He pulled the crowds and White Heat made boys want to become great chefs. The lucky ones got to put their careers in his hands and later helped earn them their own stars. “The catering world in Britain was like the French Foreign Legion; it was the last resort of the inadequate. Anyone who fell out of school went into catering.” In White Heat he described himself as “the closing chapter on the 80s. A finale.” A decade started with great chefs like Anton Mosimann, the Roux Brothers at Gavroche, Pierre Koffmann. He was, as he says, the offspring of them all, “a hybrid” and changed the image of British cuisine. Where does he place himself now?
“Once I was a revolutionary, now I’m a dinosaur.” He jokes, however, despite having no social media and a Nokia phone that is 12 years old, he still manages to attract hundreds of thousands of food-crazed teenagers around the world who fly in to meet him.
“When we are young, what’s most interesting is we have all this knowledge and we feel we have to use it and we over work our food. We are all guilty of that. But then as we start to discover ourselves as people then our food starts to simplify and become about what’s in us. You can tell a lot about a chef by how he puts something on a plate. You can tell how insecure he is. To serve 24 courses of canapé on a plate, it’s conveyor belt cuisine. How insecure. Have the confidence to cook the perfect roast chicken, serve it hot and making it absolutely delicious. Can you imagine that?”
Marco’s Great British Feast on ITV got my attention in 2008. More History Channel than Food Network, White was on a mission to rediscover all that is great about British food. Fish pie, venison tartare, soused herrings, from traditional classics to long forgotten dishes all the while adding his twist — quite often shocking his diners and rocking the establishment once again.
“Good cooking is lots of little things done well. The classical marriages are the foundation of all good cooking… you must use your brain to rethink them, make them relevant, give them a contemporary beauty.”
White was trained in the classic French style as that was considered the high art of cooking and still is today. He’d not set out to become a chef but at the Box Tree at Ilkley, West Yorkshire he found his “obsession” with food. His father, grandfather and uncle had all been chefs and that’s “something you just did back then in working class Britain” but he says he caught the bug at the Box Tree and it became “terminal”.
From Britain to Denmark, New York to Sydney, it appears that at the heart of every great chef’s food is the discipline of French cuisine. “The French school of gastronomy is without a doubt the most intelligent cuisine in the world. It’s the most refined. Every great chef should have a foundation in French. If you look at the boys at El Buli: French method into Spanish cuisine.”
“I’m a classicist and always will be. I’m not a person who thinks you can reinvent the wheel. I believe that we live in a world of refinement. I believe that the more you do to food the more you take away from it. I like simplicity. I like generosity. I believe that presentation should be born out of generosity.
“I believe that Mother Nature is the true artist. We’re just the cooks. I believe in feeding people well. That’s the most important thing. I don’t think it’s about little knick-knacks on a plate and serving 24 portions of them. Luke warm food at best. Tepid food. Being told what it is, how to eat it, then two minutes later asking if you enjoyed it. I don’t want to eat the chef’s ego. I want to indulge. Food should always be about indulgence in my opinion. The most poisonous source in the kitchen is a chef’s ego.”
Marco Pierre White is one of the headline chefs at this year’s Good Food and Wine Show. Watch him cook or book a place at a chef’s table at the Johannesburg event, taking place from 28th to 30th July 2017.