Philippa James meets Marco Pierre White
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 November 2013
Our food writer Philippa James gets to grips with the enfant terrible of cuisine
I was a guest at The Indigo Hotel in Liverpool, with its individually styled bedrooms and a very modern feel. Marco Pierre White now has one of his Steakhouse Bar and Grill restaurants there.
I took a deep breath and introduced myself to the man known as everything from the first celebrity chef to the Godfather of modern cooking. I asked if I could show him something and he raised a eyebrow, Roger Moore-style, and nodded.
I placed two old photographs on the table, explaining one was my granny, and the other was the kitchen where I stood on a box as a three-year-old, making jelly.
‘That’s your granny?’ he paused. ‘Fantastic!’ I explained that this was where I discovered my passion for cooking – but family meals not the three star Michelin star success that Marco achieved. The main raised his hand to me!
‘Whoa, let me stop you, right there! I’m all about family cooking, that’s part of the reason I gave my Michelin stars back. I was desperate to spend more time with my family. I love to cook family food, we eat well at home, and we eat simply. What’s wrong with a veal chop with some rosemary, or a free-range chicken, or lamb chop, with the natural juices and sediment? Deliciously simple and cooked to perfection.’
Marco said when he returned home he was cooking lobster with chilli, basil and parsley, and that the shell would make both a bisque and a tomato sauce to go with spaghetti into a dish which he described as ‘heavenly.’
I asked about his own childhood memories, tragically affected by his Italian mother, Maria-Rosa, dying of a brain haemorrhage when she was 38 and little Marco was six.
He reminisced about being a toddler under the kitchen table while his mum and grandmother chopped vegetables for minestrone soup. He described the smell of cakes baking.
Then he spoke fondly of trips to Italy to his Aunt Luciana and of eating fresh cherries, figs, and grapes, and shuddering when he remembered having to drink goats’ milk. He and his grandfather foraged for nettles and mushrooms, perhaps a forerunner of his love of hunting, shooting and fishing.
Unsurprisingly, tinned spaghetti didn’t feature in young Marco’s life. ‘Oh, no, We were too poor for tinned food. Up to the mid 60s that wasn’t for the working classes, you ate what was put in front of you and you didn’t leave the table until your plate was empty.
‘But although we were really poor, we always ate well; calories weren’t an issue, back then.’
Marco and I compared school dinners. ‘Manchester tart!’ he enthused. ‘Chocolate sponge, with strawberry custard!’
What about chocolate mint custard? Marco laughed: ‘You must have been rich over in Lancashire. We only got chocolate custard in Yorkshire, mint was a bit too posh for us.’
He spoke passionately about children learning to cook. ‘I think we should get kids back to cooking in schools, teach them how to make a rice pudding, a basic curry or cottage pie.’
Marco leaned back in his chair. ‘I remember at school, many of the mums would drop their kids off, then go into the kitchen to prepare the lunches and serve them as the dinner ladies. There was a sense of family as the lunch was placed in the middle of the table and the teachers or, sometimes, the headmaster - very Victorian but fair - would serve the food up to us. You knew what the lunch would be by the smell coming from the kitchen.’ Things changed when he went to senior school where proper food was replaced with fish fingers and baked beans.
His father, Frank was a chef and he had worked in Liverpool, a city which Marco says he’s had a long love affair with. ‘I can’t help but be touched by the warm nature of its people and marvel at the city’s stunning architecture.’
He left school with no qualifications but a desire to follow his father and grandfather into the world of food. ‘It’s a great world for men and women if they go into it for the right reasons. It wasn’t all about celebrity when I started out.’
Marco has a reputation for being scary man to work for – just ask Gordon Ramsay. But what scares Marco?
‘Seeing my mum die, when I was so young… the insecurities of my childhood and even into my 20s that didn’t go away. I tried to box them up, but they wouldn’t go.
‘I don’t care what life does to me; my only fear is for my children. I want them to be happy and have good health; I’m very over-protective of them.’
And of what he still yearns to achieve? ‘Acceptance of myself as a man. This profession has never made me happy, but it gave me the confidence to deal with my insecurities.’
A delicious lunch turned into a invitation for dinner where we chatted more about the love for his children. In the end, Marco blew me a kiss as his PA, Francis Carroll, whisked me back to the railway station, leaving me to reflect that the Marco I had met was no tyrant but a really charming, sensitive and incredibly intelligent man.