As Marco Pierre White returns to our screens in The Restaurant, he chats to Esther McCarthy about fame, loss, mistakes – and his love of Irish food
Marco Pierre White’s childhood memories are heady and vivid with the smell of freshly baked bread and home cooking. Growing up in a working-class household meant there was little cash for convenient foods and his beloved mother, Italian immigrant Maria-Rosa, would nourish the family with simple, home-made dishes, cooking everything from scratch.
She died from a brain haemorrhage when he was just six. He still misses the woman he once described as “my world” more than fifty years later.
“My mother was a very good cook. And I came from very humble beginnings. We weren’t rich enough to buy tinned food, so everything was cooked. Everything was made. My father’s a chef by trade. My uncle was a chef by trade. My grandfather was a chef by trade. So I was brought up with food.”
The loss of his mother at such a young age was, of course, a defining point in his life. He recently spoke movingly about his bereavement for the Irish podcast series Grief Encounters. Having experienced such a loss so young, White decided to do so in the hope it might help others.
“I felt that I should do it for the simple reason that if somebody suffers the same misfortune or tragedy as I did in my life, and they may be a little lost, and down, they’re maybe listening to what I have to say, and it would give them a little insight.
He brought his daughter, Mirabelle, along when he was recording the interview. He felt it would help her know more about her grandmother and keep her memory alive. “There was a time when I couldn’t speak about my mother. I think when your mother or your father dies, by talking about them, it’s a form of self therapy. But secondly and most importantly it keeps them alive. Because if you don’t talk about the people who are important to you in your life and they’re gone what does it mean?
“You will never in life dissolve the pain and the loss. And it’s as I say to my daughter: there’s only one way to measure love. You measure your love for a person by the amount you miss them when they’re not there.”
When he first stormed London’s restaurant scene, becoming the youngest-ever chef and the first British chef to be awarded three Michelin stars, White quickly gained a reputation for being volatile. As a younger man his wild mop of wavy hair and memorable photographs of him brandishing a meat cleaver only served to reinforce his reputation as the culinary world’s first proper rock star.
Then, in 1999, that same world was astonished when he made the decision to return all three stars at the height of his success and step away from the stoves of some of the city’s most-revered restaurants, refusing to become a prisoner of the punishing workload such accolades bring. “Winning one star, winning two stars, winning three stars, on reflection what I realised was that they were just all stepping stones to where I wanted to get to,” he says.
“I would recommend anybody to spend a bit of time in a professional kitchen because it’s a life skill. Food brings families together.” Since walking away from the kitchen at the height of his fame, White has continued to enjoy a successful career within the food industry, appearing in high-profile TV shows and endorsements, working on various business interests and giving his input into two Dublin restaurants. We meet in the Donnybrook restaurant, where he has been busy recording the latest series of Virgin Media One’s The Restaurant with Rachel Allen.
He has been particularly impressed with the cooking skills of the celebrity guests, who are not revealed to the judges until the end of the meal, this year. “Rachel and I and the guest judge are the palette for the viewing public,” he says of their roles within the show. “You can see a dish on TV and it looks five stars because their presentation is fantastic. But it might be undercooked. Or it may be salty. Or it may not taste as good as it looks. And you have to almost speak to the audience.”
He’s a big fan of The Restaurant’s format which, he feels, has been crucial in maintaining its popularity, unlike other food-themed shows which come and go.
“It’s quite an enduring format because TV formats come and go but this one is kind of staying with audiences isn’t it?” he observes. “It’s the integrity. Rachel and I do not know who is in the kitchen cooking so there’s no emotional involvement. When you know somebody, or you build a relationship with somebody, it can affect your judgment. “We do not see them until the end. We’re judging by what’s on our plate.”
This is his second year working on the series with Allen, and they have become good friends.
“What I want is the viewing public to feel that they’re part of that table. They’re sitting down having dinner with Rachel and I and our guest chef.
“We have a laugh together. I mean that’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to make people think: ‘Oh I wish I was a guest there tonight’.
“The demand for people who want to be diners is enormous.”
He’s delighted to be back in Ireland and has been a regular visitor to these shores since first coming here many years ago. He feels the country has evolved as a leading culinary centre in that time.
What in particular is it about Irish food that he likes? “The honesty. I had some champ the other day with the most delicious piece of Irish cod. Sensational. I mean, so beautiful. Samphire, some brown shrimps. Amazing. The other day I had some Irish beef. Some of the best I’ve ever eaten in my life, just on another level.”
Given that he worked at the coal-face of high-end restaurants for many years, it perhaps comes as no surprise that White now values simplicity in cooking. He’s no fan of fuss. “I would say that great chefs in my opinion have one thing in common: they accept and they respect that Mother Nature is a true artist and they’re just the cook. So therefore allow food to be food. Don’t turn it into something it’s not.”
Having lived out many years in the public eye, he says he rarely now bothers with award ceremonies or celebrity gatherings. You’re more likely to find him out and about on a countryside walk or indulging one of his favourite hobbies, fishing.
"And yes when I was a young boy in my twenties they’d call me an enfant terrible. Whatever. Well, which boy in their early twenties is not a rebel?
“For all the mistakes I’ve made, I’m also a great believer in taking knowledge from your mistakes. I’m of a certain age now. Old enough to reflect on my life (he is 57). And thank God I’ve got that self-honesty to look at something for what it is and not for what I want it to be. I’m not one of those individuals who think I did no wrong. But let’s not forget what the great John McEnroe said: If you’re going to be a rebel, make sure you win.”
- A new series of The Restaurant with Marco Pierre White and Rachel Allen starts on Virgin Media One, September 12 at 9pm.