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September 12, 2006

Harry Phibbs on the difficult Marco Pierre White: White Slave: The Autobiography - Marco Pierre White

Posted by Harry Phibbs

White Slave: The Autobiography
by Marco Pierre White
London: Orion, 2006
Hardback, 20

One of the key formulas for the celebrity chef phenomenon is the ability to get angry over food. On one level this is funny - compared to getting angry about war or poverty or crime or tyranny. On another level a lot of us are pretty preoccupied about the food we eat. Even if we are too embarrassed to be as openly demanding about it as White we are interested in his views on the subject.

While he may be a disagreeable personality this does not mean that we should begrudge him his Michelin stars. He is also happy to share his tips for how to cook. He says it's a good idea for a cook to picture the food on the plate first and then work backwards. This isn't primarily a cook book but he has some interesting observations about how to fry an egg, stating:

A perfectly cooked fried egg is quite beautiful. Apply the cook's brain and visualise that fried egg on the plate. Do you want it to be burned around he edges? Do you want to see the craters on the egg white? Should the yolk look as though you need a hammer to break into it? The answer to all these 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 a high heat. You need to insert earplugs to reduce the horrific volume of the sizzle.

White says that you shouldn't be able to hear the egg cooking:

Slowly heat a heavy-based pan on a very low heat, perhaps for five minutes, and once it is hot enough, put in some butter letting it gently melt. Then take your egg from a basket. I don't keep eggs in the fridge as it only lengthens the cooking process because you are dealing with a chilled ingredient.
This is very good advice. However I am less sure about his "visualise the food on the plate" approach to being "more precise with portions". He asks:
How often have you prepared a roast dinner for intended for six but ended up creating enough food for a dozen? Picture it on the plate first and you'll not only get a better meal but save on waste as well.
What if your guests want second helpings? What if you find it convenient to have some left overs?

White comes across as a confusing personality. There is the classic combination of him being thick skinned in his dealings with others while thin skinned when it comes to his own feelings. Routinely pretty unpleasant to those he encounters yet also showing a vulnerable sensitivity about what people think of him. Consider for example his relations with the media. He writes:
I don't keep press cuttings about myself, but when I was in my twenties I would study the newspapers and magazine articles and wonder why I was described as an "angry young man".
Here's one theory. The descriptions arose because of his practice of swearing hysterical abuse at journalists contacting him with the mildest of enquiries.

Indeed sometimes his attacks on the media would be about action not words. When he started going out with PR girl-about-town Nicky Barthorpe, journalist Kate Sissons was despatched by Nigel Dempster to White's Tite Street home to obtain an interview. She remained outside in an open-topped sports car waiting for him to emerge.

MPW's response was to ring Lee Bunting, a chef at his restaurant, Harveys. MPW told him:

I want you to get a couple of the lads and give them a bucket each. Fill the buckets with flour - be generous with the flour - then add some water and mix it to a good paste. Once you've done that, chuck the contents of your buckets over the two people in that car outside my flat.
Not that he gets on badly with all hacks. Former Mirror Editor Piers Morgan is a friend. Also, one of the cosier relationships in the restaurant world is between Fay Maschler, Evening Standard restaurant critic and celebrity chef Marco-Pierre White. In White Slave he recalls an early encounter, at his restaurant Lampwicks in 1986:
It was an exciting time in my life and my food was being noticed. Fay Maschler, the Evening Standard's restaurant critic came for dinner one night and she gave me my first review. She was quite polite about the food but I have no recollection of what I must have done for her to describe me as "the volatile but rather beautiful Marco, his intensity can glaze a creme brulee from ten yards".
She ended up as a guest at his wedding to Mati.

Since the memoirs appeared there have been reports of a marital rift. There were already a few problems documented in the book. Mati reacted badly to Marco getting flirty text messages from a girl called Robin. He says:

I could never respond to the messages because I had yet to learn how to send a text message.
Mati knew well enough. She grabbed the phone and sent the messages to all the stored numbers:
Marco Pierre White has left his wife and children for Robin Saunders.
It's not just wives, waiters, business tycoons and journalists who have found White difficult. I

n 1996 he went off to cook for Prince Charles at Highgrove. White says:

The heir to the throne gave me a confident handshake, smiled warmly, and then said "Bonjour Monsieur White..." For three minutes I listened to his monologue, each and every word of it in French. I just nodded along - it would have been rude to interrupt - then when he had finished he handed me a little collection of books about Highgrove, each of them inscribed to "Monsieur Pierre White".

I had to tell him. "I'm terribly sorry sir. I'm not French. I grew up on a council estate in Leeds."

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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