Marco Pierre White has been called the godfather of modern cooking. The youngest chef ever to hold three Michelin stars, Marco gave them back in order to keep his independence. Now a restauranteur, Marco has restaurants across the UK under eight different brands. BLM sat down with Marco to discuss his values, the vegan movement, and why he gave back those Michelin stars.
You come from a family of chefs, is that right?
Yes, my father and grandfather and uncle were chefs. In those days, you took on your family profession. If my father had been a butcher, I’d have been a butcher. If he was a miner, I’d have gone down the pits. But he was a chef so that’s what I did. I didn’t want to be a chef. I wanted to be a gamekeeper. I love to be outdoors, fishing and so on.
What was it like growing up in Leeds?
I spent the first six years of my life with my mother. She died when I was six. So then from age six to 16 I was brought up by my father. I was fortunate; I was brought up on the outskirts of Leeds. I spent my childhood on the Harewood Estate – it was my playground. I was on the wall fishing; at Lofthouse farm; in the main park. I didn’t think it would come to an end. But school ended on the 27th March 1979, and on the 30th March, I started work at the Hotel St George, Harrogate, as an apprentice chef.
Can you tell me about your move to London?
I didn’t move to London until I was 19. I went to work with the Roux brothers. And I found London rather scary, whereas I’d been fine walking through woodland in the dark. I found city centres scary. I arrived at about the same time as the Brixton riots, and I lived in that part of town, in Clapham. I didn’t enjoy London, actually. You just end up in a rut. Even though I was there for three decades, I didn’t enjoy it.
How did you make the leap to opening your own restaurant?
Everything in my life has been by default. There’s no strategy in anything I do. It just happened; it was no great achievement of mine. I misunderstood what they were saying to me. They said: we’ll lend you the money. They wrote to the bank. How lucky was I?
You enjoyed huge success at a young age. Did it add pressure for your career?
I don’t even think back to it. It was nonsense. You’re being given awards by people who know less than you. So what are they worth? They’re like tin stars. I don’t do awards. I’m not that insecure that I have to be told I’m good. That would be horrific; I can’t think of anything worse.
Is that why you gave back your Michelin stars?
I just didn’t want to cook anymore. I didn’t want to live a lie. I could have pretended to cook, continued to charge my prices, questioned everything I stood for in life… No. I couldn’t live a lie. I must be honest in life. And now, if I want to come to Cadbury House tonight, I can. If I want to fly to India, to Singapore, I can. If I had three stars from Michelin, I couldn’t do that and have integrity. And I wouldn’t want to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant unless that chef is behind the stove. If he’s filming in Australia or America, why am I paying those prices? I want him to cook my dinner.
What are your values? What drives you?
Well first, let me tell you that I’m not a businessman. And secondly, I’m not ambitious. I work with ambitious people. I’m a romantic idealist, really. That’s why I do what I do. It’s as simple as that. You can’t love everything you do in life. Out of all the places I’ve done, there have only been three places I’ve loved. One was Harveys, one was Mirabelle, and the other is the Rudloe Arms. The rest of them are just businesses. They’re not personal.
For me, it’s not about achieving great wealth. I can’t think of anything more vulgar. And I’m not so insecure that I need to buy a Ferrari or a Rolls Royce or a Rolex. I like what Oscar Wilde said: “Crime isn’t vulgar but vulgarity is a crime.” Money for me is purely to create, and to make. It’s not to be wealthy. Income stream is what’s important.
What I do crave is ‘ordinary’. What I’ve learnt in my life is that privacy is freedom. I like working, but I don’t want to be in the public eye. I’m not interested in that. I don’t want to be a celebrity: I like normal, ordinary, real. I like spending time with my children. I like spending time with my friends. Fishing with my children. A glass of wine and I’m happy. And a perfectly cooked fried egg sandwich.
I don’t like confusion; I like simplicity. I want everything around me to be simple, and the reason is that my mind is quite complex. I’m a great believer that the more you do to food, the more you take away. Simplicity. Intelligence. Let mother nature be the artist.
What do you think of the vegan movement?
Well I was a vegan for nine months. I thought I’d try it. It was the most boring nine months of my life. But I tried it, so I can pass comment. I stopped all protein, all dairy, all sugar. All alcohol, all cigarettes. All indulgences and vices. It all went. I lost five stone in weight. I lacked energy, though I slept better. But I was never fulfilled. I was constantly eating. For me, food is all about the emotional impact. I was always hungry. I used to look at cheese boards, and it was like the brie was walking across the board towards me. Or I’d look at a roast beef and it looked sensational. Your mind starts to manipulate you, saying: Eat it. Do it. You want it. And I have to say, that moment of surrender was the most exciting moment, when I finally succumbed.
What are your interests outside of work?
My one luxury in life is spending lots of time with my children. That’s my real luxury and my real pleasure. I also like going deer-stalking without a gun, just with a pair of binoculars. I like fishing; I like being outdoors. And I like reading.
What’s your favourite travel destination?
I’ve been to a lot of places, and the truth is they’re all beautiful. Really, wherever you go. Lisbon, Barcelona, Cadiz, Venice, Martinique – it’s all beautiful. I love Italy, but then I am half Italian. I love France. But I think the country that intrigues me the most is India. That’s what plucks the most extreme emotions out of me. For me, it’s all about the emotional impact.
What is your favourite wine?
The ultimate wine in the world – without question – is Château d’Yquem. That’s a sweet wine. I like something very light. I don’t like big wines; they beat me up, really. But if I’m in the south of France, I want a glass of rosé. In Italy, I want a local wine; when I travel, I want a wine of that region. We all know I’m not a fan of English wines: I think they’re overpriced and not great. But I suppose when I’m in England, I like a Chianti. A Pinot Noir.