Sitting at arm’s reach to Marco Pierre White is like getting too close to a tiger at the zoo. He looks all shiny, and maybe you’d like to touch him, but then he charges the enclosure and you suddenly realise he could quite easily tear your throat out without batting an eyelid.
I come to this conclusion when I meet the man on the roof of a function centre in South Melbourne – White is in Australia filming the first season of MasterChef: The Professionals and shooting an offsite challenge today. In person, he’s six-foot-three of pure unadulterated suavatude. He knows my name, he loves my hair – do I like the forties? It’s his favourite historical period. He likes the romance and the design. He shakes my hand with a paw the size of a catcher’s mitt. I grip his hand extra hard so he can’t feel mine shaking.
If you ever read his seminal cookbook, White Heat, published in 1990, you’d have seen pictures of a young White surrounded by a fog of cigarette smoke – sharp cheekbones hiding under a mass of curly hair. He looked like a rock star then; he looks like a mad gentleman’s gamekeeper now. The chef’s whites are impeccable, his brown suede brogues worn but in good nick and his tortoiseshell glasses dangle precariously from his left hand. His hair is still a mop. “I’ve never been able to get this under control,” he sighs, running his hand through the curls before lighting a cigarette.
Control – Marco’s ability to keep control in the kitchen, often by dazzlingly losing control himself – is an idea Channel Ten has been playing with in the campaign for the latest incarnation of the money-spinning, ratings-winning MasterChef franchise. The new series features qualified chefs rather than talented amateurs, and Marco is stepping in, alongside Matt Preston, in place of the usual judges. After watching the (slightly frightening) promo for the show – where White teases, "I'm looking forward to spending a little time with you" – it looks like he is going to be every bit the charmer, mentor and tormenter that he was when he took over Gordon Ramsay’s role on the UK’s Hell’s Kitchen five years ago. And then some.
If you haven’t read the Wiki page or pored over White Heat or his autobiography White Slave (I read it – don’t do it), here’s the lowdown on the chef you’ll be seeing at 7.30pm, six nights a week starting January 20: the man mountain is originally from Leeds, where he grew up on a council estate before quitting school and making his way to London to work under culinary luminaries such as the brothers Roux, Pierre Koffman and Raymond Blanc and eventually doing his own thing and opening Harvey’s in southwest London. It was there that White infamously cut Gordon Ramsay’s jacket right off his back for complaining he was too hot. Customers weren’t spared either – it became a badge of honour to be thrown out in the ’80s and early ’90s. He gave back all three of his Michelin stars when he retired from the kitchen at 38, cooking one last meal at the Oak Room, in London's Le Meridien Hotel, before hanging up his apron in 1999.
And he doesn’t miss it a bit. “Being a full-time chef is like being a professional footballer,” says Marco, now 51. “It’s a young man’s sport. I was 22 years in the kitchen at the highest level. Six days a week – sometimes seven – very long days. And I saw the golden age of gastronomy. I saw that beautiful, romantic period. And then the world changed. When I was a boy there was no such thing as a celebrity chef.”
There might not have been then, but there is now and White leads (if not created) the pack. He’s been in the spotlight since the ’80s. First for his restaurants, then for his television appearances, and then as he weathered criticism for his line of ready-made stocks, for putting his name against restaurants he seemingly had little to do with, and – according to some UK critics – for selling out as a chef.
Despite (or maybe because of) the impeccable manners, it’s hard to read Marco Pierre White the cooking show celebrity. On TV, that makes for compelling drama: what does he think of that enthusiastic contestant’s dish? Find out after the break! In person, it can throw you for six. Are those long pauses because he doesn’t like the question, or because he’s thinking about the answer? When I ask him what his ultimate after-hours sandwich is, he doesn’t answer for a full minute. I ask him in a very small voice if he even likes sandwiches. “I do like a sandwich, but I’m very boring. I would have really good quality bread, delicious English butter, beautifully boiled ham, some Coleman’s English mustard on the side. And a cup of tea.”
Cue silent prayer to the god of nervous journalists. “I like English butter. Do you like English butter?” he asks, before unrolling his own personal sandwich philosophy. “See, the more you put on a sandwich, the more you take away from it. I want to taste my bread. I want to taste my ham. Having said that, I do like a chip butty. But they’ve got to be chip-shop chips. When I say chip-shop chips, they always go soft. And then you have the sliced white bread, then you put the butter on, yes, then you put the chips, the salt and malt vinegar on – do you like malt vinegar?” Very much so, I answer. “And then the chips have almost the same texture as the bread and that’s quite weird and delicious and the butter’s melting and the salt and the acidity… outstanding.”
It may not be a surprise to learn that Marco Pierre White, lover of sandwiches, gravy, cheese and roast pigeons caught in pig's bladders, hates fussy tiny food. “Menu gourmands bore me senseless. You sit down, you’re given eight courses… 12 courses… 20 courses. Little portions of little food. I get tired, I get bored, I never get fed – where’s the romance?”
And it's no surprise to anyone when he's upset – he lets you know. “I’ll tell you right now,” says co-star Preston. “Day one, we did a restaurant challenge and during service I fucking swear his eyes had gone black like a shark. I walked over and he grunts, ‘Yes? What do you want?’ I say, ‘So-and-so has got a problem with something,’ and he says, ‘Well tell them to not pay and to fuck off.’”
What he doesn’t say is expressed in those hazel, gold-flecked eyes. They bulge when he’s agitated. Halfway through our interview a nervous studio hand bumbles and spills water from the glass he’s pouring and Marco’s eyes widen at least a centimetre in diameter. Thirty very tense seconds pass. And then the moment is over and we’re talking about the upcoming boat trip he’s very excited about. He might love to hunt back in the UK (he manages a herd of roe deer in his spare time, and is a passionate grouser) but in Australia he’s into fishing. He’s going for gummy and bull sharks. How about a tiger or a great white? I ask. “No,” he says, waving me away with one of those paws. “I wouldn’t want the aggravation.”
Preston talks about there being two sides to Marco: the charming Marco who offers some of his Diet Coke to me during the interview (I refuse – ‘I only like the full fat stuff’ – cue bulging eyes) and the other guy. “When he gets into those restaurant services, he’s a different person,” says Preston. “Celtic warriors used to go into a warp spasm when they went into battle. They changed shapes, and their faces would distort and they’d be able to achieve amazing feats through strength and courage. And I’m sure that’s what happens to Marco during service. And then he stops that, and he’s Marco again.”
But the veteran Masterchef host reckons he isn’t scared of Marco, even when he’s Hulking out. He can certainly stand nose-to-nose with the guy. “It’s weird, you know. We’re both born in ’61, we’re both about the same height… but he’s a dead-set legend and I’m a fucking hack. You know there’s no doubt about it that working with someone like that really changes the dynamic. With Marco, he’s come down from the clouds.”
He’s also the only chef to have made Gordon Ramsay cry. “Everybody cries,” White says evenly. “But Gordon’s were really fat tears.”
Everybody? I ask. Even you? "Not in the kitchen, he replies.
“You wait till you’re on your way home.”
MasterChef: The Professionals airs on Ten from Sun Jan 20 at 7.30pm.
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