Hell’s Kitchen: Interview With Marco Pierre White

Describe a memorable, ‘Marco-esque’ kitchen incident.

“There have been many. People often refer to the time when I was at Harveys and all the chefs were complaining about the heat. I turned off the air conditioning and said: ‘Right then, we’ll all roast together.’

“They never complained about the heat again. Actually, one of them did, so I slashed his trousers with a carving knife, to give him a bit of ventilation. That was in the old days. When I was at the Hyde Park and the Oak Room, there weren’t too many incidents like that.”

What was the last dish you cooked?

“Lobster sauce vierge au basilic, yesterday. It’s just a grilled lobster with a sauce of lemon, olive oil, basil, tomatoes, black olives, and cracked coriander. It’s not just the cooking of the dish. What I love about something like lobster is actually going to the market and buying it. That’s where I get my inspiration.”

What did you think of the previous series?

“I didn’t watch much of it, but what I saw I realised this: it would have been a better show without Gary Rhodes.”

How would you describe your leadership style?

“I don’t think I ever had any.”

You’re well known for kicking customers out of your restaurant. Discuss.

“I don’t go out of my way to kick people out. People kick themselves out because of the way they behave in a restaurant. When you’re running a restaurant, you can’t devote all of your energies to one particular table. Just because they are spending a lot of money, it doesn’t mean they are entitled to be rude to staff and other diners.”

What are you childhood memories of food?

“One of my favourites was roast goose with sage and onion stuffing, with apple sauce and gravy, on New Year’s Day.”

Your father was a chef. What did you learn from him?

“My mother died when I was six, and so I was always required to help my father in the kitchen and so I think I was always surrounded by food, preparing vegetables or helping with the cooking. It might be picking mint from the garden to make mint sauce, or shelling peas.

“In the late sixties and early seventies, tinned food was very much a middle class luxury. We never, for instance, had Heinz Baked Beans. My father would get haricot beans, soak them overnight, drain them and fry them in bacon fat for breakfast.

The only tinned food we had was sardines, which my dad served on toast.

“Sunday lunch was a three-course meal: Yorkshire pudding with onion gravy, followed by a roast, and then a dessert of crumble.”

What sort of dishes will you be doing in Hell’s Kitchen?

“In Hell’s Kitchen we will be using the best ingredients of the season that we can possibly get. We will be giving an insight into the great French restaurants which inspired me as a boy. “

What is your reason for doing Hell’s Kitchen?

“Mainly for my children. My youngest daughter has never seen me in the kitchen. And my two boys were so young when I was in the kitchen that they wouldn’t remember much about it. Their mother would bring them in and they’d sit on the pass, and we’d have a little chat just before lunch service.”

Have you mellowed since retiring from the kitchen in 1999?

“We’ll find out, won’t we? I haven’t been in a kitchen for eight years so it’s a difficult question to answer.

“I don’t care who they are. I have a job to do and they have chosen to be part of that team and so they now have a job to do as well. If they are there for the wrong reason then they will be exposed.”

How will you treat the celebrity chefs?

“I am there to inspire people, not belittle people. Some people would question whether they wanted their children to go into the industry, having seen certain chefs on TV. What I would like to do is give a true insight into the industry, which makes people want to go into it.

“When I agreed to do the show, I said that I wanted it to be inspirational, educational and interesting otherwise I wasn’t interested in doing it. For that reason, I really want to get across the food.

“I will have challenges every day, and the loser has to make the staff lunch. The challenges I have in mind are souffle making, opening oysters, plucking a partridge.”

Do you have a game plan for the show?

“Right at the beginning, I will tell the contestants the rules. Essentially, the number one rule is that I am the boss, and what I say goes. If they don’t like something then they have the right to question me after service.”

Do you like to create a happy atmosphere in the kitchen?

“I don’t know about happy. If chefs are going to talk, then it is only to talk about the job. There’s no time for chit-chat. It just doesn’t work.

“The other thing is, I actually like the sounds of the kitchen – the clitter clatter and the sounds of roasting and frying.

“I think people need to concentrate. Let’s not forget, they might be a celebrity outside the kitchen, but the minute they walk into the kitchen they are not a celebrity.

I am not there to be their friend. They have chosen to put two weeks of their lives into my hands.”

How will you deal with a chatty celebrity, who’s not obeying orders?

“I will have my own table in the kitchen. If anyone starts to talk or starts to drift they will have to come and work next to me on my table. I might have three or four of them around me.

“When I was a boy at school, the naughty boys had to sit at the headmaster’s table at lunchtime. It’ll be a bit like that. They’re all going to Coventry, not Hell’s Kitchen.”

You famously made Gordon Ramsay cry? Why?

“First off, I didn’t make him cry. He made himself cry. It was his last night of working for me at Harveys, and he flipped and started sobbing. But if you asked any of the chefs who worked with me if they would rather not have had that experience, all of them will say they got a great deal out of the experience. Many of them went on to win Michelin stars.”

Describe an encounter with a customer.

“Alan Miller, the City fund manager who made headlines when he was ordered to pay his wife £5 million in a divorce settlement.

“He came into my restaurant at the Hyde Park. He came up to me and said, ‘Mr White, I’ve got a complaint about the size of the portions.’

“I said: ‘Have you paid the bill.’

“He said: ‘No.’

“I said: ‘I don’t want to talk to you until you’ve paid the bill.’

“He returned five minutes later and said: ‘I’ve paid the bill.’

“I said: ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’ He left.

“Alan is now one of my very best friends.”

When you visit restaurants are you a fussy diner?

“No. I never complain. I always pay the bill and leave.”

Being a chef is a notoriously tough job. You’re on your feet all day and the hours are long. Bearing in mind you haven’t been into a kitchen for eight years, what have you done to prepare for your return?

“Nothing, really.”

What would you eat for your final meal?

“Fresh crab, gulls’ eggs, wild smoked salmon. Good English food. But it’s not what I’d eat. It’s who I’d be sitting with, even more so if it’s going to be my last meal.”

What makes a great chef?

“He accepts that Mother Nature is the true artist and he is just the cook. Everything he does is an extension of him as a person. Great chefs also give you an insight into the world that they came from.”

Are you mad?

“I don’t think I am. I think madness follows me around.”

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