Meeting a Living Legend
So let me set the record straight. 1996 was the first time I had ever heard of Chef Marco Pierre White. I was in culinary school and looking to spur my life into action. As a young cook I wanted a feel-good moment . The feeling of failure from previous experiences set the tone of my culinary journey. It all changed with an accidental exchange of cook books with a fellow student that got me face to face with the one of a kind book -”White Heat”. by Marco Pierre White 1990.
The book begins unapologetically: “You’re buying White Heat because you want to cook well? Because you want to cook Michelin stars? Forget it. Save your money. Go and buy a saucepan.” This was the narrative I was looking for. A raw adventure into the culinary underbelly with a dossier-style photography, cheffy recipes and celebration of culinary machismo, it dared me to enter the dangerous world of the restaurant kitchen.
On the cover, a square-jawed, rumple-haired, striped apron-clad White stands at the stove, focused on his cooking . Inside, the book starts with an eight-page, in-your-face essay by him, a clear biography with culinary philosophy. White Heat was as much a juxtaposed guide book and a call to arms as it ever was a cookery book.
So you can imagine my excitement when I got to know that I will be at the same event with the great man himself in Bangalore, India, 23 years later. World on a plate is a food festival that takes place twice a year in the subcontinent and Marco was the headline act for WOAP season 4 . There are moments in life that are so clear and vivid and this was one of them. I remember the founder of WOAP introducing me to Marco. And in a very candid nonchalant way he looks directly at me with a firm hand shake and says “ Pleasure to meet you Sebastian” …. “ So you are the illusionist “ !!.
We speak about food, haute cuisine , the days of classic French cooking and his first restaurant, Harvey’s , the current culture of cooking and most importantly, the 80’s rock scene. From Stairway to heaven – Led Zeppelin to the masterful Chef Pierre Koffman.
“I was privileged to work with the great Albert and Michel Roux, Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann, Raymond Blanc and a man who not many people would know of, Michael Lawson, who was head chef at the Box Tree, which had two Michelin stars in the late 70s,” says Marco.
“When you spend time with all those people you can’t help but take a little bit from them. Michael was very gentle and took me under his wing. Albert had kitchen presence like nobody else. Pierre didn’t have the ability to express his knowledge – you had to watch him and learn with your eyes. Nico was interesting because he was self-taught but he was very precise and questioned everything.”
One other unique perspective came at a press conference (WOAP – Bangalore ) about why Marco felt women are better chefs. “ Females make better cooks than men” , he says. “Females have a better palate, they have a better sense of smell, they never take shortcuts; this is why they’re very good in kitchens”.
“Apply the cook’s brain and visualize that fried egg on the plate. Do you want it to be burned around the edges? Do you want to see craters on the egg white? Should the yolk look as if you’d need a hammer to break into it? The answer to all three questions should be no. Yet the majority of people still crack an egg and drop it into searingly hot oil or fat and continue to cook it on high heat. You need to insert earplugs to reduce the horrific volume of the sizzle. And the result, once served up in a pool of oil, is an inedible destruction of that great ingredient—the egg. Maybe that’s how you like it, in which case carry on serving your disgusting food.”
Marco Pierre White, Making of a Great Chef
Marco at Le Cordon Bleu Melbourne
I had made my mind up. I wanted my students at Le Cordon bleu to see MPW in the flesh . They need this more than me . The Godfather of the Modern world of cooking is one of the last standing hero’s of the old world and the new . He saw some of the greats in the flesh and spawned future mavericks like Ramsay and Heston.
“A great leader brings the best out of people, and a great leader pulls a team together,” he says. “That’s the thing about leadership: people talk about me winning three stars. The truth is, I never won them. It was the boys and girls behind me who won them. “ I wanted his inspired life to be embedded into the future of our industry.
On the 7th of June 2019 , Le Cordon Bleu Melbourne witnessed history in the making. Marco walked into a packed hall of LCB students, past and present including our legendary teaching department. What we saw was 48 minutes of pure storytelling. An un-adulterated view of what happened in the 70’s and 80’s in his kitchens and what made “real cooks real chefs. There was a connection … stories of how he started his career at the age of 17, and then went to London to train in classical French cooking with Albert and Michel Roux at Le Gavroche. Marco had the students enthralled with an uncanny ability to say things with such pungency. For example he had one of his CDP’s tell him . “ Service is Service” and “ Your cooking is all about the customer experience, they will love you if they love your food” . He spoke fondly about every chef that gave him a skill. That was what made him hungry for more knowledge. This eye for detail is what made even the most simplest of his dishes the most memorable. He capped of the talk with these parting words of wisdom.
“If you’ve been given opportunities then you have to create opportunities. If you’re given knowledge by people, share your knowledge. If you were born with talent, show your talent off.”
A day to remember – Le Cordon bleu, Melbourne Campus
Marco felt that LCB is doing a marvellous job by cooking and teaching the classics as they will never be out of fashion. Just like the way Jimmy Page and Robert Plant changed Rock and Roll with “Stairway to Heaven” or a David Coverdale classic .. good food is here to stay. Cooking with soul is the foundation to any dish . It’s the good chefs that understand that very clearly.
I was so glad I could see the maestro in the flesh and tell him a story. A time in my life , way back in 96, his book changed my views, my cooking and my life. This is why young cooks need to hear why this industry can be rewarding if they can change the narrative for the better.
I want to end with this from Marco “I am an idealist, a romanticist, but totally dysfunctional,” he quips “But I have taught myself to navigate through life. I think everything I ever do in my life is by default. Nothing has ever been planned – I am not that clever. You do something, you get stuck in and you get dirty. It is as simple as that.”