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Marco Pierre White: ‘Chefs are not geniuses or artists, they are just workers’

Chef Marco Pierre White is on his maiden trip to India to judge the fourth edition of ‘World On A Plate’ culinary festival and curate multi-course dinners and master classes. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/MintPremium
Chef Marco Pierre White is on his maiden trip to India to judge the fourth edition of ‘World On A Plate’ culinary festival and curate multi-course dinners and master classes. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

  • British chef Marco Pierr White on changing face of modern fine dining and importance of making food more affordable and accessible to all
  • White is on his maiden trip to India to judge the fourth edition of ‘World On A Plate’ culinary festival

Mumbai: Chef Marco Pierre White launched his first restaurant, Harvey’s, in London at age 24 and had won three Michelin stars by the time he was 33. At 38, he hung up his apron, returned his Michelin stars and retired from a life behind the stove. He traded the long hours for a different kind of food journey, one that turned him into a restaurateur and also took him to the world of television. Famous for his turns in Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef Australia, Marco Pierre White has been mentor, judge and master chef rolled into one.

In Mumbai as a judge for the fourth edition of the World On A Plate culinary festival, the legendary chef will judge some of the country’s top restaurants and also host master classes.

Regarded as the original enfant terrible among chefs, Marco Pierre White has, among other things, made Gordon Ramsay cry, criticized the relevance of the Michelin star rating and created the standard for modern dining in England.

He doesn’t have a smartphone, has never sent an email or even a fax in his life and sits with his back to the room even when he dines in his own restaurants. Yet, he is one of the most admired chefs in the world, who continues to inspire generations of young chefs entering the industry.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

How much have professional kitchens changed since your time at Harvey’s? Has this been a change for the better?

Well, I came from the world of grand cuisine. When I was a boy, going to a three Michelin star restaurant was like going to the theatre. Today, we have inherited a world of petite cuisine and when you go to a restaurant it’s like going to a canapé party. There are 10 to 18 courses and all of them are very small tepid portions. Today, the focus is on presentation rather than eating. For me food is about generosity and this should reflect on the plate as well. Kitchens have become more systematic and are not such emotional spaces anymore. Sauces today tend to be little dribbles out of bottles on the pass.

In the old days when you watched those wonderful chefs on the stove, it was like watching a pianist. They roasted a duck and would chop up the carcass and extract the sauce.

Today, most chefs cook by numbers. All great chefs have two things in common. First, they respect nature as the true artist and they are just cooks. Second, everything that they do is an extension of them as a person. It is true that the perception of cooking has changed, for when I was a boy it was a blue collar job. I suppose it’s a more white-collar job today and people are fascinated by the idea of being a chef. I don’t think there is anything to be fascinated by. We are not geniuses or artists. We are just workers. When I fill any forms and they ask for an occupation, I still fill mine as a cook.

Tell us about your role as celebrity TV chef and judge. Do reality food shows contribute to larger conversations about food?

First, just because I am in the public eye, it doesn’t make me a celebrity. The difference between me and a lot of people on TV is that they are there for their personality and not their abilities. So I don’t look at myself as a celebrity and I couldn’t imagine anything worse than that. The only time I am seen in public is when I go to work. When I go home to England I never leave my home. The reason I do television is because we all have to work and earn a living as I have four children. It’s also a platform for me to share my knowledge and inspire the young.

As far as reality shows are concerned, it’s not reality is it? It is manufactured TV and the one thing that I have tried to do in that environment is to be real. I don’t speak lies to contestants and it’s about my interactions with them rather than with the camera. So what happens is that the three weakest dishes might land up at a finale as long as it makes for good TV. I have always stood by my decisions even if that is not the ‘right’ decision. You have to look at the positives as well and the fact is that these shows inspire people to come into our industry. They inspire people to buy better produce and to cook and eat well.

In a world that is deeply affected by climate change and future food security, what according to you is the way ahead for sustainable eating?

If you manage food correctly there should be no wastage. There are a lot of people on the planet who don’t eat correctly every day and don’t have enough food to feed them or their families. Therefore, no wastage is a matter of principle for me. I don’t have a problem with non-organic or non-biodynamic agriculture as long as it is done right. Food should be affordable for the people as not everybody can eat organic or free range or buy the prime cuts. The people who don’t buy the prime cuts are often the better cooks as they have taught themselves how to cook correctly. I am not one of those chefs who is a campaigner because if everything was organic how many people would be able to afford that food?

What is your take on the Michelin award, which is regarded as the gold standard for culinary excellence?

What the Michelin star used to represent in the past and what it represents now are entirely different. I am not trying to be controversial but I think they have diluted their own currency. I read a book called Au Revoir by an American journalist and they interviewed the number 2 Michelin inspector in France who talked about how it had become a terrible deadweight for chefs.

Then they went to Japan where they were instructed by the head office to hand out stars because they had to build the Michelin brand name in the country and that’s how there were 13 or 14 three-star restaurants. In the old days, it used to take chefs 8-10 years to win three stars.

Do you ever miss the long kitchen hours? Is there anything that would make you return to that life?

I still work long hours but I do other things as well. I am building a hotel in Bath, England, and it will be a small place but it’s a very personal project and once that is done I will step back into the kitchen, but only to cook food that I want to eat. The food doesn’t have to be about three stars or snobbery, it should be about the pleasure of eating and making things affordable. So the idea will be to give people options and offer main courses in a range of prices from £10-25.

What is the ideal relationship between chefs and their diners?

The diner walks into your restaurants, sits down, orders food, eats and pays for it. The chef walks into his kitchen, wears his apron, works very hard and feeds his clients and makes his wage. That’s the only relationship there should be. As far as being intimidated in fine dining establishments, I have the perfect analogy. Walking into a three-Michelin starred restaurant should be like spending an evening with the most beautiful lady on earth—you are intimidated by her beauty but that intimidation is dissolved by the excitement.

Do you think the idea of Indian food has finally changed on a global stage and moved beyond chicken tikka masala?

I interact a lot with Indian chefs because I work with the British cruise line, P&O Cruises. Ninety per cent of the chefs on board are Indian. Whenever I am asked what I want for lunch on any of the ships, I ask for the local specialty and it might be from any part of India depending on where the chef is from. When I see the Indian chefs cooking in the kitchens, it is very interesting to see them cook and to see the level of sophistication and correctness in their techniques. Possibly because there isn’t all the flashiness associated with three Michelin stars, they are not taken all that seriously. Also, there is nothing wrong with chicken tikka masala and it’s delicious. In England, Indian restaurants are largely very affordable and part of a cheap night out. I don’t know another cuisine that delivers that kind of quality at the price that it offers it at. It’s the best value cuisine in the world and they could charge a lot more but the truth is that most of these establishments are not in Mayfair but in the suburbs and the prices they offer you food at is the market price of that area.

What is the secret of a successful chef?

Success is born out of luck and being given an opportunity. It is awareness of mind that allows one to take advantage of that opportunity. My three Michelin stars was a stepping stone for me into another world. I won my three stars and then I hung up my apron, which meant that I could go anywhere in the world. The truth is that to be a successful chef you have to be a pied piper and get people to follow you. It was not me who won the three Michelin stars, rather it was the boys and the girls behind me who won it.

What is your current comfort food?

The last few days I spent in England, I had an egg sandwich—two fried eggs cooked to perfection, seasoned correctly and placed inside working class white bread because that is the bread with the best texture for eggs done like this.

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