HT Brunch Cover Story: Iconic British chef Marco Pierre White on his love for Indian food, and his disinterest in cooking it!
Chef Marco, the youngest to ever win three Michelin stars at 33, is in a different state of mind. In an exclusive chat, he tells us how he loves Indian food, but doesn’t want to cook it. Here’s why.Updated: Jun 24, 2019 16:51 IST
“I was born disturbed; my feet appeared first at delivery and they had to pull me out,” says British celebrity chef and restaurateur Marco Pierre White, sipping a chilled beer on a breezy summer noon in Bengaluru. I’d casually asked him if I could “disturb” him for a quick Insta story after our interview and this was his response.
White’s manager, Nick, gasps at this hitherto unknown piece of information about the MasterChef mentor. Marco continues: “It was a joke,” and we all burst into peals of laughter.
Clearly, not only is his cooking in good taste, but his sense of humour is also spot on!
Marco lives six miles outside Bath, UK, and likes his food served hot – in temperature that is, not necessarily with chillies. He trained bad boy chef Gordon Ramsay, who was, he says, “like any other boy in the kitchen.” He hates watching his shows on TV. In fact, he doesn’t watch TV at all. Nor does he care what the media says about him.
This despite the fact that he’s a regular face on TV, is the author of several books, runs over 35 restaurants, and at 33, became the youngest chef to bag three Michelins stars.
The chef checked in at the hotel at 4 in the morning. Yet, he cheerily walks in for breakfast at 10am. He orders coffee only after he’s made sure I’ve already ordered my tea. As he watches the steward pouring my masala chai, he says, “I’d like one of those please. I Iike masala tea, my friend chef Vineet Bhatia introduced me to it and he makes it with cardamom.”
He’s known Vineet Bhatia for 25 years, and also Michelin-star chef Atul Kochhar. “I saw him last week, he’s a nice man,” says Marco.
He also seems like a nice man. So different from his TV persona characterised by cruel comments and bad temper courtesy reality shows like Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef Australia. But then why is he called the ‘enfant terrible’ of the British dining scene, I ask.
“That’s 30-35 years ago! What I’m interested in, is now. I think journalists lack imagination and are not keen to know how my mind has evolved and what my vision of food is today. I find those journalists rather boring, and that’s why I turned down all national press,” says Marco.
Aged 57 now, White is famously known to have returned his three Michelin stars and retire as a chef thereafter. “I did not want to live a lie and pretend that I cook when I don’t,” he says. “So I can sit here today and have a conversation with you. If I have three stars in Michelin, how can I leave my kitchen and travel the world when people are paying the money they’re paying to eat food that I cook? When I go to a three-star restaurant, I want the proprietor to be there. It’s about individual integrity. When I cooked, I cooked six days a week, was there for every single service and saw everything that went out. I’d only dine in a three-star restaurant if I knew the chef was behind the stove. When you have that sort of responsibility to maintain standards, you cannot rely on someone else. The reality is that somebody else becomes the chef when you’re not in the kitchen. So really, they should get the stars, not you. It’s about honesty.”
The India stories
Marco made his first trip to India in January this year. He was in Mumbai for a bit, and this time he’s in Bengaluru where he hosted World on a Plate, a gourmet festival running over two days at The Ritz-Carlton. “I was mesmerised by my first trip to India, that’s the only word to describe the feeling,” he says. “When I flew in to Mumbai, I had no expectations. I arrived at lunchtime and all I could smell was that sweet aroma of spices, which was amazing.”
Despite that good first experience, he has no expectations from this trip. Expectations lead to a high chance of disappointment, he explains. “However, one thing that’s been consistent in India is the welcome – the people are very gentle, polite and kind, and that’s what I’ve noticed during both visits,” he says.
But he’s no newbie to Indian cuisines, and he confidently orders his breakfast of dosa and vada, and tucks into the meal with his fingers. “I’ve been to many countries around the world, but India is a three-dimensional country,” he muses. “It has a soul and those with an inquisitive mind can always discover something new here.”
Indian regional cuisines are very familiar to White, who works with P&O Cruises in England. “I’d say that 98 per cent of the chefs there are Indian and since I work with them, I get to try food from different regions of India,” he says. “I find the cuisine to be very diverse and their understanding of spices is truly amazing. But I think it’s very important to eat the cuisine within the region, so while I’m here, I’d like to try all Indian cuisines.”
His favourite spice, he adds, is cinnamon. This is what led him to a cinnamon farm in Sri Lanka. “The sticks are quite long and I didn’t know that it’s the bark of the branch that’s sliced and then rolled before being dried. It’s also a very delicate spice, I Iike it with fish and it’s also delicious with desserts,” says Marco.
Tracing the desi connect
Since curry is almost indigenous to England, Marco had it for the first time at home. “When I was six, my mother died and before that what we ate at home was Italian food as my mother was Italian,” he tells me. “But my father was a chef and he use to make a colonial Madras curry with turmeric because in the old days in England, all those smart hotels had a Madras curry and there weren’t as many Indian restaurants as there are today. Indian is England’s favourite cuisine actually, and we used to have it at home.”
His dosa is also not new to him – he recently visited an Indian street food café in Swinden, North Yorkshire, where they do dosas, and he is quick to point out how they were rolled whereas the dosa he’s tucking into is folded into a triangle.
“What I like about Indian food is the eating rather than the visual, like the way they serve dosa with little bowls of chutney and sambar here”– Marco Pierre White
But much as he loves the taste of Indian foods, White has no desire to cook them. Instead, he’s fascinated by the techniques, the use of spice and how flavours are maximised in Indian cooking. “When it comes to learning, spending time with people and listening to their philosophy is most important, because without philosophy where’s the understanding?” he asks. This is why his favourite Indian restaurant in the UK is Vineet Bhatia’s eponymous restaurant, where Marco goes for classics like the “clean and simple” grilled fish.
Indian cuisine, Marco feels, is very clever. “What I like about Indian food is the eating rather than the visual – it’s very simple, like the way they serve dosa along with these little bowls of chutneys and sambar here,” says Marco as he takes a bite of the rawa kesri. “I had this at the street food café in Swinden too, it was more orange. This is a bit sweet for my palate, but I do like mango lassi and that’s my big mistake in life,” he confesses.
Sensing my intrigue, he continues: “When I go to an Indian restaurant, I always order it at the start. It’s quite dense and since in England they serve enormous portions, I’m always full. But I love it so much that I can’t stop eating it or drinking it. They do the salty one as well, but I prefer the mango lassi even though I don’t like sweets, but then that’s the child in me!”
In good taste
In the age of Instagram where looks reign supreme, what are Marco’s thoughts on the presentation of food vis-à-vis its taste? “Food should present itself. The real art of presentation is generosity. Imagine placing a big serving bowl of sambar in the middle of the table. Without changing anything, it’ll look 10 times better in photos. Generosity is the secret, not small little portions,” says Marco who never sugarcoats his words, but uses sugar like he would salt.
“I use sugar to bring out the flavour. I like very simple desserts and my favourite dessert is the lemon tart. The balance of citrus and sugar in it is very important,” he says.
Just as important is his advice to young wannabe Michelin chefs. “I’d say just do what you do and follow your heart,” says Marco. “The customers are most important, feed them what they want and not what you want. Today, you get 12 to 16 courses of little things, which is against my philosophy anyway. I came from the world of grand cuisine, not petty cuisine,” he grins, and adds that he’s a man of extremes who doesn’t like that middle ground.
“If you fall in love, fall deeply, otherwise don’t,” he says. “Take the full pain of love. Love is a wonderful thing, but I don’t want to be in love. I’m done. I’ve had too much, but I love my 17-year-old-daughter a lot. She’s training to be a chef and is very focused,” he declares proudly.
The next time Marco visits India, he’d like to spend time on the coast with fishermen and eat the fresh catch. “I’m always fascinated by water and my favourite pastime is fishing. Therefore I’d like to take a very long road trip up and down the coast,” he says. Because, after all, India’s the most “magical” place he’s ever been to!
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From HT Brunch, June 23, 2019
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