Australian chefs grill Marco Pierre White (Good Food)

Marco Pierre White grafted his way to three Michelin stardom by concentrating on the cooking, yet his rock-god persona has kept him in the headlines for 25 years. He is the chef who fascinates, appals and inspires other chefs – so we crowd-sourced the questions from the chefs of Australia, getting a unique perspective on the man who changed fine dining forever.

Gus Armstrong, Eightysix, Canberra

There has been a full-length poster of Marco Pierre White on the kitchen wall at the rollicking, come-as-you-are Canberra bistro Eightysix since day one. “There’s no other choice is there?” laughs Gus Armstrong. “I’ve toyed with the idea of Alex Atala, Rene Redzepi, David Chang and even Andoni Luis Aduriz, but none of them ever felt right to me.”

GUS: I’ve always wanted to know: just how much sleep did you get a night while you held your three Michelin stars in London from 1994 to 1999?

MARCO: Four hours. It’s still the same amount today. If I go to bed at 10pm, I wake up at 2am. I could always go to sleep between services for 15 minutes and feel as if I had slept for six hours. At one stage, we were going to call the book (his seminal 1990 White Heat), “Sleeping Under Table Nine”.

Ever since I was a kid, I have had that natural energy. When I see my teenage sons today, you could drop an atomic bomb and they would sleep through it.

Morgan McGlone, Belle’s Hot Chicken, Melbourne and Sydney

For Morgan McGlone, like so many chefs of his generation, it’s all about the book. “White Heat was the first cookbook I ever bought in 1992, when I was an apprentice at the Summit (in Sydney),” he recalls. “I still have it.” One of the legendary dishes in the book was a tribute to three Michelin star chef Pierre Koffman’s braised pig’s trotters, stuffed with morels, sweetbreads and chicken mousse.

MORGAN: At your peak, how quickly could you bone out the trotters for your legendary pig’s trotter dish?

MARCO: One a minute. The secret is to soak them for 24 hours, which softens the skin. By blanching them you tighten the skin. And you should only use back legs, so you’ve got the hock. Once you do them every day, you understand the beast.

Darren Robertson, Three Blue Ducks and Rocker, Sydney

“As it happens, White Heat is the reason I became a chef,” says former Tetsuya chef Darren Robertson. “I’ve never had the chance to meet him, but I’ve had a few mates tell me that Marco has visited their kitchens while he’s been in town, and been absolutely lovely with the staff. He still means so much to many in our industry.”

DARREN: Which chef has impressed you the most and who do you look up to and admire?

MARCO: I always admire people who continue to represent their industry, who fly the flag. It’s important to me. You’ve got to push yourself, find those gears that are inside yourself, and drive yourself. And I admire people who share their knowledge and their stories with the next generation. It’s like passing a baton in a relay.

All I have heard for the last 30 bloody years is Marco this, Marco that.
As I progressed through my career, my cooking became really simple, because it was about the produce. Great chefs, such as Alain Passard, have this underlying understanding of food and nature. They know that their job is to cook it and not mess around with it.

Nick Stanton, Ramblr, Melbourne

Nick Stanton has his own Marco story. “When I was at the Woods (Woods of Windsor, Melbourne) a few years ago, in my first head chef position, Marco came in to eat twice. I was able to sit down with him and we had a great chat. He had the pork loin with pork rib and baked peach, and he broke it down and went through the whole dish, and told me what to concentrate on, and what was best. He basically said, ‘Keep doing exactly what you are doing and don’t change’.

“Coming from Marco, that was amazing. Then he wrote a huge note saying thank you for dinner on a table napkin. And yes, I still have the napkin!”

NICK: We’re starting to see a lot of young chefs go back to the classic cooking techniques, which to me is so important. You can’t fake good technique. Where do you think cooking is going in the next five years?

MARCO: People will revolt against set menus and being served 18, tepid, small portions as a degustation. It’s a canape party. Where’s the joy in that? I don’t get this modern world and its little portions. Feed people.

Simon Tarlington, the Highline, Melbourne

“I have two questions, because when I was starting my career, I was always told to learn the basics of cooking, before creating your own style, and to never start a restaurant with less than 10 years’ experience.”

SIMON: With more restaurants cooking contemporary styles of food, how important is it to learn the classic methods, history and traditions of cooking?

MARCO: Without a foundation, how tall can you build a building? It’s a simple as that. Master the classics. Respect Escoffier (the French chef who revolutionised the professional kitchen and documented classical cuisine). I was very fortunate; I caught the tail-end of Escoffier’s world, and I saw the beginning of the modern world

SECOND QUESTION: Do you believe it is important for chefs to have a minimum of 10 years’ experience before running kitchens?

MARCO: Ten years in the right kitchens, not the wrong kitchens. The most important thing a young chef has to understand is system, because system creates consistency.

Like discipline, it creates consistency. Without consistency, you’re nothing. And I mean emotional consistency. A lot of great cooks can cook three-star food today, but tomorrow they’ll have a bad day.

Be punctual, be disciplined, stay focused, and you will deliver consistency. Emotions are for the bedroom, not for the kitchen.

Raymond Lim, Yan, Sydney

For Raymond Lim, chef and co-owner of Yan Restaurant in Sydney’s Wolli Creek, the fascination is in how a chef of Marco Pierre White’s obvious passion and drive could bear to “hand back” the three Michelin stars he had spent so many years trying to attain.

RAYMOND: I can only imagine it took an enormous amount of courage to hand those stars back. Did it?

MARCO: I won three stars, but I soon realised that retaining them was boring. You become this well-oiled machine, like a Rolls-Royce.

I had three options. One was to continue to do what I did – leave in the morning at 7am when my boys were sleeping, get home at 1am when my boys were sleeping, six days a week. I did it, I got my status, I made my £500,000 a year.

Option two was to live a lie. Pretend you cook when you don’t, bringing into question your integrity and everything you’ve ever worked for.

Three was to pluck up the courage, hand back your stars, hang up your apron and accept that the next day you have no status. You have to reinvent yourself.

Charlie Carrington, Atlas Dining, Melbourne

Having recently opened his first restaurant, Charlie Carrington, 23, says he loves the intensity and energy of the industry, but is curious about chefs who turn themselves into a marketing brand. (Marco Pierre White has done promotions for a UK stock cube brand).

CHARLIE: What are your thoughts on the current explosion of chef-driven brands, especially those on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List?

MARCO: You can’t criticise a chef for making a living. When you’re young, it’s fine to be a romanticist and an idealist, you don’t have a family to feed.

Jake Smyth, Mary’s and the Unicorn, Sydney

Jake Smyth put a picture of Marco Pierre White (circa 1992) above the till at the bar of Mary’s Burgers in Newtown, “to teach our young ratbags your views on perfection, to give them an insight into the history of our trade, and to let them know that their ‘inner Marco’ is always watching.”

JAKE: What do you see as the major changes with young cooks and waiters from your time at Harvey’s in the early 1990s to today?

MARCO: They want to be famous. When I stepped into the world of gastronomy, there was no such thing as a famous chef. I made my name being behind the stove not being on TV.

My question to them is – do they graft? When I stepped into my first job, I got my arse kicked, working 80 to 100 hours a week, and I never complained. I always looked tired. I looked fucked, I grafted. I had burns on my arms, I had callouses on my hands. I was a working class boy and I pushed, pushed, pushed. I never forgot where I came from.

Ian Curley, the European and French Saloon, Melbourne

Ian Curley says Marco seems to have been there his entire life. “All I have heard for the last 30 bloody years is Marco this, Marco that, I worked for Marco, I saw Marco,” he says. Curley was working in London in the 1990s with Donovan Cooke (the Atlantic) when Cooke was Marco’s head chef. “At the time Marco was the best thing in the world, the godfather of the British food scene. He really was the essential chef and everything that every cook wanted to be.”

IAN: I don’t have a question for him, but I’m in awe of the fact that he’s survived and still going. He should visit the taxidermist, because there won’t be another like him.

Meet Marco

Marco Pierre White was the youngest chef in the world (aged 33) to receive three Michelin stars, in 1995. Now 55, he recently won a whole new legion of fans with his guest appearances on MasterChef Australia, Tasting Australia in Adelaide and is in the country to host Seven’s new celebrity cooking series, Hell’s Kitchen, which launches in July. Keep an eye out on goodfoodmonth.com.au for news of a special series of events with Marco Pierre White later in the year.

As well, his seminal 1990 book White Heat has been re-released in a special 25th anniversary edition by Mitchell Beazley (distributed by Hachette Australia). With its up-you attitude, high-detail recipes and startlingly resonant rock’n’roll photography by the great, late Bob Carlos Clarke, White Heat regularly tops chefs’ most-loved cookbook lists.

Take home quotes

MARCO SAYS…

“I like red wine with fish. Let’s get rid of the pomposity.”

“Number one, the more you do to food, the more you take away from food. Number two, trust the quality of your produce.”

“Remember, let mother nature be the artist.”

“Push, push, push.”

“We live in a world of refinement not invention.”

“You have to find your inner strength to push. Dissolve your fears at the stove.”

“Be punctual, be disciplined, stay focused, and you will deliver consistency.”

“Without butter, everything is boring.”

“Everyone has to ask themselves one simple question: ‘why do I do it?’ I do it, very simply, for my mother.”

* Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Marco Pierre White’s age in 1995. This has now been amended.