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Marco Pierre White - Master, Mentor, Maestro, Myth

The name Marco Pierre White conjours connotations of kitchen confrontations, wild hair and bandanas. But at his heart he's just a man obssessed with food, albeit perfectly prepared food.

The reputation of Marco Pierre White is as towering and physically imposing as the man himself. You’ve probably heard all the stories before – youngest chef to win three Michelin stars, made Gordon Ramsay cry, handed back his stars, retired from the kitchen only to come back to become a phenomenally successful restaurateur, brand ambassador and TV host.

Over his star-studded career, he’s been described as self-possessed, ill-tempered, irritable and volatile. But in the same breath, he’s known to be incredibly loyal to friends, encouraging of colleagues, vehemently protective of his family, and intensely passionate, especially, almost exclusively, about food and cooking. He admits he knows little about anything else with the exception of hunting and fishing. He doesn’t get involved in politics, seldom discusses art, music or sport and he can’t even drive. But get him in a kitchen and he’s in his element – in fact, he’s a maestro.

 

Mentor, Myth

When we catch up backstage just an hour before the opening of ‘An Italian Feast with Marco Pierre White’ at Seppeltsfield Barrel Hall as part of Tasting Australia, Marco is all guns blazing. He’s come straight from the kitchen where he’s devised and prepared a wild mushroom risotto dish for 150 guests, and he is excited – borderline manic, but at the same time effusive and gregarious. He’s been working alongside Tasting Australia’s culinary coordinator Jock Zonfrillo, a Marco protégé – one of many who have come through his kitchen and on to greater things. Ramsay is another, so is Heston Blumenthal, and Curtis Stone. The list goes on.

With such a proven pedigree of nurturing prodigious talent, one would think Macro knows all there is to know about leading a kitchen. But when he fronted his first restaurant, Harveys, in the (then) unfashionable London suburb of Wandsworth as a brash 24-year-old, in 1987, he knew anything but.

“When I opened Harveys, the truth was, I had no leadership skills,” admits Marco candidly. “I went from being a cook in great kitchens to being a chef patron. The only way I’ve known how to lead is from the front, by setting an example, by working hard, by getting dirty.”

Marco’s no compromise, ‘do as I do’ style produced results. By year’s end, Harveys was named Restaurant of the Year by The Times and was awarded a Michelin star. Within two years, it had two. Marco became a celebrity – the first ever celebrity chef, a title that’s commonplace today, but was totally novel in the late 1980s.

Maestro, master

That is not to say the chefs Marco learned from weren’t deserving of celebrity status. Back then, it wasn’t a thing. But as far as mentors go, Marco had some of the best.

“I was privileged to work with the great Albert and Michel Roux, Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann, Raymond Blanc and a man who not many people would know of, Michael Lawson, who was head chef at the Box Tree, which had two Michelin stars in the late 70s,” says Marco.

“When you spend time with all those people you can’t help but take a little bit from them. Michael was very gentle and took me under his wing. Albert had kitchen presence like nobody else. Pierre didn’t have the ability to express his knowledge – you had to watch him and learn with your eyes. Nico was interesting because he was self-taught but he was very precise and questioned everything.”

Try Marco Pierre White's lemon tart recipe

Great leaders

With the accumulated knowledge of great mentors and the learnings of experience, Marco is now well placed to know the importance of leadership.

“A great leader brings the best out of people, and a great leader pulls a team together,” he says. “That’s the thing about leadership: people talk about me winning three stars. The truth is, I never won them. It was the boys and girls behind me who won them. I was just one link within the chain. What they did for me was make my dream come true. In return, I gave them their dream. That’s what cooking is all about – it is about sharing.”

While cooking and eating maybe about sharing, Marco is fiercely adamant about two keys to the success of his kitchens: emotion and consistency.

“For me, you can’t be emotionally attached. Emotions are for the bedroom – not for the kitchen,’ he says. “In a kitchen you have to be disciplined, you have to stay focused, and by being disciplined and staying focused you create consistency. That’s what (Michelin) stars are about, consistency. If you’re involved emotionally with your team, they will take advantage. You have to stay detached to the point of almost being sociopathic.”

That is not to say that Marco thinks his style should be adopted by every chef. During his time in South Australia he ate at Africola restaurant, led by uber talented chef Duncan Welgemoed. Marco loved everything he saw.

“I sat on the counter and I just watched the show,” recalls Marco. “Duncan is one of the cleverest chefs I’ve met. He knows exactly what he wants to do and he goes about it. He leads from the front, but he is also very kind – he is a different monster to me. He invests emotionally in his staff. I am there to do a job. When they leave, then I can be their friend.

“For me, it’s lead from the front. Lead by example. If you get dirty, make sure you’re twice as dirty as everybody else. If you sweat, much sure you sweat twice as much as everybody else. If you can do that, then people who have limited ability will jump through hoops of fire for you.”

So does that mean he thinks a great leader can bring out the best in chefs that aren’t so talented? With Marco hosting the Australian version of Hell’s Kitchen on Channel 7, we find out.

“There you have it, 10 celebs. Different talents, different abilities. But as soon as you put them into chef’s whites and take them into the kitchen, they are no longer celebs, they are cooks,” levels Marco.

“In the kitchen, I am the pied piper and they have one of two options: they can either follow me or I’ll leave them behind. I am there to do a job and that job is to feed all those diners to the best of the contestants’ ability within a time frame.

“But more than that, if people watch the show and choose to enter our industry or are inspired to cook better food for their kids, then I’ve done my job. That is why I do TV – it is the modern day church.
I get to speak to lots of people about what I love. That’s my job – not being a TV star.”

Bringing the heat

One the things that’s propelled Marco into the domain of mythical proportions is the classic, White Heat. More than a cookbook, its ‘fly on the wall’ photography took readers behind the closed doors of a kitchen and revealed the harsh realities of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

In the middle of it all was Marco. Tall, lean and driven. Wild hair. Stars in his eyes. Obsessed with creating perfection. A young punk, rock n roll chef. The book turned him into a role model, and a sex symbol. Guys wanted to be him, girls wanted to bed him. Many chefs of today admit it was White Heat that drove them into a world of cooking.

“I think back to the days of White Heat and of my dear friend Bob Carlos Clarke, who unfortunately is no longer with us, but was a wonderful photographer. We had the idea of black and white photography showing off the sweat and dirt and physical pain of working in a kitchen,” recalls Marco.

“From that, White Heat became an iconic book, but it was all by default.
I didn’t have time to do a cookery book, that is why there are only 35 recipes in the book – I was always working. Harveys was tiny, a hole in the wall, we sometimes worked 20 hours a day.

“I look back and I see that iconic photograph of me with the fag (cigarette) and the reality is I don’t see myself. I see my son Luciano. It is really peculiar. He is identical to me when I was younger. He has chosen to go down the same road as his father. He is in the kitchen with the boys from El Bulli at the moment in Barcelona. But that was his choice.”

By his own admissions – Marco, the maestro, the master – is mere myth.

“I am an idealist, a romanticist, but totally dysfunctional,” he admits. “But I have taught myself to navigate through life. I think everything I ever do in my life is by default. Nothing has ever been planned – I am not that clever. You do something, you get stuck in and you get dirty. It is as simple as that.”

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Food
Migration of the Fat Duck
Words by Paul Diamond on 4 Sep 2015
If you have gastronomic tendencies, you would have known that Heston Blumenthal migrated his Fat Duck restaurant, staff, cutlery, crockery, lock, stock and barrel to Melbourne earlier this year. Most restaurateurs would say that the whole idea is too big, too costly and just plain crazy! But accepting limitations is not part of Heston’s DNA. As a teenager with no background or training in cooking, he decided food was to be his focus and at 18, after a truncated probation week at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire (then considered one of Britain’s finest), decided he was going to teach himself and obsessively began reading, deconstructing, reconstructing and experimenting. “If you obsess over failure then you become scared, you don’t take risks and work becomes a tireless chore,” he says. “Failure does not exist in a truly creative world – failure is the opportunity to learn and discover.” A brave start In 1995, he opened The Fat Duck with only a month’s commercial kitchen experience and the result was a unique, multi-sensory experience that bent flavour and infused it with whimsy, alchemy and nostalgia that challenged tradition, technique and dining in general. Since then, Heston has gone on to rule the food world: The Fat Duck has held three Michelin stars for a decade; he opened Dinner By Heston that now has two stars; the one-starred The Hinds Head ; The Crown at Bray village pub and The Perfectionists’ Café . Outside the Michelin system, his restaurants have been voted best in the world and have remained in the upper echelons of the globe’s best 50 restaurants. He has created eight cookbooks, seven TV series, has been awarded an O.B.E. for his services to British gastronomy and been admitted to The Royal British Society of Chemistry as a fellow. A gentleman of the kitchen Blumenthal is one the most celebrated people of our time, but face to face, you get the sense that the trappings of fame hold no interest. He is warm, polite, respectful and engaging. So why does he have such an obsession with food? A clue to this riddle might lie in the fact that he has synaesthesia; a neurological anomaly in which the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary stimulation of a second. In simple terms, Heston associates colours with letters and sounds with tastes. In Heston’s world, food and everything that comes with it, is something quite different and may explain why every dish at the Fat Duck is designed to go beyond sight, taste and smell. His Sounds of the Sea signature dish is a perfect example. It comes on a piece of glass suspended over sand and broken shells. A cloud of salt-water foam sits beside edible seaweed, abalone, clams, cockles and tapioca. It is served with a shell that contains an iPod and headphones that play the sound of waves crashing on a beach. It may sound like a strange thing to do; eat a lecithin-infused saltwater foam with seaweed while listening to the ocean. But the smells, the sound, the tastes and the interaction of each sense drags up memories and smells long forgotten. It’s almost like looking through a family photo album for the first time in 15 years. There is little doubt that Heston has changed the way we think about food and Australians love him for it. In the two months after the Fat Duck’s move to Australia was announced, 40,000 booking enquires were received and when a random ballot system was created at $525 per head, 250,000 punched their credit card details into the system, vying for just over 16,000 seats. So why Australia? “I love it here,” he says. “If I was going to open my first restaurant outside the UK, it had to be somewhere I actually wanted to go. Every time I land here, I feel like I can breathe. “And Aussies, when it comes to food, are incredibly open minded.” Heston’s affection for Australia extends beyond the people and the place to the quality of our ingredients. “I subsequently started discovering how much great produce there is here,” he says. “My favourite ingredients are definitely the truffles and the beef, but I’ve also been really lucky to try some of the indigenous ingredients, which can be quite tricky to work with because they have to deal with such extreme heat conditions. Also, some of the fish is amazing; fish and chips made from bass grouper are just fantastic – very gelatinous flavours. “One of my last trips was with a man called Josh who takes food tours. We picked abalone and rock oysters, cooking them straight from the water. That was fantastic and a great example of how food is so rooted in a time and place and how it has a strong connection with the land.” A vibrant future What also excites Mr Blumenthal is the future of food in Australia and how our multicultural diversity will allow our cuisine to evolve and develop without the boundaries that exist elsewhere.   “Australian culture is certainly young enough for fresh innovation, it’s very multi-cultural, very modern, very open minded and inquisitive. “These are all the things needed for creativity. I believe Australians have a real sense of pride in their past, a knowledge of their heritage, but Australia’s food history is too young to slip backwards. “One thing is for sure, it’s vibrant and exciting and completely delicious!” On the subject of dining and who he would like to have dinner with, dead or alive, his answer provides an insight into the depth of his inquisitive nature. “It would have to be the pre-human ape who was the first being to cook food on a fire,” he answers. “Eating cooked food has developed the human mind and made us who we are. There was almost a million years between discovering fire and cooking, after those million years, what happened? What did it taste like? I’d love to know, I’d like to have dinner with them and ask them.” The Australian version of the Fat Duck is now over, with the staff winging their way back for the northern hemisphere spring and the vacated space being prepped for a permanent version of the highly successful and more accessible Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. So if you missed out on getting a seat at the Fat Duck and want to experience and taste the world of Heston, then a trip to the Crown complex in Melbourne should be part of your next migration. Watch Selector’s exclusive video interview with Heston:
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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