Marco Pierre White: Is the original bad boy of cooking really as scary as he's cracked up to be?

Fresh from the gates of TV's 'Hell's Kitchen', the chef is launching yet another swanky London restaurant
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I have interviewed Marco Pierre White once before, in January 2000, after which he was very nice to me. He invited my son (then eight) and me to The Oak Room (three Michelin stars; yippee!) for lunch, and then arranged for my parents – the blood-sucking, freeloading liggers – to have dinner at Mirabelle's, at his expense. I didn't understand it then and still don't understand it now. Let's be honest, most people hate me on sight and little changes as they get to know to me. I ask him why he was so nice.

"Too scared not to be," he says. Yeah, like I'm the scary one. Am I huge with hands the size of frying pans? I am not. Have I ever reduced Gordon Ramsay to tears? I have not (alas). Have I ever strung up a kitchen junior by his apron and then dumped him in a bin? I have not. Have I ever appeared on Hell's Kitchen demanding "respect, only respect" while wearing what appears to be a spooky bandage on my head? I have not. Actually, someone once told me that the thing about Marco is that you are either in with him, or out, but if you are in, watch it, because you could be out on the turn of a sixpence and once you are out you are so, so out. I am hoping to stay in. I am not often "in" and I find I like it. Also, I do not want to be hung up by my apron and then dumped in a bin.

Anyway, after I call him up – "Marco, you don't phone, you don't write, and it's been what, nearly eight years now?" – we arrange to meet one evening at the Knightsbridge branch of Frankie's, the family restaurant chain he runs as a joint venture with that little jockey fellow, Frankie Dettori. It is launch night for Frankie's new recipe book, Frankie Dettori's Italian Family Cookbook, which has been co-written with Marco, which is useful, as how much do little jockey fellows actually eat? Frankie is as titchy-witchy and as cute as Marco is massive and imposing. If Marco so chose, he could put Frankie over his knee and cleanly snap his neck, as you might a chicken. ("Here's Frankie for the pot!") But Marco is not going to do that. Frankie is also "in". Indeed, when I later ask Marco if he has any heroes he says: "Only one, and it's Frankie!" It's just the way he works. In, out, but never shake it all about. I don't think he deals in in-betweens.

I have bought my son with me, as per instructions. "Bring your boy!" Marco had shouted down the phone and, to be frank, I was too scared not to. My boy is now 15 (there; I've saved you doing the maths) and still remembers each of the seven courses he ate at The Oak Room. He has bought along his friend, Otis. Otis has curly hair and Marco has some advice for him. " If you keep your hair as long as mine then, one day, it might be as mad as mine." Otis doesn't look that overjoyed at the prospect. "It might just grow out," he says, rather hopefully. Marco should be mingling, but is very attentive to us, which is nice (I so love being "in" !). There is wine for me and Coke for the boys. He signs our books with personal messages. He asks the boys what they plan to do when they " have to go out to graft" and pays courteous attention to their eloquent teenage replies of "dunno". Actually, Otis says he might go into the City. Marco says. "Can you imagine me if I'd gone into the City? I'd have been a monster!"

Eventually, we grab a cab and it's off for dinner at Marco's latest restaurant, Marco in Chelsea. It's actually at the football club, although I couldn't tell you why. Somewhere for Abramovich to hang? En route, the boys quiz him about Hell's Kitchen. Who did you like the best? Marco says he liked Rosie Boycott a lot – "very knowledgeable" – and Jim Davidson wasn't that bad. "I knew I could turn my back on him and he'd get on with it. He has his demons, though. I think there is a father figure missing in his life; that's my opinion." He says he knew Barry would win all along. "He's got the biggest fan base. It doesn't take much working out." We loved Barry and his beloved mash, we say. Marco says: "Barry was great. I said: 'Barry, how could you ever get anyone in the ring when you can't even hit the plate with the mash?' On the last night he said: 'Where shall I put the mash?' and I said: 'Barry, you put it on the plate, and I'll work round it.' "

I say I haven't quite figured out the Angus Deayton thing. What's with all the mockery? He's a bit of a fifth columnist, isn't he? Marco says don't worry, he sorted Angus. "He made some comments about my name. So when I was outside one night having a cigarette and I saw him walking towards me, I said, 'Angus, three things. Firstly, the name that you take the piss out of is the name my mother gave me and I am very proud of it. Secondly, I had no choice about the world I was brought into. Thirdly, the eyes you are looking into are the eyes that saw my mother die when I was six.' " Scary.

Marco's mother did, indeed, die when he was six, and everything with Marco will keep coming back to that. He stopped cooking at 38, which is significant, he says "because it was at the age my mother died." The ITV announcement that he was taking over Hell's Kitchen came on 20 February, which is significant, because "it's the day my mother died". There is a sense he is somehow frozen at that moment. How is he ever going to get over it; leave it alone? I am minded to say I'll send him my mother, just so he can see that not all mothers are saints, and some are even free-loading, blood-sucking liggers (only joking, mum! But if you could stand still while I wrap you in this brown paper, it would really help).

We arrive at the restaurant, which is all swish and lovely, and called Marco not after him, but one of his sons. The other son, Luciano, already has a restaurant named after him, as does his daughter, Mirabelle. He then suddenly announces that his wife, Mati, plans to join us. "Great," I say, while what I am really thinking is: "Oh, cripes." And: "My, just how awkward is this going to be?" They're mid-divorce, aren't they? Aren't you, Marco? "We are divorced," says Marco. "I've got the decree nisi." I don't know what all this is about. I know only that Mati is Spanish, pretty and glamorous in a floaty mini kaftan. They were together for 15 years and married for a tumultuous seven during which she appears to have done it all, from confronting him in his restaurants to tipping his hunting trophies on to the pavement. (And he says I'm scary ...) He still lives in the family home though, presumably so he can see something of the kids. But isn't it a little ... you know ... awkward? "No," he says, shruggingly.

Mati orders a cocktail and admires the crockery – "is it dishwasher safe, do you think?" – while Marco pushes himself back on the banquette and looks on broodily. I am only guessing here, but I'm thinking that it might be more over for Marco than Mati; that he's moved on while she is still struggling to hold on to what has already gone. She seems to approve of him greatly, praises him to the skies. When he says, yes, he has always loathed TV chefs, but decided to take on Hell's Kitchen so he could "inspire people", she says: "And you did." When he says that one of his main priorities was to simply get all the diners served, she says: "And you did it, darling, and did it very well." This would do it for me, but it does not appear to be working on Marco. What is she hoping for, do you think, I later ask him. "I don't know," he says.

I move to safer ground and say that I'm glad he didn't bully or humiliate anyone on Hell's Kitchen. I add that while I can take bullying and humiliation myself, I can't bear to see it happening to anyone else, which is why I find Gordon Ramsay so hard to take. Marco is no fan of Gordon, at least not since he confessed that while in charge of the restaurant Aubergine, and fearing the owners were eyeing up Marco as his replacement, he stole the reservations book and implied Marco had done it. Marco is now suing for malicious falsehood. So, no love lost there then but, strangely for Marco, who can be deliciously spiteful at the drop of a hat (or that weird bandage thing) he will only say: "With Gordon people should only look at the food. He's got three stars in the Michelin Guide and that is the important thing. Whether or not he is a nice person isn't relevant." "I agree," says Mati. I say, rather bravely, that I don't agree. Just as I might not, for example, wish to buy an item of clothing if I knew it had been made by blind orphan child amputees working 20 hours a day (actually, I would, if the price were right), I might not wish to eat food prepared at the expense of someone's dignity. He says: "I didn't humiliate anyone in Hell's Kitchen." I say, I know, but what about at Harvey's – his first restaurant in Wandsworth; where he earnt his first Michelin star – when you hung those kitchen juniors by their aprons, poured hot soup down their trousers and made Ramsay (who worked for Marco for three years) crumble to his knees and cry? "Harvey's is going back 20 years. We were trying to achieve three-star Michelin food with three in the kitchen. It's a bygone era. We screamed, we shouted, it was that world." I'm afraid to say it, but say it anyway. Marco, it is only ... well ... you know ... food? Nice food is nice but it's not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He doesn't go mental, as I thought he might, but says the memory of food, the memory of meals eaten, is as important as anything. "Would you prefer a Picasso painting or to have seen Picasso paint?" Um ... the painting? "Me, I'd prefer to see Picasso painting and produce something quite wonderful."

Marco was born in Leeds, 1961, to an Italian mother, and a father who worked as a chef. After his mother died, from a sudden brain haemorrhage, his father brought him up rather heavy-handedly, which must have made Marco hunger for a mother even more. I put it to him that maybe he has an idealised vision of her. He says there is probably some truth in this. " I never saw any cracks. I never saw her lose her temper. She never hit me. All she did was shower me with affection and show me love. I only ever saw purity."

As he now has three failed marriages behind him, I wonder if he is searching for a woman who fits his notion of his mother; a woman who can't possibly exist. Rubbish, he says. "I can't accept that. I take so much from my life. I have my shooting and my fishing. I have my working life. I have my relationship with my children. I love the institution of marriage. I'm not that child any more." But later I get: "I'm controlled by my mum today and anyone who knows me would realise that she is my anchor, she is everything to me." His conversation can, at times, be as loopy as the hair-do, and entirely contradictory. He says later that he has a mind " like a Chagall painting" and I can see what he means.

He gave up the kitchen, and his stars, in 1999, because it was, he says, "stunting my growth. Imagine being in a kitchen 15, 16 hours a day." Is he at home more now, then? God no, says Mati. "It's still work, work, work with Marco." Marco, why do you work so hard? You're rich now, aren't you? "I love working. I love doing things. I don't like sitting," he says. He is now a hugely successful restaurateur, with many restaurants in his portfolio, which surprises me a little, as I'd have thought he was perhaps a bit too ADHD-ish to have the focus needed for business. Not so, he says. "It's about what stimulates your mind. I like my mind being stimulated. I like discovering new concepts."

We have an entertaining evening, all told. The food ... I've yet to mention the food! The food is beautiful. I'd still prefer the painting, but the dinner is beautiful all the same. Otis has the pig's trotters, which Marco is very pleased to see. "I wish my boys would eat like that." My son finishes with the pear tart he ate at The Oak Room back in 2000, and has hungered for every since (nope, am still going for the painting). Mati looks at Marco lovingly while he looks broodily at her. I think I drink too much wine, but it's lovely wine, a red from the village his mother came from. I offer to pay the bill. He declines. I insist. He shouts: "ABSOLUTELY NOT!" I crumble instantly and maybe even tremble a bit, because that's how scary I am.

Marco is at Stamford Bridge, Fulham Road, London SW6 (020-7915 2929)

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