Talking to Marco Pierre White can be exasperating. After all, he’s had decades to fine-tune the bad boy act. We’re speaking to him as he promotes the 25th anniversary edition of his game-changing cookbook, White Heat, the monochrome bible that ushered in a new age of pouting, cigarette-smoking, rock star celebrity chefs. A few things have changed since then.
First off, he’s looking a lot more tweedy. Then again, he still smokes. A lot. When we bring up the enduring success of White Heat, he’s typically nonchalant. ‘No one really knew what happened in the kitchen,’ he starts. ‘That’s what made White Heat different. It’s important to know what it takes to achieve – it takes hard work to get there.’
And if he knows about anything, it’s hard work. Having started out as a working lad from Leeds, he drifted into a job at the Box Tree in Ilkley at the age of 16. ‘I wasn’t interested in food until I went to the Box Tree,’ he says. ‘It was just a job.’ There he met the men who inspired a rebellious teenager from Yorkshire to go on to become one of the youngest chefs ever to win three Michelin stars.
‘My bosses there were the people who inspired me,’ Marco tells us. ‘They were the catalysts to create my dream and make it come true. Very few people’s dreams come true – I was so lucky that I had that chance.’ We detect a touch of world-weariness. ‘The journey of winning three Michelin stars is a very exciting journey,’ he says, ‘but when you get there it’s quite boring. Maybe you’re fortunate in never achieving your dreams.’
With three Michelin stars in the bag, he set himself the challenge to win five red knives and forks. Three years later, in 1998, he succeeded. Then, to the horror of the gastronomic world, he retired.
‘It’s like climbing Everest, you don’t stay on the top forever,’ he recounts. ‘You have to ask yourself, do you enjoy doing this? It became a very slick machine. It’s boring when you aren’t risking anything. When people are young, they’re filled with insecurities – it’s the fuel in reaching their dreams. You’re a fantasist, a dreamer, the world is wonderful. When you get older, you don’t dream: you get home, you go to bed, you get up in the morning and you go to work.’
This is Marco the businessman speaking; the brand giant behind a successful chain of steakhouses, a Channel 5 series – and the Knorr adverts. ‘I work all the time,’ he says. ‘I work seven days a week.’ And the television? ‘There’s nothing to enjoy,’ Marco retorts. ‘Once you step into that stage of TV you become the property of the people. That’s the deal, that’s what you sign up for: everyone wants a piece of you. I go to work to earn a living. It’s no different to any other job.’
Even in the reinvention of the chef as a businessman, there’s something cavalier about him. ‘We’re not in the business of selling gastronomy, we’re in the business of selling a night out,’ he says. ‘The most important thing with any restaurant is the environment you sit in. Secondly, it’s the service. Thirdly, it’s the food.’
A lot has changed in 25 years, but the insouciance hasn’t. He’s impossible to tie down, theatrically evading questions about the future. ‘I live for the moment,’ he tells us. ‘The moment is always the most important – it’s how I live my life. I don’t think you can plan ahead.’ Though these days he does have to plan ahead: in the morning he’s headed to Glasgow, and then Bristol, before jetting off to film an advert.
It’s an exhausting schedule. But for all that he grumbles, it’s not all bad. We move outside so that he can smoke, and for the first time, he smiles. He’s talking about Oxford, his girlfriend, his children: he reaches for his iPad to scroll through pictures of his daughter. In the end, we have to find an excuse to say goodbye. Maybe – just maybe – those 25 years have mellowed him.
White Heat 25: 25th anniversary edition is published by Mitchell Beazley for £25