Cape Town - When I was 17 my goals were simple: pass matric and look good at my matric ball. When Marco Pierre White was 17 his goal was to achieve his first Michelin Star. The difference between us mortals and true greats has to be the goals we set for ourselves. I should have aimed higher.
He has been the leading man in many spheres of the culinary world. Dubbed the original bad boy of the kitchen, it’s a title he shakes off with some resentment.
However, his first cookbook, White Heat, reveal a young rock star chef with long, wild hair, an intensity in his eyes and a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips, and zero smile. The epitome of a bad boy; only White is also a world-class man of the tablecloth.
South African audiences have grown to love his cringeworthy, but brutally honesty and fiery comments on Masterchef and Hell’s Kitchen. For these reasons we are Marco Pierre White fanatics. The organisers of the Good Food and Wine show heeded our calls and pulled the necessary strings to accommodate our White craving at the CTICC. We chatted to him about his Michelin Star studded career and what it takes to transcend the cut-throat culinary world of chefs.
“The truth is I never wanted to be a chef, that is me being brutally honest. I was born into a working-class family. My father was a chef, my grandfather was a chef, so I followed in their footsteps.
“I went to work at the Hotel St George in Harrogate. I learnt how to use a knife, how to absorb pressure, how to be fast, how to work hard and take instruction,” he said.
One day while he was polishing clients’ shoes he stumbled across a book that was a guide to the best restaurants and hotels in Great Britain. Little did he know that opening that book would jolt his career and make him one of the most accomplished chefs the world has ever seen.
“I opened the book and I noticed two things. Firstly, that restaurants had stars, 1, 2 or 3. Secondly the best restaurant in Britain was 15 miles down the road. So I went back into the kitchen and thought, ‘If I was going to be a chef, then maybe I should work at the best restaurant in Britain’. I thought about this for eight months until one day I approached them and I got given the job,” said White.
Thus begun his expedition into the realm of culinary greatness. His dream was to attain a highly exclusive Michelin Star.
“I wanted to replicate the greatest restaurants in France. Three stars from Michelin and five Black Forks and Knives.”
At the age of 33 White became the youngest chef in the world to be awarded with three Michelin Stars and Five Black Forks and Knives awards. He had reached the pinnacle of his career.
“I believe if you have dream, you have the duty and a responsibility to make it come true,” said White.
And after the high comes the plateau.
In 1999 he walked away from his dream. He handed back his Michelin stars and relieved himself of the pressure and scrutiny he was constantly under. He freed himself. He has never won another star but that is not a goal anymore.
White lost his mother when he was only six years old yet she has played an important role in his career.
“My most magical food memory is with my mother. When I was a boy in Italy, we were watching men harvest figs. I remember this farmer brought my mother some figs. I remember my mother tearing it open and watching it bleed the milk, I can visualise the pink filling and my mother giving it to me. I liked the taste but I didn’t like the stickness of the milk of the fig. And now when I cast my mind back my mother’s favourite biscuit were fig rolls which are today my favourite biscuit. The impact of that first moment of eating a fig has stayed with me for life,” he remembers.
With several restaurants in London already, he plans on opening more.
He is happy to keep his restaurants simple. He is adamant that he is done with the fluff.
Although White is not in tune with our culinary scene he is excited to meet the locals and leave behind some cooking wisdom at the Good Food and Wine show.
“I get catapulted into magical corners of the world and this time it’s Cape Town which is amazing. I always say a story is way more important that a recipe. A recipe can confuse you but a story can inspire you,” said White.
The best advice he has for up and coming chefs is: “Stay focused, stay disciplined, look at food for what it is, not what you want it to be. Mother Nature is the true artist, we’re just the cooks.”