Big interview: Leeds’s own enfant terrible of British cooking Marco Pierre White

PIC: Simon Hulme
PIC: Simon Hulme
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The enfant terrible of British cooking Marco Pierre White seems to have mellowed with age, as Catherine Scott discovered.

Marco Pierre White is excited, in fact almost giddy and holding what looks to be a pub sign. For those who have seen him smouldering like a bomb about to go off on Hell’s Kitchen, giddy isn’t something he is renowned for.

It’s not, however, prompted by the opening of his first restaurant in his home city of Leeds or about returning from nearly three months filming Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef in Australia. He is giddy because he has just been to see his friend Dan Cadan directing his new film in Leeds – and been given a pub sign.

“Dan is a very old friend of mine and he asked me to be in his first feature film which is being filmed by 20th Century Fox and about some old wrestlers who have to go back on the road to raise enough money to save their local pub and therefore their local community,” hence the pub sign. “He gave me this because I couldn’t be in it,” he adds proudly.

He is in full flow and has barely given even a second glance to the surroundings of the latest venture to hold his name and the first in the city where he grew up. Filming in Australia meant he missed the opening of Marco’s to the public in April. And so an invitation-only lunch was organised for June when the chef had a window.

But there is no hint of the ‘enfant terrible’ today and there is definitely no sign of the menacing and brooding Marco we have come to love – or hate. Today he is full of the joys of spring. Well, almost.

Life, it seems for this former Leeds council estate lad, is good.

“When I am in England I spend most of my time on my farm just a few miles outside Bath and I absolutely adore it,” he says. “I have Aberdeen Angus, Wiltshire sheep and pigs – I cure my own bacon. I have a hotel I am developing there. I think I am trying to rebuild my childhood,” he says thoughtfully, giddiness gone.

“I grew up in north Leeds and we spent a lot of time around Harewood. Harewood was my playground and I think as you get older you do look back. When you are young you just look forward. You take things for granted and believe you are invincible.”

It is well documented that Marco’s childhood was cut cruelly short with the death of his beloved mother, Italian-born Maria Rosa Gallina when he was six. He says this led to massive insecurity growing up. It also makes the infrequent times he returns to Leeds very emotional.

“I’ve just been down Kirkstall Road. My dad used to work there and I would visit him for lunch. And when I go past the town hall I remember sitting there with my mother feeding the pigeons. They are sweet memories but very emotional ones which is why I don’t often come back to Leeds.”

The work ethic was instilled in a young Marco, whose father Frank left school at 13 and himself became a chef.

“He made me do a milk round before school. He’d get me up at 4.40am and the milkman would collect me at 5am and we’d do the round and then he’d drop me off at school at 8.45am and I had to run to get into school on time. I was rather lazy at school but I think it was probably because I was exhausted most of the time.”

Not too surprisingly Marco left Allerton High School with no qualifications and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and train to be a chef.

“My father gave me 50 pence to catch the bus to Harrogate. ‘Knock on kitchen doors’ he said, ‘and ask politely if they’ll give you a job.’

“It almost sounds incredible but that’s how I started.”

A knock on the back door of the Hotel St George, and a young Marco had landed his first job as a kitchen apprentice and the first rung on what was to become one of the most successful culinary careers in Britain.

From the George he went to the one Michelin-starred Box Tree in Ilkley where a few years ago he rekindled a working relationship with former school friend Simon Gueller although this seems to have soured somewhat. “I haven’t seen them (the Guellers) for a long time,” he says.

Aged 16, he went to London with “£7.36, a box of books and a bag of clothes”, and began his classical training with Albert and Michel Roux at Le Gavroche, followed by training under Pierre Koffman at Tante Claire and Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir before branching out on his own.

He opened Harvey in 1987 where he won his first Michelin star, followed almost immediately by his second the following year. He later became chef-patron of The Restaurant Marco Pierre White in the dining room at the former Hyde Park Hotel, where he won the third Michelin star. By the age of 33, Marco had become the first British chef and youngest ever to be awarded three Michelin stars.

“It was always my dream to have three Michelin stars and five red knives and forks (awarded for service). By 33 I had achieved both these but the problem was that getting the stars was exciting and you had to take risks, maintaining them just wasn’t. You can’t take risks when you are trying to keep three stars, it is all about consistency. It became a well-oiled machine but I was bored.”

Marco also felt, and still does, that he was being judged by people who knew less about his profession than he did. So five years after gaining three stars he handed them back.

Marco is a great believer that the chef whose name is above the door of a three Michelin starred restaurant should be the person who cooks the meal. “It is like buying a tickets for an Elton John concert but then his number two sits down at Elton’s piano and plays Elton’s songs. Do you think people would put up with that?”

But after taking a few years off ‘in the countryside’ he needed to go back to work.

“I had grown up emotionally,” he says. “I also needed to work. I had a family, but also I needed to work for me.”

He became a restaurateur and television personality. He now has 40 restaurants in the UK and business interests as far afield as Singapore.

He has become quite disparaging about Michelin, believing it has become far easier to get a Michelin star than in his day.

“But I am a dinosaur,” he admits. “I am not at all keen on this new trend for tasting menus. I don’t see the appeal of eight or ten small plates of food with no choice. I like to sit down for dinner and have a look at what my fellow diners have ordered, What’s the fun in everyone having the same food?”

Marco says he is also fed up with people being disparaging about restaurant chains. “Not everyone can afford to eat in Michelin-starred restaurants. For some people a trip to McDonald’s is a treat and they do what they do very well.”

His 15-year-old daughter Mirabelle is at the Royal Ballet School. He says: “When I pick my daughter up from school and we are on the motorway sometimes a McDonald’s is all that will do. It should be about consistency and consistency is something that chains do well. I am sick of people being snobby about chains.”

Well, I suppose he would say that when he has 13 Marco’s New York Italians in his portfolio.

He has no intention of returning to UK television screens any time soon, but now his attention is turning to the large screen. Discussion is ‘well underway’ to turn his autobiography Devil in the Kitchen into a feature film.

“Ridley Scott has bought the option,” he says. “And the early days will be filmed in Yorkshire. I will be involved in grooming the chefs.”

Michael Fassbender has been given ‘first refusal’ on playing Marco but exactly when it will hit the big screen has yet to be revealed.

Marco’s New York Italian is at ibis Styles Leeds City Centre Arena, Wade Lane, Leeds.