Leeds lays aside lard butties in battle of top chefs square up

Superstar Marco Pierre White is opening a restaurant in his home city - but an old friend and rival is waiting, writes Gary Finn
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IT HAS all the right ingredients for an airport blockbuster novel. It could almost be described as Archeresque. Boy leaves town. Boy becomes multi-millionaire chef in capital city. Boy returns in glory to home town to find his crown under threat from childhood friend.

But then, life does have a habit of imitating art, and so it is that the irascible superchef Marco Pierre White has decided to open his latest restaurant in his home city of Leeds.

On 20 March 1999 - 21 years to the day since he upped sticks from Yorkshire and went to London to find fame and fortune - White plans to open his latest MPW-branded restaurant at the Queens Hotel, a well-known Leeds landmark.

The new restaurant is one of three that will form the first wave of White's expansion out of London. His company, MPW Criterion, in which Granada has a 50 per cent stake, already has plans for the Randolph, Oxford, and the Bath Star, Bath.

The opening of MPW Leeds will coincide with a planned biography of the outspoken White, who has been awarded three Michelin stars and is regarded by many as Britain's top chef. It will be a triumphant homecoming for the 36-year-old, who has always set great store on his rise from the Lingfield council estate in the city's Moortown district.

Taking over the kitchens at the Queen's will also be a personal homage to White's late father, Frank, who trained there as a commis chef.

Any whisperings that Marco Pierre reinvented himself for the metropolitan market and cast aside his former self, plain Yorkshire cook Mark White, is rejected by those close to him. One business associate, Nicholas Menauir, said: "Check with Somerset House. He was christened Marco Pierre."

But while White and his business partners may be counting on a warm welcome from a city proud to see the return of its prodigal son, he won't be walking into a culinary vacuum. Yorkshire's gourmets are not grubbing around munching on lard butties; they are eating, and eating well, at places such as Rascasse, the waterfront Michelin-star restaurant run by White's longtime friend and former sous-chef Simon Gueller.

The pair went to the same school, Allerton Grange High, and Gueller manages a wry smile when the subject of MPW Leeds is mentioned. "Yeah, it's a bit of healthy competition. We'll just keep our heads down and do what we do here best. You have to regard even the local McDonald's as competition, but it can only be healthy for the eating scene here.

"Rascasse is the only Michelin-starred restaurant in this city and I am here every day. Customers know that. Marco is doing something different, he's branching out. He's become a businessman.

"I am sure it will all be very friendly. To be honest, I am looking forward to seeing more of him. We go fishing together and we get on. After all, I've known him since I was 16. He's a friend before anything else.

"Sure he's a brilliant cook, but I have my own ideas. I am not worried at all by his new place."

However, as one Leeds chef put it: "When Marco comes up here he will be bringing the really new food. The stuff that's big in London. At the end of the day, the menus up here are a couple of years behind the London scene, aren't they?

"I can't see there being any nastiness though. The pair are big pals and will probably lend each other chefs and staff.

"But it can only be good for Leeds. Everyone thinks Rascasse is the business, but as soon as Marco arrives it's going to be kitchen warfare."

The MPW empire peddles a mild line. There is enough room in Leeds, already home to Harvey Nichols and Vivienne Westwood, for more metropolitan swank, they say.

White's friend and spokesman, Alan Crompton-Batt, said: "He's a Yorkshire boy at heart. There is not going to be any bitter rivalry. If you ask Marco about where to open a new restaurant, he will say `next to a successful one'.

"As far as bringing metropolitan tastes to Yorkshire is concerned, the gaps are closing. In London there is an intensity of sophistication because there are 12 million people, but Leeds is a dynamic, up-and-coming city. For Marco, you could say it's `return of the native'."

But has the native lost his roots? Gueller hopes he still has the edge. "I have worked with Yorkshire people all my life. I know their tastes. I know what they like. As for what they are, that's for Marco to find out."

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