian mother Maria-Rosa Gallina had come to England to learn English.

When she died, Maria-Rosa left behind four sons -- the new-born Simon was sent to live with relatives in Italy, while White and his two big brothers stayed with their dad in Yorkshire. "My father never spoke about my mother. That was his way of dealing with the pain." To be brought up in a very male world was, White continues, "very difficult. My old man was as hard as nails. He was the hardest man I ever met in my life."

His father got lung cancer when White was 10 and the future chef had to take on a job. "I had to do a milk round every day at 5am," he remembers. "And I'd go straight to school at 8.45am. The money I made from the milk round, my father took from me. Again, that taught me how to graft."

I ask him if he ever tells his own kids how difficult his early life was. "They wouldn't understand."

White says that writing his autobiography was "the greatest form of counselling I ever had. But having said that," he adds with a smile, "I could also say that gastronomy is the greatest therapy that any misfit could ever be exposed to."

Is he less of a misfit now? Or is that part of his charm?

"What is a misfit? I don't say it in a derogatory way. A misfit is an individual. Individuals are the people who really interest me in this world. Am I still an individual today? Yes, but I am a conformist. I am quite conservative. I just have this little six-year-old somewhere inside me who makes the decisions."

White left school in Leeds without much in the way of qualifications. One day, 15-year-old White sheepishly knocked on the back door of the Hotel St George in Harrogate and got a job. Legend has it that at the tender age of 16, he pitched up in London with "£7.36, a box of books and a bag of clothes" and got a position as a commis chef at Le Gavroche with the Roux brothers, Albert and Michel.

Within a few years that same trainee chef would become the enfant terrible of British and international cooking -- opening dozens of restaurants all over the world. What's important to him now is not the accolades and the success, but self-discovery. "Winning three stars, achieving what I may have achieved in my industry," he maintains, is not as important to him to his inner journey. "There is still a part of me that is six years old," he says referring to the age he was when his mum died.

"I think when you have the loss of a mother and it impacts on you so enormously, there is a little side of you that stops growing emotionally, spiritually. So you stay six. The rest of you continues to grow. And you become a little unhinged. I accept that I'm maybe a little unhinged."

White has learned to live with his state of unhingedness and has allowed it, he says, "to push me on through life". He recalls that he said to his son Luciano on his 17th birthday: "Your grandmother was a very beautiful and special lady. Before she died, she left me some special memories. It is only in the last few years that I have taken the knowledge from those memories. If I am really honest, Luciano, that was my inheritance."

The knowledge White took from his mother was the understanding of life. He gives me an example. "I remember my mother in Italy told me that every day before she'd light the stove she'd check to see whether any birds had fallen down the chimney. That awareness of her environment and her surroundings shows she had great sensitivity," he says trailing off into a reverie. "And to have great sensitivity you have to be at one with yourself. I think self-discovery, in my opinion, [is] true success. I know a lot of very wealthy, very successful, people but they are not at one with themselves. Through self-discovery you now have the opportunity to fall in love for the right reasons," he says holding hands, under the table, with the gorgeous Chloe, "and not the wrong reasons".

Did he fall in love for the wrong reasons before?

"It was for insecurity," he says. "I haven't finished what I was trying to say. You are very impatient. I am going to have to have a word with Mr Corrigan. Are you in a rush? Or are you a control freak?" he laughs. "Through self-discovery therefore you have the opportunity to realise your true potential as a human being. It's about being honest with yourself."

A big, growly bear of a man, White is wont to go off on long didactic, and self-absorbed verbal riffs that are difficult -- even inadvisable -- to interrupt. (He told me several times to stop breaking into his, for the want of a better word, monologues.) Most times, however, this slightly intimidating aura is softened by his engaging, bigger-than-life personality. And you have to admire the fact that White is still a curmudgeonly enfant terrible of sorts at the age of 50.

White once quipped that he knew his marriage to second wife, 21-year-old model Lisa Butcher was a mistake on their wedding day because she looked dressed to go down the catwalk rather than the aisle. "That was my opinion," he says now. "Maybe I was wrong. Maybe my insecurities were taking me over. I don't know," he says eating his steak.

"I'm not saying I'd like to relive every experience I've ever had in my life, but do you know something? I have no regrets. And do you know something?" this flawed genius of the kitchen asks rhetorically. "Maybe along the way, I hurt one or two people. I'm sorry for that. That is one regret that I am sorry for. It's all about growing up. And we can't help but hurt people in this world. We obviously don't set out to. But we all do it. It's the way we are."

I ask him is he done with marriage. "I don't think I ever had one. On paper, I've been married but I don't think I ever had a marriage because I don't think I was mature enough or prepared to commit to marriage. And I don't think I actually understood what the meaning of love was. It is only today that I feel if I was to marry today that I would marry for love because I understand what love is."

Asked when it he discovered what love is, White replies: "When I went through a five-and-a-half-year divorce. Which is interesting. I regard it as a form of education really because you sit down with lawyers and QCs and they educate you. It forces you to respect yourself. It was in that period that I was in the countryside and I asked myself a very simple question: what is true love?"

His divorce from third wife Matilde "Mati" Conejero taught him a tough lesson. (They have two sons: Luciano and Marco Jr; and daughter Mirabelle; he also has a grown-up daughter from his first marriage to Alex McArthur). Mati seems to be a real character. In 2006, according to a piece Lynn Barber wrote in the Observer magazine, Mati "marched into Luciano's and fired a waitress, telling her: 'You are the second waitress my husband is f***ing'." (Something White has furiously denied). On another occasion, she went to Frankie's -- the restaurant which White is involved in with jockey Frankie Dettori -- and publicly demanded a divorce.

White attributes something that happened on his wedding day to Mati in 2000 as the start of his feud with fellow super-chef, Gordon Ramsay.

"I have no feud with Gordon Ramsay," he says. "I made a very conscious decision to stop speaking to him; for the simple reason that I wasn't too happy that he turned up at my wedding with a camera crew in the bushes and six months later I see me and my family on his programme on TV. I believe in loyalty," he says, "because my family was broken as a child. My friends and my family are my family. So if I try to apply a logic to why I married three times, I was walking through Morrisons and I said: 'I love a bottle. I love a shelf. I love an aisle'. Maybe that's why I married three times."

The feud or rift has never been healed; nor is it likely to. There was a notorious incident at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant in Bray in Berkshire in 2003 -- the myth of which still lingers.

Ramsay went to Blumenthal's restaurant with his wife Tana one evening; a seething White allegedly had them thrown out. "Marco couldn't stand it so he went into the garden," Ramsay told me himself a few years ago, "and rang Heston on his mobile to ask him to kick me out. I went into the garden and said to his face: 'Marco. You are one sad f***. We're in Heston Blumenthal's restaurant and you're asking him to ask me to leave because it makes you feel uncomfortable? Hello? Hello? Are you in there, Marco? Marco?' And then I walked out."

White launched Ramsay's career, helping him set up Aubergine, his first restaurant; lending him £10,000 and a few other things besides.

In 2009, the now-feuding White had this to say of the chef he trained: "Everything Gordon does is contrived, unnatural, derivative. He does as he's told. He's not original. Unlike Gordon, I'm not in the business of swearing, belittling and putting people down."

White says he is not that kind of person because of his mother's death.

"Without question," he says, "that was the most defining moment of my life. Today she is my moral compass. When you lose your mother at such a young age -- and I watched my mother die in front of me -- her death stays with you forever. Every day of my life, I think of my mother," he says. "I talk of my mother every day. She lives on through me. And when you have a great loss, a great tragedy, you have to deal with it."

He goes out for a cigarette on Dawson Street. When he comes back he has a sip of beer and says: "My way of dealing with it is that my mother is [the] Madonna. Do you understand? She was my driving force, because my insecurities were so great, having something so huge taken away at such a young age. You are stripped of everything. That's why materialism means very little to me today. I am not that kind of person. Most people measure their insecurities by the amount of materialism they wrap themselves up in. In a strange kind of way, I don't think I deserve it."

I ask him if he is now in control of his insecurities.

"I learned to control them. I learned to box them and deal with them and overcome my mother's death.

"If it wasn't for my mother's death, I probably wouldn't have got into the trouble I got into or married three women or got three stars or three divorces."

He once said he is never dishonest to women; he just left them ...

"Yeah, I just left them," he says. "It's about being honest with yourself."

Is it about thinking what his mother would have told him to do in the circumstances?

"That's a very interesting question. I used to always say to myself: 'What would my mother have expected me to do?' And I still say that to this day: 'What would mum expect of me?' 'Go home. Go home. Go home'.

"It is very easy to be led astray. It is very easy to be hedonistic when you're young. It's very easy to get lost, especially when you're highly insecure. I am no longer insecure. I am very at one with myself."

What's eating Marco Pierre White? Nothing any more.

Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill, 51 Dawson Street, Dublin 2, Ireland. Tel: 353 1 677 1155, Fax: 353 1 670 6575, Email: eat@marco

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