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White Heat

Super-chef Marco Pierre White had it all – three Michelin stars, a jet-set celebrity profile and a glamorous wife. And then he jacked it all in. Nancy Alsop discovers what caused the implosion and reveals that success second time round is even sweeter.

Marco Pierre White fixes me with one of his disarmingly intent stares, and then tells me that he has fallen in love. Such is the force of his extravagant – at times alarming – magnetism and commitment to the moment, that for a millisecond I wonder if he is declaring his amour for me. Granted, it would be unorthodox even by his standards, given that we met just twenty minutes ago, but then, White is an all-or-nothing sort of chap. This is the man who slavishly pursued the ultimate gastronomic triumvirate through his twenties and early thirties, grabbed his three Michelin stars by the record-smashing age of 33 (he was also the first Brit to do so), and then, in an unprecedented move, gave them back just five years later.

But no, it seems that his ardour is reserved for another. And this time – for the first time, he tells me – it’s The Real Thing. That she’s half-Spanish, and half-Italian is all he will reveal of his mystery paramour. But just as the fixity of his gaze reaches full throttle, he breaks it up with a shiny-eyed, wolf-like smile and, donning the thick Yorkshire intonation of his youth, expands: ‘It’s like being with my mother and the ex-wife.’ That’s probably just why you fell for her, I proffer. He concurs. ‘She’s the best of them both.’ And what’s more, he says, he has never felt happier.

The pursuit of happiness, conscious or not, is prosaically paramount to us all, but nonetheless, White’s personal Operation Contentment has been more rollercoaster, thrilling and elusive than most. Everything that surrounds him is extreme; his rapt stare is merely the physical manifestation of the zeal he applies to the everyday of his life.

The quest began at The Box Tree in Ilkley where he received his formative training – still ‘the most magical restaurant I have ever stepped inside’ – and where he convinced his superiors that he was the fastest veg chef in history. Following on, he worked for a handful of the greatest chefs of the time. Albert and Michel Roux, as well as Raymond Blanc all contributed to the making of this enfant terrible, who, once installed at Wandsworth’s Harvey’s (where he garnered his third star) became the world’s first celebrity chef.

Inevitably, where greatness dwells, the rumour vultures come circling, and White’s kitchen was no exception; reports of unpalatable working conditions and even violence within it – some not unfounded – did the rounds, but amidst the gossip, he kept his head down and cooked. That is, until that day in 1999, mourned by many, when he hung up his apron for good. On which subject he is staunchly impenitent: ‘If I buy tickets to see Elton John with you tonight, we sit down, the curtains open and it’s his right-hand man playing his songs, we’re not happy are we? We don’t mind paying big money so long as the guy whose name’s above the door is cooking.’ Unlike some of his contemporaries, White was not prepared to live that lie; nor was he willing to continue working long hours six days a week, only ever seeing his children in their beds. ‘ I decided to give back my stars, to let go of my status, to abdicate from my position and to accept that the next day, I’m unemployed.’
That was nine years ago; in the interim, he exiled himself to the country: ‘I went shooting, fishing and stalking – it was a journey of self-discovery’. Today we are installed in the 1920s jazz club-inspired Knightsbridge manifestation of Frankie’s Bar and Grill, the small chain White set up with friend and jockey, Frankie Dettori. After his edifying sabbatical, he has returned, but as a restaurateur, and categorically not as a chef. The inspiration behind these glitterball-lit throwback establishments was to give the public affordable glamour. Disillusioned with the archaic criteria of Michelin when he threw in the towel, he maintains (and Frankie’s underlines) that he has ‘had it with the fussy French world. I want to give people what they want at a price point that doesn’t sting their pockets’. And he does this well. Simple, basic and largely Italian, it harks back to White’s and Dettori’s familial roots.
White seems in jolly spirits; by no means is his brooding element totally vanished, but he certainly appears calmer than in those heady days when he was behind the stove. These days he says, he has his ‘visions’, rather than ambitions, but ask him what his biggest luxury is and without missing a beat he replies humbly: ‘Being alive. I live for the moment. I don’t think of my past, and I don’t think of my future. People condemn me for being this spontaneous creature, but when you watch your mother die like I did when I was six, you live for the moment.’

White presents something of a riddle; there are, without doubt, theatrical qualities. His conversation is precisely delivered, reflective, self-possessed. He tells me that he enjoys giving interviews, largely because he has always done so many more than the person interviewing him (‘they’re always scared of me’, he says with a part-twinkly, part-combative grin), yet his talk is peppered liberally with assertions of being ‘not that clever’. Likewise, he declares himself free of burning professional drive, but professes that ‘the only line I’ve ever really related to is Salvador Dali’s. He said: ‘At six, I wanted to be a chef, at seven, Napoleon, and my ambitions have been growing ever since.’ He is relaxed, yet he only snatches a Thatcherite four hours sleep every night. He singles out Napoleon as his hero, for his rare combination of vision and action, and yet his greatest influence, he says more understatedly, has been his mother. ‘Whenever I have to make a decision, I always ask what she would do.’

Despite the enigma, two things are for certain. First, that he has an impish and at times wicked sense of humour, as evidenced in his recent ITV series, Marco’s Great British Feast, in which he traversed the country in a nostalgic bid to rediscover some of the all-but-lost culinary traditions of his youth, all the while ribbing his faithful driver and Man Friday, Mr Ishii, as well as himself, and, at one point, delighting like a child in the company of a pair of donkeys.

At six, I wanted to be a chef, at seven, Napoleon, and my ambitions have been growing ever since

The second is that, in keeping with the abiding staunchness of his character, he is unswervingly loyal. And well he should be; as he tells me, he chooses friends with care. ‘I only associate with people who enrich my life and my family’s life. If not, then I don’t go down that road, it’s a waste of energy. I’m highly generous, because that is my nature. What no one knows is that when I give to people, I watch how they receive. Do they take it with appreciation, or do they take the piss? It’s a very small price to pay to know who somebody is. Just give it to them.’ He is devoted to his teenage children – his ‘beautiful boys’ – with whom he has just spent two weeks touring Spain, Italy and France. ‘I will never invest emotionally in anything in my life as much as I did winning three stars from Michelin professionally, so therefore, the only thing I would ever invest in to such a great degree is my children,’ says White.

But above all things, Marco Pierre White is steadfastly honest. He will never give you the most flattering version of the truth, simply the Whitean account, and the curious blend of humility and self-belief is perhaps natural for a man who left school with no qualifications, yet turned out to be the trailblazing culinary genius of modern gastronomy.

So when he tells you that he considers his ultimate success to be his self-discovery, or that he has no regrets, you are inclined to believe him, for there is nothing of the crowd pleaser about White. Take for instance, his refusal to be drawn into any sort of public social scene; he chooses instead to be seen only within his own establishments. ‘I don’t walk the streets, I don’t go shopping, no one sees me in public, I don’t turn up to charity events – doesn’t mean I don’t support them, but I don’t like charity being made in to a social event. In fact, I hate it. I don’t turn up to award ceremonies. Everybody is given a choice in life, whether they swim in the deep end of society, or the shallow end of society. I choose to swim with those at the deep end.’ And of course, from time-to-time, with journalists, with whom he says he is unfailingly frank. ‘The reality is, I have told everything to everybody in my life. If you sit down with a journalist, you have to be honest, you have to answer their questions, you can’t go around the bushes.’ Which, I tell him, makes him a singularly gratifying subject. ‘You don’t get them better girl’. And in a miasma of tobacco smoke, he’s gone.

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