He’s the original celebrity chef and now a successful restaurateur with eateries up and down the country – including three in Birmingham. The one and only Marco Pierre White chatted to Amy Norbury about his new wine collection, life after the kitchen and how his culinary tastes have changed
He may have a Michelin starred palate capable of creating the most exquisite food you could imagine, but these days it appears that acclaimed chef Marco Pierre White has somewhat simpler tastes. A classic chip butty – made with chip-shop chips, slathered in salt and vinegar and sandwiched between buttery slices of white bread – is a simple snack which, he says, really gets his mouth watering.
“I have very working class tastes from growing up on a council estate,” confesses Marco. “I love a chip butty but it has to be made with white bread, in the old days it would have been Mother’s Pride or Sunblest. When you put on those hot chip-shop chips, with plenty of butter and salt and malt vinegar, the bread takes on the same texture as the potato and it’s just delicious.
“And then there’s Warburtons brown bread and butter; if we serve smoked salmon, or a lobster cocktail or a crab cocktail, we serve it with sliced brown bread and butter by Warburtons, cut into triangles on the side because it’s traditional. It’s how it was when I started my career as a boy in the Seventies and that’s right.
“I don’t like this posh bread because it doesn’t work, it’s not nice; they tried to give me rye bread somewhere the other day and it just wasn’t right; the texture and flavour doesn’t work with smoked salmon, you want something neutral so the salmon is the hero. Warburtons bread makes the salmon taste better without dominating.”
Marco is also a huge fan of Birmingham’s very own Bournville dark chocolate, and Walkers crisps – but don’t expect to find crisps on offer in any of his establishments.
“I don’t serve crisps because I think they’re terribly fattening,” declares the 55-year-old. “But if I did I’d serve Walkers.
“Walkers are the best crisps in the entire world. One, they’re crispy, and two, they dissolve on impact with an explosion of flavour. And I particularly don’t like those posh crisps which are spiky and hurt your mouth.
“I spent a lot of time in that three Michelin star world and I understand flavour, I understand texture, I understand quality, and Walkers crisps are the best there is.”
These may be surprising admissions from the man who changed the face of modern cooking. From humble beginnings on a Leeds council estate, the outspoken chef exploded onto the British culinary scene at the tail end of the 1980s when he opened Harvey’s restaurant in Wandsworth, earning a Michelin star almost immediately. Star number two followed, and the restaurant quickly became a favourite among celebrities and critics alike.
Marco had a reputation as the enfant terrible of the restaurant world, and tales surrounding his antics are the stuff of legend. On one occasion when a customer asked if he could have a side order of chips with his lunch, Marco hand-cut and personally cooked the chips, but charged the customer £25 for his time, while a young chef at Harveys who complained of heat in the kitchen had the back of his chef’s jacket and trousers cut open by Marco wielding a sharp paring knife.
He’s also known to have made a young Gordon Ramsey – who worked under him at Harvey’s – cry, and regularly ejected patrons from his restaurants if he took offence at their comments.
Suddenly cooking was extremely cool – and that was all down to the Marco effect. But behind the tales and legends, Marco was simply a culinary genius, creating gastronomic delights the like of which had never been seen before; he was the rock star of the kitchen.
At the age of just 33, as chef-patron of The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel, he became the first British chef to win the coveted three Michelin stars – and the youngest chef ever to do so.
And in true inimitable style, right at the top of his game Marco decided he’d had enough and promptly handed his stars back, retiring from the kitchen at just 38.
Despite the reputation Marco seems to have mellowed with age, much like a fine wine. And it is wine which brings us to the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Grill at the top of The Cube in the heart of Birmingham on a breezy autumn afternoon – Marco’s very own wine, in fact.
The wines have been created by Marco alongside celebrated winemaker Jean-Luc Colombo and will be exclusively available at Marco’s UK restaurants.
“Jean-Luc Colombo is a great wine-maker, he’s a genius; he produces the most delicious wine and he makes it affordable,” says Marco.
The Jean-Luc Colombo Marco Pierre White Blanc, made from Vermentino with a splash of Sauvignon Blanc, is perfect with seafood dishes, while the Jean-Luc Colombo Marco Pierre White Rosé is light, dry and subtle, perfect with fresh food flavours of the Mediterranean and the Jean-Luc Colombo Marco Pierre White Rouge is a rich and generous Syrah with no oak, just lush, spicy fruit – it’s quite delicious.
“I think what’s important, for me anyway, is to drink good wine when you eat,” says Marco. “And if a bottle of wine costs four or five quid more, and you get five glasses out of a bottle of wine, what’s an extra quid a glass to have quality?
“We can buy a bottle of wine for £18 in a restaurant and it’s of a standard, let’s just say that. But for £22.50 you can have a very, very good wine, and I prefer to go down that route.
“You’ve got people working in the kitchen who are producing food of a very good standard, why compromise their position by serving a mediocre wine? You can call me a snob, I don’t care. But if I have a good quality steak – and our steaks come from Campbell’s who have the royal crest and supply the Queen – let’s serve good wine with it.
“I came from very humble beginnings and I think that when you go out for dinner it’s a luxury. You can cook a steak at home but when you go to a restaurant you want a steak of a certain standard, cooked beautifully, and a good glass of wine with it. I’d rather pay a little bit more for quality, instead of saving a few quid.
“I’m the same as anyone else; I look at my bill at the end of the night and think, was that good value? Did we have a good night? And that’s what we’re in the business of, selling a good night.
“We can buy steak for our restaurants for less than we pay, but we choose not to. The problem is when you get steak at a restaurant which is a bit tough because it hasn’t been hung sufficiently you blame the chef, not the butcher, and that’s me being brutally honest. There are certain things you can’t compromise on, you have to start at a standard. Our beef is all 35-day aged; we could by beef that’s 21-day aged but it’s not the same.”
Simplicity and quality are mantras Marco lives by nowadays – sitting down to extravagant Michelin-starred meals just doesn’t have the same appeal any more.
“Nowadays I’m eating to live, I’m not eating to grow, so one course is enough for me,” says Marco. “Give me a great bowl of rigatoni with bolognese and a nice glass of chianti, or a great steak with a glass of Jean-Luc Colombo’s red wine and it’s fantastic.
“I’m not really interested in three Michelin starred food any more; I don’t want 18 courses of little knick knacks of lukewarm food and being lectured at – that’s not a good night out. That’s why I like bistros and brasseries, steakhouses and pizzerias.”
With two restaurants in Birmingham city centre – as well as the Steakhouse there’s Bardolino, named after the northern Italian area where his mother, Maria-Rosa, was born – Marco spends a lot of time in the Midlands. And he professes a great fondness for the second city.
“I like working class cities,” says Marco. “This part of England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution; there’s more talent in Birmingham than almost any other city in Britain.
“I believe I have a duty whenever I travel to various cities in the UK, that if we have a business in that city then I’ll only go there. I think you have to be loyal to your own establishments and I’m here maybe 15, 20 times a year.”
He’s been married three times and dated more than his fair share of models and actresses. But there’s only one lady in Marco’s life right now – his teenage daughter Mirabelle. The father-of-three lights up whenever he mentions her name – she’s a student at the Royal Ballet School and clearly the apple of her father’s eye.
And far from the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, these days Marco prefers the quiet life, pottering around his ‘toy’ farm, which spans around 20 acres in the countryside near Bath. And he enjoys the privacy and freedom his own little hideaway allows.
“Before she died, my mother instilled one thing in me, and that’s my love of nature,” says Marco. It’s really important to me.”
One of the noticeable things about Marco’s restaurants is the number of pictures of the man himself which are on display.
“If I had my way we’d have none of them; I’m very happy that people around me portray me as a narcissist,” he laughs wryly. “It doesn’t offend me though, because when I look at those pictures I don’t see myself, it was such a long time ago.”
Many of the portraits of Marco were taken by his great friend Bob Carlos Clarke, who sadly passed away in 2006. The two worked together on Marco’s seminal book, White Heat, a book which changed the image of the culinary world and influenced the careers of countless Michelin-starred chefs. Published in 1990, it was part cookbook, part autobiography and featured black and white shots of Marco in and out of the kitchen. Two of the book’s most iconic shots are the ones of Marco with a cigarette in his mouth, and one with a cleaver in his hand.
“We have one of the largest collections of Bob Carlos Clarke pictures in the world,” says Marco. “We have the collection from the last exhibition he did and we’ve kept it as one, in memory of Bob. I’m an emotional guy and that’s very important to me, to keep his last collection together.”
Marco’s incredible story could soon be played out on the big screen; Gladiator director Ridley Scott is slated to make the film, while three actors will play Marco at various stages of his life. Michael Fassbender is first choice for the middle Marco, with Russell Crowe rumoured to be in talks for the third incarnation.
As a chef, Marco was well known for his fiery temper. But, he claims that since hanging up his apron, he’s a much calmer person.
“I haven’t raised my voice since I was 32,” he says. “A conversation is an exchange of knowledge, an argument is an exchange of ignorance.
“I just don’t lose my temper or get angry any more.”