“I’m not being controversial, I’m being honest” – Marco Pierre White
“When I get the chance, I slip out to Burdock’s,” cooes Marco Pierre White, when pressed on his favourite Dublin eatery. Ross Lewis’ Chapter One and the Grand Old Dame The Shelbourne, where he often stays, rank highly in Marco’s opinion, and the memory of an afternoon in Dalkey enjoying lobster and our fine seafood springs immediately to his mind.
While Marco is known not to mince his words when he dislikes something, he is quick to point out when he is very taken by a place, and Dublin has won a place in his heart – “there’s a lot of very honest food in Dublin, you go to a lot of cities and the food is very ‘fluffy’ but when you’re in Dublin they actually feed you and feed you well, you always get service with a smile,” he says.
Dublin is without question one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s a complete gem. It’s very beautiful with its Georgian squares and terraces, magnificent actually.
It is easy to assume that Marco is just a face behind a brand, but he is quick to rebut this. On the topic of his two Dublin eateries, on Dawson Street and Donnybrook, Marco is adamant that staying heavily involved is a priority for him, not least because he wants things done properly. “Last year I spent 30 days in Dublin and by the end of this year I’ll have spent 25 to 30 days overall,” he confirms, explaining that he takes to the kitchen himself with the chefs to show them how he likes things done.
During a recent trip to our shores Marco had the pleasure of “sticking his nose in” to Taste of Dublin. Although he wandered in, he was slow to leave, describing it as “the prettiest and the gentlest of all those Taste shows I’ve been to, Taste of Melbourne or London,” he says. “It didn’t have that scent of commercial-ness. I really enjoyed it and that’s why I stayed as long as I did, I definitely ended up sticking more than my nose in!” he laughs.
On chefs, the man who once made the bellicose Gordon Ramsay cry believes those in Ireland are passionate and humble with an incredible thirst for knowledge. For a man who is quoted as saying “success is born out of arrogance, but greatness comes from humility”, this is high praise indeed. Humility and honesty are two things that Marco places great weight on.
Most will remember Marco’s most recent appearance on Irish screens, which saw him judging TV3’s The Restaurant in his Donnybrook Courtyard Restaurant alongside Tom Doorley. Marco found himself on the receiving end of a rant which led Doorley to fitfully spit “you’re being fucking patronising Marco!””I don’t know why he reacted the way he did but it was extraordinary…”he says, noting that it was quite out of character for the food critic, before calming pointing out;
…when you have more knowledge than somebody, it’s very hard to be patronising.
I brace myself for the blunt honesty he is known to serve up by the plateful, no holds barred. While you could write a novel on the exploits and expletives of Marco Pierre White, I’m primarily concerned with discussing the topic Marco has sage-like, unparalleled wisdom on – food. Typically thought to be rough around the edges, Marco seems to have some soft spots, he is in love with nature, describing it as his ‘surrogate mother.’ Now immersed in it living in the Wiltshire countryside, she is the first and last word in food for him.
Allow mother nature to be the true artist. Have confidence in whatever you’re cooking perfectly and serve it hot and allow her to be herself rather than trying to turn her into something she’s not. I am not into this modern fluff, I can admire it but I don’t want to eat it.
“Fluff” would emerge as a common theme in Marco’s parlance, the term encapsulates everything he dislikes about modern haute cuisine, which he describes as ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes” kind of cooking in many cases.
The problem with a lot of food today is it is all designed around the visual. A lot of that visual is to hide, and I was guilty of it as a young chef, you put more emphasis on presentation rather than cooking because you are hiding your lack of technical ability and lack of competence through presentation.
The youngest chef ever to earn three Michelin stars at just 33, and the first British chef to do so, Marco has attained legendary status but such an achievement must have taken its toll on the young chef. “If you do anything to an extreme it becomes an obsession, sort of a dysfunction. To work as hard as I did as a young man is not healthy, it’s dysfunction.” Showing great introspection, he admits; “an obsession can be a negative or a positive, but with any form of addiction, once you analyse it, it is a negative. To work 100 hours a week, at the pace that I did, seven days a week is not good for you.”
However, looking back and seeing how it paid off, Marco wouldn’t have had it any other way. “You know what, I’m glad I did it. I discovered myself through food and by pushing myself to those extremes I started to understand who I was,” he says.
Despite his prestigious 3 star accolade, which he handed back when he decided to move away from the professional kitchen, Marco feels dwelling on his achievements would be ‘an anchor’. He acknowledges that “the greatest accolade anybody can ever be given is to be accepted and respected by your industry” but is candid about his feelings on the modern Michelin Guide. Hot food is a must be cold hard honesty is a guarantee with Marco. “I don’t understand the criteria of Michelin any more. Because it has changed,” he notes, citing the example of the first Japanese Michelin Guide to illustrate his point.
“In that first guide, 8 restaurants got 3 stars. In year one. In the old days you had to earn your stars and prove consistency over many years” Marco explains. “When I was a boy, to win three stars, you had to earn one star and work to a standard to retain it and then win two stars, retain that and prove consistency over a period of time. To win 3 stars you almost had to be a 3 star restaurant before they gave you 3 stars.”
You’ve got to remember, he says, that “the people giving out those stars have less knowledge than the individual behind the stove.” He becomes more animated asking “what is a star worth, or two stars or three stars?”They are worthless. Because you are being given them by people who have less knowledge than yourself.” While some may call this arrogance, with the current debate on the importance and relevance of Michelin, Marco is one of the few people qualified to make such a statement. Michelin stars, he says unrepentant, are “the last thing I would ever be influenced by. I don’t trust them.” Today he says, “Michelin is, in my opinion, a marketing tool to sell tyres.”
San Pellegrino’s World Top 50 Best Restaurants holds even less esteem for Marco. “I’m not being controversial Darina, I’m being honest,” he cautions;
San Pellegrino is Mickey Mouse. If you look at some of the restaurants in the Top 20, they absolutely shouldn’t be there. Tell me, did all those judges, did they dine in every one of the 50 restaurants? The answer is no. Anything with sponsorship, you have to question. They are a marketing vehicle and I’ve looked at some of them and dined in some of them and they shouldn’t be there.
While the Guide and San Pellegrino swoon over Chicago’s Alinea, the arena for Mike Bagale’s theatrical gastronomy known for course after course of creations such as edible balloons and flavoured air, it fell foul of Marco and cemented his distrust in both.
I hated it. I thought it was boring, unintelligent food. It was like going to watch David Blaine. It is trickery and style over substance. I really hated it and I haven’t got the patience to sit there over 20 courses. It’s a very weird concept. Just give me something that’s real.
It is at this point that we move from what Marco doesn’t want from food – “canapé portions and conveyor belt cuisine” – to what does excite him. “We live in a world of refinement, not invention,” he clarifies. As chefs age, they begin to realise that they don’t need to hide behind mad cap combinations and smoke and mirrors presentation. The more you do to food, Marco believes, the more you take away.
You look at great artists, as they get older, their works become looser and simpler, and cooks are the same. Great cooks become very simple in the end. They have confidence in their technical ability and the produce that they are working with.
He hails the legendary Alain Passard and Michel Guerard as purveyors of ‘proper three star’ food and it is the classic, simple but perfectly executed dishes that Marco craves. “I like eating and I want to be fed and fed well” he clarifies, listing classic combinations as his food loves. “I don’t get salmon and liquorice, give me Madeira and mushrooms, tomato and basil, lamb with mint and redcurrant jelly”, he says. Enthusiastically he confirms “I just like very simple food – a plate of a dozen oysters, give me Burdock’s cod in batter with malt vinegar and salt – delicious, I love it!”
As much as food has been the primary focus of much of his 54 years, for his death row meal Marco knows very well what he would want and what he wouldn’t. “Can you imagine saying I’ll have a roast chicken? Can you imagine going to the gallows stuffed?!” he laughs heartily.
At that stage in the game who cares – it’s about who you sit with, I’d love to sit down and have a nice bottle of red with the people I love. The thought of eating bores me senseless on my last night on Earth. It’s about the moment, with the people I love.
When it comes to memorable meals, although he recalls fantastic technical dishes in the old Tante Claire and La Gavroche under Albert Roux, Marco reveals that “great meals tend to be about who I dine with rather than where I eat.” This philosophy of valuing the people around the table over the food on the plate is key to the MPW brand and the experience Marco wants to create for his diners today.
“I’m not there to impress them but rather feed them well at a price that is fair to them and fair to us,” he says of his ever expanding restaurant empire. Highlighting that they are not trying to be Michelin starred restaurants but rather restaurants where people actually want to spend an evening, he explains that “life is to be enjoyed. Maybe that’s what I’m now in the business of, creating stages for people to create memories.”
There are few in this world who can be immediately identified by the mere mention of their initials bar, perhaps, JFK. MPW is one such figure, revered the world over as a culinary genius. Before there was Gordon, before there was Heston, there was White Heat, the man who schooled them all.
We begin to say our goodbyes and I am confused. This is the man known the world over for his fiery temper and belligerence. Marco concludes our conversation with the least likely of sign offs for someone widely regarded as the bad boy of the culinary world. Perhaps he has mellowed with age, admittedly happier now living in Wiltshire amongst nature and away from the ‘institutionalised’ surroundings of London. “God Bless,” he says softly.
To experience Marco Pierre White’s Dublin restaurants for yourself, click here.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!