By Claire Ferris-Lay
Marco Pierre White talks about giving up his Michelin stars and reinventing himself as a restaurateur.
Marco Pierre White talks to Arabian Business about giving up his Michelin stars and reinventing himself as a restaurateur.
It’s easy to understand how legendary chef Marco Pierre White once reduced Gordon Ramsay to tears. Unlike his former protégé, White doesn’t shout or swear; he simply stares. And it does exactly what he intends it to do. It leaves you hot under the collar and makes you wonder if it would in fact be easier to interview the foul mouthed Ramsay instead of this aging enfant terrible.
“Whenever I do TV I never swear, I never shout, I never lose my temper. I always stay very composed and I feed my punters,” he says in what seems like a direct reference to Ramsay, his former employee at Harvey’s, the restaurant that launched White’s career, and just one of the famous chefs he no longer speaks to.
“I don’t have to shout, people shout when they’ve lost control, [it’s a] lack of discipline… Self control gives you power,” he adds while he puffs on what must be his second cigarette in as many minutes.
White is in town to promote the opening of two of his restaurants at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr in Abu Dhabi.
He might not be known for his swearing but his fiery temper is legendary. Not only did he reduce a young Gordon Ramsay to tears on his final day in White’s kitchen (“I didn’t make Gordon Ramsay weep, he chose to cry,” he later told reporters), he is also known as the chef who once used a paring knife to cut open the back of a chef’s whites when he complained about the heat in the kitchen.
Despite his temper, White’s cooking ability is renowned. Not only was he dubbed Britain’s first celebrity chef, he was, at the age of 33, the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars. Not bad for someone who arrived in London with just “£7.36, a box of books and a bag of clothes.”
White began his training as a kitchen assistant at the Hotel St George in Harrogate where he earned just £16 a week, before he started his classical training under Albert and Michel Roux at La Gavroche. He opened his first restaurant, Harvey’s, on Wandsworth Common, London in 1987 and was immediately rewarded with his first Michelin star. Harvey’s immediately became the restaurant to be seen in and White the chef du jour.
During his heyday White trained Ramsay and a host of other now famous chefs including Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck and Eric Chavot of The Capital. In 1999, however, White retired from professional cooking and relinquished his Michelin stars. “The whole reason I retired from cooking is because I didn’t want to live a lie,” he explains. “When I retired from cooking I had three options. My first option was to continue doing what I was doing — spending six days a week in a kitchen, behind my stove working 80-100 hours a week — and retain my status.
“My second option was to live a lie and pretend I cook when I don’t cook, continue to charge high prices and question my integrity, and thirdly, to give back my stars, retire from cooking and accept tomorrow morning that I have no status and that I am unemployed.”
He didn’t remain unemployed for long. Just one year after giving up his Michelin stars, White became a restaurateur. Ten years later, he owns 16 restaurants that span Abu Dhabi to Dublin and the high seas through a joint partnership with P&O Cruises.
He has also managed to maintain a celebrity status through a series of television shows on both sides of the Atlantic, the American reality television show, Chopping Block and the British show, Hell’s Kitchen. He is also the author of several best-selling books, produces a range of kitchen gadgets with Russell Hobbs and is an ambassador for Knorr stock cubes.He is blunt and to the point when asked if he misses cooking. “Does Alex Ferguson miss football?” he answers the first of many questions he then proceeds to answer himself. “No, he’s moved on. You have to reinvent yourself.”
So what does he do if he doesn’t spend 100 hours a week slaving behind a hot stove? “I don’t serve the clients and I don’t cook,” he answers coolly. “I think what is very important when you get involved is that you get involved with the finer detail.
“For example, Simon [Penhaligan, director of restaurant operations for Rmal Hospitality, the firm White has partnered with for the restaurants in Abu Dhabi] is the captain.
“He is based out here, he’s been here for a long time and he understands the market, he understands how the whole thing works; I don’t.”
Most of White’s restaurants bear at least some reference to his name – the Marco Stamford at Chelsea football ground and Marco Pierre White’s Yew Tree Inn – so how does he, if he doesn’t cook at any of them, ensure they maintain the standards that punters would expect from a former Michelin star chef? “It’s about the team you put in place isn’t it? Let’s be honest every restaurant makes mistakes, it’s how you deal with those mistakes and remember they are forever evolving; we live in a world of refinement not invention. It’s like going back to the drawing board every day and working on it.”
This could be where White is going right and other celebrity chefs are going wrong. Fellow Brits, Ramsay and Antony Worrall Thompson, are just two chef’s egos to be left wounded by the economic downturn. While Ramsay, one of the first celebrity chefs to open a restaurant in the UAE back in 2001, was recently advised to file for bankruptcy and sell his luxury car, Thompson’s own restaurant empire, AWT Restaurants, was closed down after creditors revealed the firm was ‘overstretched’ and ‘too slow’ to respond to the new market conditions.
“I am not a businessman. I am a salesman, that’s the difference. I have accountants to do that. I understand my brand very well and I understand my audience,” explains White, who has actually increased the cost of eating at his restaurants amid the global downturn.
His, or maybe his accountant’s, tactics seem to be working. White claims that takings at his steakhouse restaurant in London are up 75 percent while another has seen an increase in bookings of 40 percent.
“The cost of food has gone up and secondly people who go out for dinner aren’t going out for dinner to save £5 per head. When there is a downturn people want you to be more imaginative, you have to do things a little more differently. I think it’s [about] simplifying your operations. In a bull market people tend to become complacent and have too many staff.”
He is also expanding his cheaper restaurants. The Frankie’s restaurant in Abu Dhabi will be his second here in the UAE while the Steakhouse, where a set three course menu will typically set you back around £25 ($41), is his fourth. “The two steakhouses I have opened this year in Ireland and in London have both done phenomenally well. The great thing about a steakhouse is the simplicity; it’s a concept that was created many years ago. If you do fine dining at say 700-800 covers a week for example, you might need 15 chefs in the kitchen. If you are doing a steakhouse concept, you are going to need five to six chefs in the kitchen.”
The Dictaphone is switched off and White continues to puff away on his cigarette. He swigs his coffee and suddenly begins to relax. “So what do people do here then?” asks the not so scary man he has been for the last 20 minutes. He continues to ask questions, suddenly happier now the roles have been reversed. Not that it lasts for longs. “I don’t smile,” he tells the photographer as he crosses his arms and stares into the camera.
He may not smile for the cameras, but White is still making millions of people — and his bank manager — very, very happy.