Authors: Marco Pierre White
SEX, PAIN, MADNESS,
AN’T STAND FLYING.
The fear stems from my inability to understand how planes stay in the sky and the knowledge that some of them don’t. I have agreed to attend business meetings abroad, and then cried off because I couldn’t bring myself to board the plane. I surprised even myself when I agreed to come to the U.S. for a book tour in May 2007. This wouldn’t be a simple return trip from my comfort zone in London to New York. The eighteen-page itinerary had me flying all over the place, from San Francisco to Miami and lots of places in between. During the first three days of the seventeen-day trip I’d managed nine hours of sleep and had turned into an exhausted, jet-lagged beast, stumbling from book signing to radio show to airport, being overfed and plied with too much alcohol along the way.
I don’t want to sound like a moaning British git—there are far worse things than being given too much food and drink and staying in nice hotels. What I should point out—and this is important—is that I fell in love with America. It’s an extraordinary place. When it comes to food and gastronomy, it reminds me of my early days in the industry (Britain back in the 1970s and early ’80s), when people still got excited about Michelin, and chefs wanted to be great cooks and win awards, rather than become famous. The restaurant scene in the United States is just more exciting than in the UK, where Michelin-starred restaurants are patronizing to customers and the staff dictates how you should eat your food, all the while reminding you that you’re lucky to have even gotten a table. I didn’t get any of that in the States. The dining experience in America is much more democratic.
In Chicago, I enjoyed both the technical brilliance of a ten-course meal by Grant Achatz at Alinea and the most delicious hot dog of my life at Hot Doug’s, where I waited in a queue for twenty minutes just to get inside.
In New York, I was reunited with my old friend Mario Batali, the celebrated chef with whom I worked at the Six Bells, in Chelsea, London, in the mid-eighties. Up until then, the last time he’d seen me was just as I was chucking a pan of hot risotto in his direction. He’s since forgiven me.
Mario met me at my hotel and said he would take me on a quick sightseeing tour on the way to lunch at one of his restaurants. We stepped out of the hotel, and he handed me a motorbike helmet—no visor, no strap—and said, “Put that on. Let’s go.” He then pointed at a parked Vespa to which I said, “Mario, it’s great to see you after all these years, but there’s no way the two of us are going to fit on that thing.” He’s a big man, and I’m not small, either. “Marco, put the helmet on,” he said. Somehow we managed to squeeze onto the saddle and we zoomed off.
I found myself on the back of that Vespa for a good portion of my stay in New York, stopping to enjoying tripe and spaghetti with bottarga at Mario’s legendary restaurant Babbo; marveling at the live frogs, eels and fish in Chinatown; taking in the view of the city’s skyline from the Brooklyn side (note to the reader: the view is better enjoyed when one isn’t jet-lagged, stuffed to the gills with food and wine and suffering from the onset of hypothermia); and, of course, teaching the good people of New York City about a drink I call “the house cocktail.” The house cocktail consists of a large shot of sambuca, which you set on fire before slamming your hand down onto the glass. The aim is to get the glass to stick to your palm, and then suck the air and sambuca out of it in one quick shot. Halfway through one of my tutorials, someone knocked the flaming drink onto me, shattering the glass and causing shards to bury themselves in my hand. All in a day’s work.
It’s been quite a year. In addition to “discovering” America, one of the biggest changes in my life has been my decision to step back into the kitchen for the first time since 1999. A few weeks after the publication of the hardcover edition of this book, I received two offers of work, which, if accepted, would mean that I would have to put on the apron again and return to the kitchen.
I accepted both invitations.
The first job seemed uncomplicated enough and, given my experience, undemanding. I was asked if I would go to France to do a cooking demonstration for fifteen ladies in the kitchens of Sir Rocco Forte’s hotel, Chateau de Bagnols, which is just outside Lyon. The women were all guests at the hotel. Their husbands would be spending the day wine-tasting at the Montrachet vineyard, while I would be at the stove doing my demonstration. When I arrived at the hotel, a smartly dressed man dashed up to me, held out his hand for a shake and said, “Hello, Darko.”
I was a bit irritated that he couldn’t get my name right and said, “No, it’s Marco.”
Again he said, “Hello, Darko.”
Again I said, “No, it’s Marco. It’s Marco with an ‘M.’ ”
“No,” he said, “I’m Darko, Marco. I’m the host.” I felt a bit of an idiot (and after that I was very polite to Darko), but not half as stupid as I did the following day, when it was time to do the demo.
The plan was to cook three dishes in one hour, or rather, rustle up three dishes that each took a mere twenty minutes to make. These dishes had to be quite effortless and easy to cook at home. I decided to serve grilled lobster with parsley and chervil and a bearnaise mousse-line; turbot with citrus fruits, a little coriander and some fennel; then sea bass à la niçoise. It was while cooking the last one—the sea bass dish—that I came unstuck . . . or rather stuck to a plate.
Sea bass à la niçoise is a simple dish in which the tomatoes are put under the grill so that the water content evaporates under the heat. You’re getting rid of the acidity, basically, and bringing out the sweetness. Once grilled, the tomatoes are thrown into a pan that contains olive oil, lemon juice, coriander and basil. During the grilling process, I somehow got dragged into a bit of chitchat with the ladies, which was disastrous because the distraction caused me to lose my timing. There I was, bantering, laughing and cracking jokes, when suddenly I remembered the plate of tomatoes under the grill. As I grabbed the plate, I felt the most excruciating pain in my hand and realized that the searing heat of the dish had welded my thumb to the porcelain. My entire body must have flinched. Yet the gaggle of smiling ladies—my happy pupils—didn’t seem to notice that their cookery teacher was being cooked.
I told myself I had two options: first, I could either be professional and pretend nothing was happening, even though I could not remember the last time I had had so much pain inflicted upon me; second, I could succumb to the agony, cave in, drop the plate and scream so loud and for so long that I would shake the foundations of Rocco’s chateau.
I went for the first option. In my head there was this mantra:
the pain, take the pain, just take the bleeding pain
. I must tell you, that plate came out of the grill faster than any plate has ever come out of a grill. Normally, I would have got a spoon and scraped the tomatoes from the plate and into the pan, but because of the agony I was enduring there wasn’t time for the spoon. I found myself tossing the sliced tomatoes from the hot plate into air, and it just so happened that they landed neatly in the pan, on top of the herbs, the olive oil and lemon juice. It looked like a circus trick. Afterwards the kitchen chef came up to me and said, “Wow, you are so quick.” I should have said to him, “It helps if you’re handling a plate that feels like molten lava.” But I didn’t.
While learning how to live with a grilled thumb back in London, I got my second offer to return to the kitchen. It was a call from the
people, asking me if I’d like to do their TV show in Britain. In this memoir, you’ll find me giving an opinion about chefs who would rather be in front of the camera than behind the stove. As far as I’m concerned, if someone is paying a huge amount of money to come to your restaurant and eat your food, then you have a duty to be in the kitchen. When I was a lad working at Le Gavroche, if Albert Roux wasn’t there for the service, you noticed the difference. Having said that, was it hypocritical of me to do
? No, I don’t think so because I haven’t been a chef at my restaurants since retiring. I do not claim to be in the kitchen, and when customers come to my restaurants they do not expect me to see me behind the stove. All clear on that? Great.
Now, this wasn’t the first time I’d been approached to do television. Over the years I’d said no to a number of TV production companies, knowing that invariably the projects hadn’t been right or the timing was wrong. This time things just clicked, and the idea of stepping back into the ring began to appeal to me. I realized that I missed the adrenaline of the kitchen and the joy of serving great food. Sometimes in life we have something to prove to ourselves. I wanted to prove to myself that I’m not over-the-hill and that I still have a lot to give to my industry. So I accepted the deal and spent two very crazy weeks teaching ten celebrities how to cook (the format of the show is slightly different in the UK).
I think it was good for my kids to see me working in that environment—something to remember their dad by; an insight, in a crazy way, into my world—and I loved being reunited with some of the guys from the old days at Harveys and Canteen. It was only a TV program, but I treated it as a restaurant opening and looked to inspire those involved, rather than impress those who weren’t. The truth is, I would never have agreed to do
if it weren’t for
in the Kitchen
. The process of writing this book helped me to leave behind the baggage that was weighing me down and allowed me to move forward with my life. I like to think that I’ve developed, for the best.
And can I board a plane without trembling? You bet.
HE CHEESE TROLLEY
was just on its way out when I spotted It.
This was in the mid-nineties, one evening shortly before dinner service. I was standing at the passe—the counter where the plates are collected by the waiters—in my kitchen at the Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel in London. The trolley was on its way out to the dining room and six or eight cheeses were on it. There was nothing wrong with any of them—they were all beautifully ripe, plump and oozing—but I had a rule in the kitchen, and as the trolley was being wheeled past me, I noticed the rule had been broken.
The rule was simple: the cheese had to be the right size. In the afternoon, after lunch service, we would take a look at the cheese on the trolley and a decision was taken as to whether it needed replacing. If a particular cheese was substantial, the size of a dinner plate perhaps, and half of it had been eaten during lunch, then the remaining half would still be large enough to merit staying on the trolley, and before we opened for dinner, it would be trimmed up, ready for serving.