White anything but 'a cook'
But don’t call him that; he hates being labelled.
He bristles at the term, something I learnt the hard way when, midway through an interview at the Cape Town International Convention Centre ahead of his headline debut at this weekend’s Good Food & Wine Show - he admonished me.
“I don’t like being labelled and I don’t like the label ‘celebrity chef’,” he said sternly.
“Because in my opinion, celebrities tend to be a personality, someone who has the ability to project on screen. I’m not very good at projecting on screen. I’m just a cook.”
But White is anything but "just a cook".
He may detest the many monikers afforded to him over the 38 years of his culinary career, including that of "Godfather of British cuisine", yet all his accolades are undeniably well-deserved.
After all, this is the man who was a veritable phenomenon on the London culinary scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and earned his three Michelin Stars - the highest honour bestowed upon a chef - by the age of 33.
He also once made former protégé, the famously hard-headed and temperamental Gordon Ramsay, cry during a stint as an apprentice chef at the former’s Harvey’s restaurant in south London.
White had been in South Africa all of three hours when we met and had already done back-to-back media interviews.
I caught him at the tail-end of what had already been a busy afternoon for a chef who’s never been fond of interviews or the media.
Sitting across from White and listening to him wax lyrical about the philosophies of the culinary arts and his life thus far, it’s almost impossible to see the firebrand rock-star culinarian who reinvented the way the world views chefs.
At 55, the Marco Pierre White of today boasts an austerity that’s in sharp contrast to the hard-and-fast-living persona he embodied in his youth.
Photographs of White in the 1980s show a good-looking, wild-haired young man with a cigarette habitually hanging from his lips.
His chiselled features were almost as resplendent as the dishes he created at his famed restaurants across London, with White’s brand of sex appeal and culinary skill elevating him to the world-renowned status he enjoys now.
It’s probably that same fame which has made him seem entitled and aloof. White, however, doesn’t care what people think of him.
“People can formulate their own opinions. And what’s interesting is that people who make these opinions are people who don’t know you," he said.
"How can you make an opinion of somebody if you don’t know them? How rude. How incorrect. I would never dream of forming an opinion of someone I’ve never met before. And I just think it’s bad manners.”
In 1998, at the height of his career, White hung up his apron and locked away his knives - in exchange for life as a restaurateur.
He also returned his Michelin Stars, which he admits no longer hold the same value for him.
“Winning Michelin Stars is a very exciting journey but the truth is, they were just a stepping stone to where I wanted to go," he said.
"That’s all they were, they had little value. And that’s because the people who have them, to me, have less knowledge than me.”
White owns and co-owns several restaurants across the UK, including a chain of Bardolino eateries - named after the northern Italian region where his mother Maria-Rosa Gallina was born. Her death, when White was 6 years old, has been a defining moment in his life.
“My influence is all born out of my time with my mother. When I’m at home, I do cook dishes my mother cooked. Maybe not as good as she did, but I do replicate them as best I can.
"Because the wonderful thing about mothers is that they never use scales; it just falls through their fingers.”
He also feels there’s nothing more left for him to achieve, in his life and his career.
“I did my bit for gastronomy. Now, I just tell stories and grow old, it’s as simple as that,” White explained.
He was much more enthused when speaking about food.
Asked about his favourite meals, White said it was the company that matters more than the meal itself. “It’s all about the memories. I’ll never sit down and eat a meal with someone I don’t like.”
The Briton is also convinced all the bad meals in the world can be fixed by slathering on a knob of butter.
“Butter makes everything taste better," he said. "Could you imagine a life without butter? Can you imagine having your toast without butter? Crumpets without butter? Peas without butter? Can you imagine?
"If you haven’t got great technical ability, just use butter; it compensates for your lack of technique.”
As our time drew to a close, White offered a parting shot: “Remember, it’s rude to label people."
"Or maybe I’m just too English,” he shrugged.