Pleasure / October 2015

WHITE HOT

This year marks the 25th anniversary of White Heat, the landmark cookbook that immortalised the young Marco Pierre White as the original enfant terrible of modern British gastronomy.

To get away with the mercurial genius routine, one actually has to be a genius.

Take the enfant terrible of modern British gastronomy. Frankly, had this paradigm of irascible behaviour not been blessed with the God- given talents destined to shape the course and change the perception of British food in the 1980s, as a young man he could just as easily have lived off his brooding good looks one way or another. Hooded of brow, chiselled of cheekbone, and obdurate of jaw, this wild-eyed youth crowned by a mop of irrepressible curls, of fag-in-scowling-thin-lipped countenance, possessed all the high testosterone markers on the masculine facial dimorphism checklist that women find so irresistible. And irresistible they did find this Adonis in the kitchen; legend has it that in flagrante delicto was an off-menu inter-course special at his restaurant Harveys, indulged in by a particularly pulchritudinous customer.

Before there was Gordon Ramsay, before there was Anthony Bourdain, Marco Pierre White - who makes those two TV-lionised personalities look like pussycats - was the biggest badass of them all. Incredible anecdotes abound about this choleric prodigy's propensity to let his temperament hold sway. Like the time he called a certain Labour Party former prime minister the indelicate four-letter C-word. Or his longstanding feuds with everyone from his protégé, Ramsay, to his mentor, Albert Roux. Or his infamous intolerance of what he deemed inexcusable customer behaviour: those who asked for salt and pepper deserved ejection; he who asked for chips on the side was personally attended to by the chef with hand-cut frites to the tune of 25 quid; and obnoxious, raucous City boys - bearing in mind these were the good old freewheeling, Thatcherite eighties days of Pétrus slugging and fat expense accounts - unceremoniously bounced to the curb en masse. Or his calmly incensed response to a young chef whinging about the heat in the kitchen: splicing open the back of said poor sod's jacket and trousers with a razor-sharp paring knife and insisting he finished the shift thus ventilated. Or how his brutal behind-the-scenes regime at Harveys - flying knives, ear-popping pressure, routine humiliation and unprintable language were par for the course - reduced a young Ramsay (then working for White) to tears. 'I can't remember what it was about, but I yelled at him and he lost it,' White said. 'The next thing I know he was sobbing in the corner, holding his head in his hands, with tears rolling down his cheeks. He was saying things like, 'I don't care what you do to me. Hit me. I don't care.''

Notoriety may have trailed in Marco Pierre White's wake like nutmeggy wafts in Nigella Lawson's, but given that he has virtuosity in spades, all tales are often breathlessly recounted as part of the Marco myth. Even Roux conceded, as recently as 2014, that 'the only one of my students I'm not in contact with is Marco Pierre White. We fell out, which is sad because he was the most gifted person I ever trained.'

The trajectory of White's career is as unlikely as it is compelling. Or, rather, it is compelling because it is unlikely, a veritable Dickensian tale of one gifted individual's meteoric rise. Born on December 11, 1961 to English chef Frank White and Italian immigrant Maria Rosa Gallina, the third of four sons raised in a Leeds council estate, he witnessed his mother's death from a brain haemorrhage at age six. Without qualifications, White left Allerton High School in Leeds and, pushed by his father to enter the family catering vocation, began to train as a chef starting in the kitchens of Hotel St. George in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, and the Box Tree in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. The plucky 16-year-old then packed all his worldly possessions - '£7.36, a box of books and a bag of clothes' - into a proverbial bundle on a stick and headed for the bright lights of the big city. In London, he began his classical French cuisine training as a commis with Albert and Michel Roux at Le Gavroche. He went on to learn under the tutelage of Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire, Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, and Nico Ladenis at Chez Nico. At 24, in 1987, White opened Harveys in Wandsworth Common as head chef and joint owner. The darling of the British food press garnered his first Michelin star almost immediately. Rhapsodic reviews, such as the uncharacteristic one by Drew Smith (then editor of the typically acerbic Good Food Guide) pronouncing Harveys as 'a meteor hurtling through the restaurant firmament powered by the extraordinary passion of one young man', were practically a dime a dozen. It came as no surprise to pundits that, by 1990, White had become the youngest chef ever to have earned two Michelin stars.

The menu at Harveys comprised primarily of French cuisine with a generous sprinkling of highly refined and personal takes on Italian pasta classics. The most beloved signature dishes are still exalted by anyone who has tasted them: tagliatelle with oysters and caviar, pig's trotter with morels, in homage to Pierre Koffmann, ravioli of lobster with soy beurre blanc, hot mango tart, biscuit glacé with nougat ice cream ... the list is long and rich.

In a bid to earn the elusive final star, White left Harveys, selling his share to his restaurateur partner, Nigel Platts- Martin, to become chef-patron of The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the former Hyde Park Hotel (today the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park), then the Oak Room at Le Méridien hotel on Piccadilly. At the ripe old age of 33, he earned his third Michelin star, becoming the first British chef to be awarded three (the aforementioned Roux brothers and Koffmann - the three chefs who had previously won three stars while cooking in the United Kingdom - were all French). At the time, White was one of the youngest ever chefs to have been bestowed the ultimate gastronomic accolade.

Over the span of this exhilarating journey, White impacted the careers of many industry luminaries, among them Ramsay, Philip Howard, Stephen Terry, Éric Chavot, Bryn Williams, Matt Tebbutt, James Stocks, Heston Blumenthal, Donovan Cooke, Robert Reid, and Thierry Busset. As for front-of-house, there's Max Palmer, Claude Douart, Philippe Messy, and Chris Jones.

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Joycelyn Shu