Marco Pierre White: The kitchen devil

He ran his kitchen like an SAS unit and won three Michelin stars. Now he's selling his story
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The Independent Online

Good chefs go to heaven; wicked chefs go to the Orion publishing group. At least that is where Marco Pierre White, the original bad boy restaurateur and the most acclaimed chef of the last decade, went to sell his scabrous, sweaty memoirs. White Slave, the story of how he got driven, got angry and got three Michelin stars (and as many wives) is published next week, and has already attracted plenty of disapproval. One newspaper's serialisation of it was headlined "The Making of a Tyrant", a tag normally reserved for, say, Mussolini's diaries. Reviewer Jan Moir was so annoyed by his unrepentant nastiness she said he was like "a self-basting chicken, forever anointing itself with the gravy of righteousness". Can Marco Pierre White really be that bad?

On the evidence, yes - and worse. In fact he can claim to have personally propagated the nasty, aggressive, f-word culture that now dominates our restaurant kitchens. "Perhaps I created the monster Gordon Ramsay," he muses in his book, "who ended up as a TV personality screaming at celebrities on Hell's Kitchen, doing to them what I had done to him."

Ramsay joined White's staff at Harvey's restaurant in 1989 and lasted more than a year - unlike most new recruits who, White explains, ducked out after "the first three weeks. By the end of it they'd usually lost three stone, gained a dazed expression and cried themselves dry."

Working in White's kitchen meant running certain risks. Irregularly toasted brioche? Marco would hang you off the door by the apron strings. Cheese board stocked with - quelle horreur! - asymmetrically cut Brie? Marco would fling it past your head. Hollandaise sauce separating? Marco would lift you up and put you in the bin. Oh, and don't even think of complaining about the heat in the kitchen. Marco would personally slash vents in your uniform with a carving knife. White revels in recounting all these incidents - he describes his kitchen as "like the SAS - we're all hard nuts in here".

In White's defence, his regime, for all its cruelty, raised gastronomic standards: six of his commis chefs went on to win Michelin stars. His bullying techniques, moreover, didn't come from nowhere: he has described his apprenticeship, aged 17, to the George Hotel in Harrogate, where he was referred to almost exclusively as "cunt". White, as he regularly reminds us, hasn't had an easy life.

Born in 1961, he grew up in a Leeds council house with brothers Clive, Graham and Craig. (Marco wasn't happy being Marco. "It was like being called Sue.") His father was a chef and so was his grandfather; his mother, who came from Genoa, cooked strong and simple Italian food. When he was six, she collapsed in front of him. She had suffered a brain haemorrhage. He watched her being taken away in an ambulance; she died a week later. "It was the defining moment of my life" he says.

Three years later, his father, who had struggled bringing up the boys alone - they once went on a week-long holiday to York races - contracted cancer, and was given five months to live. Miraculously, he survived for another 20 years, but the diagnosis brought young Marco "crushing fear". The boy became "a champion bedwetter".

School was never as appealing as fishing or, better still, poaching. He became proficient at lobbing logs at roosting pheasants, and to this day enjoys hunting, shooting and stalking, though, nowadays he extends little sympathy to poachers. Bill Buford, in his new book, Heat, describes how out stalking together, they one came across trespassers: White released the safety catch from his rifle and threatened to shoot their dog.

His career progressed fast. At 17 he was serving breakfast to Sacha Distel at the best hotel in Harrogate; by 20 he had been taken on as a "Roux robot" under brothers Albert and Michel at Le Gavroche. "I know which plates are yours, even when you don't deliver them," Albert once told him. "I know it's your hands that have dressed these plates. No one else does it like you. You have more natural talent than anyone else in this kitchen."

Then Albert made the fatal mistake of calling him "my little bunny". Marco White wasn't going to be patronised like that. He walked out.

After stints under Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffman and Nico Ladenis, White was ready for the night his life changed - the night in 1987 when Egon Ronay came to dine at Harvey's, White's first restaurant. Ronay's praise ensured the restaurant was packed out ever after, and he also gave the man the magic triple-barrelled name, by bracketing in his middle name, Pierre.

So began MPW's time of glory. Koo Stark, Oliver Reed, and Kylie and Jason ate at Harvey's. Lady diners crept into his office and threw themselves at him while their husbands ate downstairs. The papers christened him the Byron of the backburner, the Jagger of the Aga. White Heat, his cookery book, was hailed as an instant classic. Never mind that his first marriage, to Alex McArthur, who worked in PR, disintegrated because he was so busy, or the stress gave him an ulcer and temporary paralysis, for which he was hospitalised: by the end of the 1990s he was acknowledged to have transformed British dining, ushering in "affordable glamour". The AA dining guide's prestigious survey of 1,800 caterers pronounced him "the chef of the decade".

He resigned abruptly from cooking at the age of 38, letting go surprisingly lightly of his hard-won Michelin stars. The idea was to concentrate on business schemes but he has been less successful as an entrepreneur than a chef. Titanic, his restaurant in Soho, "sank," he says, and in 2002, he sold the restaurant that had been the jewel in his crown, the Mirabelle. The only Mirabelle in his life now is his young daughter, by his third wife Mati. They also have two sons, one called Marco (of course) the other Luciano (also named after a restaurant from his portfolio. If another child comes along, will he call it Criterion?).

His marriage to Mati has been much happier than his second, a four-month union to the model Lisa Butcher, whom he dismisses thus: "The mere sight of her was so amazing that I completely forgot to think about her personality". Nonetheless rumours of infidelity continued to dog him, and once when Mati confronted him their scuffle led to a night in the cells for Marco.

Marco will always remain the epitome of the wicked, talented, flamboyant chef - the archetype made flesh. And really, would we want him any other way? He reinforces all our favourite stereotypes. After all, as they say, God sends the meat; the devil sends the chef.