We caught up with celebrity chef Marco Pierre White in Dubai and got an extra helping of honesty as he talked about life, love, family and his stellar career
I can’t take my eyes off Marco Pierre White’s shoulder. Balanced on it is my dictaphone, which he wedged between his shoulder blade and neck when I murmured something about making sure I caught every word, glinting fiercely every time it catches the light. It remains on its uncomfortable perch for the next hour-and-a-half while we talk about everything from his childhood on a deprived council estate in Britain, to family relationships, to the path of self-discovery he has been on since retiring from the kitchen in 1999 and handing back his three Michelin stars.
The dictaphone is one of those eccentricities which have come to define White. There are few people who have not already formed an opinion about him, whether it is based on one of the many epithets trotted out every time he is mentioned (“volatile”, “hot-headed enfant terrible of the kitchen”, “temperamental”) or his reputation in the kitchen (White famously reduced his protégé Gordon Ramsay to tears while stories abound of him throwing out customers who objected to his food and even slashing the clothes of a chef who complained about the heat).
Does it annoy him that so many have preconceived notions of who he is?
“You should never judge me by the illusions around me,” he says, sparking up another Marlboro Red on the terrace of his eponymous restaurant in Dubai. “Judge me by who I am.”
White, 52, is in town to check on his latest opening, the Marco Pierre White Grill in the Conrad Dubai hotel.
It is his third trip in 10 months – he also has a hand in Wheelers of St James’ in DIFC as well as another grill restaurant in Abu Dhabi and Frankie’s, the chain he launched with jockey Frankie Dettori, although the ill-fated Titanic in the Melia Dubai hotel did not run the course – and it is clear he is as much in thrall to the UAE as it is obsessed with him.
“The only way to describe Abu Dhabi and Dubai is mesmerising,” he says.
It is a mirage – but it is real. Every time I come, it changes again. I don’t know another place on earth where you get such quality of life.
White has just returned from the spice souq and fish market, where he was fascinated to see seafood “stacked beautifully, almost like a dry stone brick wall in Yorkshire. It was just extraordinary.”
It is his childhood in Yorkshire to which he returns time and again, lingering over memories which shaped his palate and still influence his decisions today.
He came from three generations of chefs and was brought up in poverty-stricken post-war Britain, growing up on a council estate on the outskirts of Leeds.
His father, English cook Frank White, met his Italian mother Maria-Rosa Gallina while playing cards in the Griffin Hotel and had four children with her but Gallina’s life was cut tragically short when she died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 38, a fortnight after giving birth to her youngest, Craig.
White was just six at the time and her death left a profound impact on him.
“If it was not for my mother’s death, none of these opportunities would have been given to my children because their father came from the most humble side of society.”
“My mother’s death was the catalyst for their father being so insecure and stripped of all his securities, being treated badly because he had an Italian mother and an Italian name. I never felt accepted as a boy because I came from that world.”
But it took him years to confront his demons. At 16, he left Yorkshire for London armed with only “£7.36, a box of books and a bag of clothes” and began training as a commis chef under Albert and Michel Roux in Le Gavroche. He went on to work under Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffman and Nico Ladenis before opening his own restaurant in 1987, the first of many.
It did not take him long to impress his peers. At 33, he became the first British chef to be awarded three Michelin stars.
White buried himself in work, often doing 100-hour weeks and accumulating professional accolades – but personal happiness eluded him.
“When you work in a restaurant kitchen like I did for 22 years, six or seven days a week, you become institutionalised,” he says.
All your energies go into your food, your restaurant, your staff, and very little into yourself.
So 15 years ago, he decided to quit the kitchen and hand back his Michelin stars to pursue a question which had been plaguing him since he was 31: who had his mother been?
“My father had programmed me to be like he was and that was fine from 16 until 31,” says White.
“It had taken me through life and the insecurities within me were the fuel to drive and push myself to realise my dream. I did what I did, not for fame, but acceptance.
“I wrote every single memory I had of my mother and dissected them..then I realised for the first time in my life I was my mother’s son.”
He began, he says, to understand himself by “putting myself in nature” and returning to the countryside he remembered as a child, where he still loves to fish, stalk deer and plant orchards filled with hundreds of pear trees.
“Since I retired from the stove full-time,” he says, “it has allowed me to invest in myself and my [four] children and my family, to discover myself.”
But White is a long way from resting on his laurels. He has carved a successful career as a restauranteur and a TV chef with a string of restaurants across the UK, the UAE, and even on cruise ships, several cookbooks and appearances on shows ranging from Hell’s Kitchen to Marco Pierre White’s Kitchen Wars.
Has he laid his demons to rest? It is not entirely clear but with three marriages behind him and an on-off relationship (he won’t be drawn on it but celebrity websites have linked him to actress Emilia Fox) he seems to be more content and at peace, certainly more reflective and thoughtful than pugilistic.
“I’m just Marco,” he says simply. “It is not a brand, it is a name, the name my mother gave me and [one] I am very proud of. My mother and father brought me into this world to better myself as a person, not to be successful in whatever form you want to label me.”
“I don’t have a job really apart from being myself. I crave ordinary and normality.”
And in the countryside amid the pear trees, where he loves cooking in private for friends and family, it looks like he might have found it.