Profile: Marco Pierre White - The screaming success

He bawls, he bullies, he usually wins. But can the 'little genius' conquer the provinces? By Emily Green

Emily Green
Sunday 10 August 1997 00:02 BST

It had to happen. Marco Pierre White has started sounding like a general. He is, he says, "building forces in London to advance into the provinces". Translated for civilians, this means Britain's cockiest chef is going to be opening a slew of new restaurants with his partners, Jimmy LaHoud and Granada Group plc. London will come first, Leeds, Bath and Oxford later.

Were this expansion taking place in high-street shop fronts, the announcement might merit 250 words in a City and Business section, and perhaps carry a head-shot of a nondescript corporate face screwed up to look purposeful. Rather, in phase one of what Marco Pierre White says he regards as a "military manoeuvre", this particular general is burning his way to the sea through London's most famous landmarks: the Criterion on Piccadilly, Cafe Royal, the Palm Court at the Waldorf, the Regent Palace, the Oak Room at the Meridien, Quo Vadis in Soho. The big booty comes in the form of seven dining rooms in Forte hotels, now owned by Granada after the merciless run that its chairman, Gerry Robinson, led on Sir Rocco Forte's family empire. Then a certain amount of clanking silver has been brought to the deal by Marco and his Lebanese business partner, Jimmy LaHoud.

It is all so big-time, and fast, that it might even strike the inventor of Monopoly as over the top. Yet it's happening. His London flagship, the absurdly named "The Restaurant Marco Pierre White", is to shut on 16 August, to be moved from the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge into the carved Oak Room at Le Meridien Hotel on Piccadilly, where it will open a fortnight later. It is to be followed by a refit of the Grill Room at Cafe Royal on Regent Street, and a Christmas opening of the Mirabelle, a bygone Mayfair hot-spot that cooled so profoundly that few Londoners noticed when Japanese owners attempted to relaunch it three or four years ago. Marco hopes to relaunch the Palm Court at the Waldorf on Valentine's Day. Regent Palace near Piccadilly may open next May. And so on.

Granada's announcement last Thursday had insiders wincing, not least Nico Ladenis, undisputed possessor of Britain's Most Difficult Chef title until Marco came along in 1986. The old Greek wondered peevishly in the Daily Telegraph how Marco could handle such a load. More wounding to Marco, his great mentor, Albert Roux, was similarly sceptical. Yet the person for whom the Granada announcement must have been the bitterest pill was Sir Rocco Forte, who, in an inspired move in the early Nineties, installed Marco in one of his hotels.

It had become clear to Sir Rocco in the late Eighties that hotel dining rooms were dead. All the "food and beverage men" and "executive chefs" and "central buying" experts his corporation could employ couldn't get sexy food on the table, or a decent buzz going.

First he brought Raymond Blanc in to advise on the Bath Spa hotel. The result was lovely, and the food excellent, but critics hammered it, if only out of habit. Then the recession hit, and it became clear to the chefs running expensive little dining rooms - Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White among them - that haute cuisine needed Sir Rocco Forte as much as he needed them. Nico got the lease on Sir Rocco's Grosvenor House restaurant, Marco got Hyde Park.

Then a jazzy set of ex-Groucho clubbers were slotted into the Atlantic Bar & Grill, and Marco took over the prize bauble, the gilded Criterion brasserie off Piccadilly Circus. Forte's plan worked: Londoners followed star chefs and hip club-owners into his all but forgotten hotels.

Last week, the same Granada executives who insisted Sir Rocco could not run his business grabbed credit for his ideas. It was Granada's "new concept", a result of "extensive research" and part of its "commitment to quality and excellence".

If Marco felt aggrieved on behalf of Sir Rocco, he's not commenting publicly. He, like Nico, was part of the deal. Moreover, while Granada has sold the Hyde Park Hotel, it's keeping Marco, installing him in even swankier premises, and giving him every other landmark in its Forte portfolio. The 35-year-old chef is, it appears, the company's restaurant strategy on two legs. Whether this is wise or not depends on whether you think Marco's mad. Many do.

MARCO was born, he says, in a "back street in Leeds". He won't say which street, just that it was a back one. The oddly French-sounding middle name, he says, was the suggestion of an auntie. His Italian mother, whom he adored, died when he was six. His father, a Yorkshireman, drank. As a strapping teen with a quick mind and foul mouth, he was thrown into restaurants, where he found what the Americans call tough love. Just as important, starting with the old Box Tree at Ilkley, one of Britain's first Michelin-starred restaurants, he first experienced what he would make his own style: a luxurious combination of good furniture, pretty china, heaped portions of delicious food, fine wine, cigar smoke, bawdy laughter. French class with Yorkshire gusto.

When, years later, Marco became the youngest chef to attain three Michelin stars, it was put about that he had done this without ever visiting France. Whether this is true is between Marco and his passport, however Marco has certainly done hard time in small pockets of France here. Throughout his teens and early twenties, he worked his way up through the kitchens of Raymond Blanc, Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann and Albert Roux. Here the green baize door separated Britain's millionaires from its urchins - labourintensive brigades in catering are a sort of unofficial borstal system for unmanageable school-leavers.

Where Marco stood out from fellow delinquents was that he was dangerously clever and maniacally competitive. Raymond Blanc recounts how Marco, as a lowly commis chef, once challenged him to a contest in front of the entire brigade to invent a new dish. Marco's flippancy hasn't faded. When, three or four years ago, Nico Ladenis got his third star, Marco rang his old boss. "Congratulations," he said. "I just want to ask you one thing. Did you get it for your eat-ins, or take-aways?" Of all Marco's surrogate fathers, it was Albert Roux who could handle Marco, and who fondly dubbed him the "little genius".

The little genius took over a 60-seater called Harvey's in Wandsworth, south London, in 1986. He smoked 60 Marlboro a day, and lived on espresso and Mars Bars. His kitchen was the toughest in the business, the commis chefs who couldn't chop fast enough, take blazing heat from the range, and work from six in the morning to midnight were "useless c---s". The boys who survived became known for rollicking around town after service, pouring into after-hours bars screaming, "We're the best." If Marco bullied his brigade, and he did, he kicked harder at authority. He offered the editor of the Good Food Guide a loan to fix his teeth, taunted the Guardian's critic about his "sausage challenge", and rang at least one restaurant critic (me) screaming.

By 1991, still in his twenties, Marco Pierre White had been the subject of an unprecedented spread in the Sunday Times Magazine, featured on BBC TV's Take Six Cooks, had two Michelin stars and a blood-pressure problem that nearly killed him. His first marriage was on the rocks, and his live- in girlfriend had sent his clothes over to the restaurant at peak-service time in black binliners.

He slowed down, a little. His notoriety attracted Michael Caine, with whom Marco opened the Canteen at Chelsea Harbour. Here Marco met his second wife, Mati, with whom he now has two sons. The move from haute cuisine to brasserie-style food exposed him to embarrassing criticism that he couldn't cook normal food for normal people. Marco raged at his critics and instantly restyled the menus. The Canteen was a success, winning another Michelin star, though the partnership with Caine palled and Marco's takings from it have allowed his more recent expansion. The man who brought Marco an element of sanity, safety and solidity was Sir Rocco Forte.

Marco's subsequent conversions for Forte of the Hyde Park Hotel dining room and the Criterion Brasserie were lavish, substantial successes. A private endeavour with Soho restaurateur Jimmy LaHoud to revamp the old dining spot Quo Vadis has been bumpier. A tie-in with Damien Hirst gave it the twist of glamour, but the detail wasn't right, and as Alastair Little puts it, "Marco has the best eye for detail in catering". It is still being tweaked.

Last month, Marco and LaHoud opened the first of what they say will be a chain of MPW brasseries in the former Cafe Pelican in Canary Wharf. It didn't need much transformation: the original architect, David Collins, had worked with Marco on Harvey's and the Canteen, so, in a sense, the place was already in Marco's style. MPW is already serving 100 a day, and has received gurgling praise from London Evening Standard critic Fay Maschler, who pointed out that Marco was the chef who may, or may not, have cooked the recent birthday dinner for Camilla Parker Bowles at Highgrove.

Not that Marco cooked Maschler's lunch, or will be cooking ours at planned MPWs in Bath, Oxford and Leeds. This will be done by his "boys". What may give Marco an inside track over Sir Terence Conran, a rare egotist and expansionist restaurateur of Marco's order, is that Marco's a cook. He commands personal loyalty from a line of young chefs going back to the Wandsworth days.

"I have to keep expanding so the people I train do not become my competition," he says. Meanwhile, the "little genius" from a back street in Leeds is busily buying and selling hotels with his new surrogate fathers at Granada. Press reports vary as to how much the deal is worth to Marco: pounds 2m? pounds 3m? All Marco says is, "If I die tomorrow, I know my three children will be taken care of."

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