Unless you have been living under a rock, you would know that Mumbai was in a state of star-struck frenzy and on a ‘Yes Marco’ chant. Understandably so. From gastronomic leaders to fledgeling food bloggers and the who’s who of the food industry—everyone made a beeline to grab a spot with the legendary British chef and the OG bad boy of the professional kitchen Marco Pierre White—who was on his maiden trip to India. Marco was in the city as the headlining chef for World on a Plate 2019, India’s first international food festival.
Despite his mop of unruly hair, black T-shirt and denim, the demeanour of this celebrity Michelin-starred chef is one that defies the moniker of his mercurial temper, albeit his acerbic wit that took everyone by surprise.
Read on to find out more about Marco’s culinary journey, his dream of visiting India and his food philosophy.
Aspirations of a young cook
It is a tale that everyone knows. Marco left high school to apprentice in the kitchens of Hotel St George in Harrogate, North Yorkshire and then went on to Box Tree Ilkley, West Yorkshire. The legendary restaurant already had two Michelin stars, but Marco at that point was unaware of that. He jokes that he didn’t even know that the culinary honor, the Michelin Guide, was owned by the namesake tyre manufacturer company! Highlighting his experience at Box Tree, Marco said, “I joined Box Tree and my life went from black and white to colour.”
Marco’s climb up the culinary hierarchy was swift. At 16, he trained as a commis under French chefs of Le Gavroche, a three Michelin-starred restaurant. “At that time, it was my dream to recreate the success of the restaurant and achieve those coveted stars.”
At the young age of 24, he earned his first Michelin star as the head chef and owner of Harveys. There was no stopping Marco from here on—he doggedly pursued excellence in the kitchen. He became the man who single-handedly changed the face of British gourmet cuisine, relying on bold flavours and portions, rather than meticulous finesse of French styles.
He was 33 when he received his third Michelin star, and also the youngest at that point of time, for The Restaurant Marco Pierre White in the dining room at the former Hyde Park Hotel.
Giving up the Michelin race
At the pinnacle of his profession and success, Marco took the decision to hang up the apron. “The journey of Michelin stars is an incredibly exciting one for any young cook; earning them is equally exciting. But retaining them is the most boring job in the world,” he says modestly. This boredom is one of the reasons many chefs step away from the kitchen.
Marco shares the predicament he found himself in soon after this decision and the three options that lay in front of him: “a) Stay in the kitchen and continue with the status quo to retain the Michelin star. b) Live a lie and pretend that I cook when I know I don’t and c) Pluck the courage to hang up the apron.” We now know that he did indeed choose the last option.
Explaining his decision to hand his stars back, Marco says, “I was being judged by people who have lesser knowledge than me.” Unable to live with this, he opted to live free with nothing to lose and no reputation to protect. It allowed him to make the world his stage, travel and share his knowledge.
Marco Pierre White’s philosophy of food
“When it comes to food, the story behind the food and recipe is more important than the recipe itself,” Marco says emphatically. It also defines his outlook towards food, which is more about the substance and taste, rather than the fluff.
He believes any great cook will understand three things: Respect Mother Nature who provides the food on your plate; food that needs to be an extension of one’s personality as he compares it to the Urdu word andaz, or personal sensibilities; and making food an innate philosophy that one needs to strongly believe in.
“I have seen the world of gastronomy change from the ’70s to today. I am not blinded by the fluff and the fancy presentation. Cooking is about feeding people and not impressing them. I think the presentation should express generosity,” says Marco of the modern-day haute cuisine. Adding further, he says, “The more you try to do with food, the more you take away from it. The future of food lies in honesty.”
Always Question the Emotion Behind the Food and the Cook
Ask the MasterChef what goes into the making of a great chef. “When I was a young man, what motivated a young chef in the kitchen was knowledge. Today when you meet modern chefs, they want three stars and to be on the TV,” Marco quips.
Revisiting his days as a young chef, he believed that it was the establishments such as Maxime’s and Le Gavroche that were famous. The chefs were not famous, and if it had to be a person, it was always the maître d’ because it was the maître d who dealt with the clients. “I would always question the emotion behind a chef. So, when I employ people, I want to know what motivates them, that is really important to ensure that they can do justice to the food,” he says.
Indian food is a religion
Speaking about his maiden voyage to India, Marco eloquently puts his first impressions of the country into words, “I saw so much in the journey from the airport to the hotel—I saw beauty, I saw sadness, and most importantly it was the smell. It was the smell of talent. Mumbai is without a question the New York of India.”
Marco’s first meal in India was the south Indian staple of dosa and sambar and he could not stop raving about the dichotomy of simplicity and flavours of the dish. What fascinates him the most about Indian cuisine are the curries, gravies and sauces. “There is a lot of time and effort spent to get the consistency and flavours right. It is fascinating how they are made,” he says.
“Every time I am on board one of the cruises of P&O Cruises, I ask the Indian chefs in the kitchen to cook dishes from their home town. Every region has a different curry or sauce. Indian food is all about simplicity, but it is the balance of spices that can make or break a dish,” he shares.
Favourite comfort food
Apart from Indian food, a fried egg sandwich stayed on top of Marco’s mind. “I love eggs. A fried egg sandwich is something that I eat very often,” he confesses. It’s a simple dish, “working-class sliced bread” with two fried eggs. The texture of the bread with fried eggs is just delicious. The eggs are fried gently in butter, almost poached. When asked to share his secret magic ingredient, he answers, “Butter is the best ingredient!” Yes, Marco!