Friday, 21 September 2007

I Never Thought I'd Hear Myself Saying This

There are many things that I don't particularly like about Marco Pierre White. But in his stewardship of Hell's Kitchen, he's transformed my opinion of himself and, in the process, made his predecessor Gordon Ramsay look like a rank amateur. That's not cooking I'm talking about, of course. You can come to your own conclusions about the relative merits of their platters. It's being a chef - a strong, well-organised, inspirational and charismatic leader of a kitchen team. If I had a hat, I'd take it off to The Great White.

One of my first ever posts, back last August, was entitled Marco Pierre White - Not Mad, Just Sad. In my piece I explained how my father had brought me up to think Marco Pierre White was God - not for his culinary skills or for the accolades he won as a restaurateur - but because he trained more of Britain's great chefs than anyone else in history. The list, more than 20 strong, includes Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, Daniel Clifford, Mark Edwards, Chris Galvin, Philip Howard and Bruce Poole. And I'm sure I've missed some really well-known stars of British gastronomy.

Marco Pierre White, chef extraordinaire
But, as I explained, I was shocked when I heard Marco on Radio5Live promoting his autobiography "White Slave". Shocked because he didn't describe his escape from a tragic childhood in terms of living the dream of cooking great food, but as a struggle to achieve fame and success. In his distinctive gravel tones, Marco described the moment when he first read the Egon Ronay guide while training at The Box Tree in Ilkley and discovered an obsession - not for food but for Michelin stardom.

Along with that single-minded drive for success came the fiery temperament and the explosive headlines that reflected it. I won't repeat them here - the marital bust-ups and flirtations, the sambuca trick that led to self-immolation, the verbal assaults on commis chefs and customers. The importance of Marco's past history was that when the press broke the news back in February that Marco was to front the new series of Hell's Kitchen, my dad expressed total disbelief and claimed that the entire series must be shot and canned in advance, because "nobody would invest that kind of money on a series where the presenter was likely to throw a fit half way through and storm out".
A fiery temperament and the headlines to match

Dad's cynicism was reinforced on reading Euan Ferguson's 2001 profile in the Observer. "Which Marco? There's the vintage Marco, 1987-1999. Bad-boy Marco, enfant terrible, the explosive Marco of leonine rage and silk-shark seduction. A mercurial bottle. Brilliant at its best but, frankly, a little unreliable. A number of chefs hated it, although the young ladies couldn't seem to get enough... OK, there were the raging tantrums, the womanising, the celebrity bust-ups. But that vintage MPW was the fruit of a miserable childhood. Now, he says, he's all grown up, a father, a faithful husband, happy to be back in the kitchen teaching fresh-faced recruits - and it's ages since he's had to throw anyone out for wearing bicycle clips. The Marco who says "I don't lose my temper any more", "I leave my emotions at home" and "I've never been happier in my life." Charming, trustworthy, all knives locked firmly in the cabinet."

That would be the "faithful husband" whose engagements with other women allegedly resulted in his current divorce. And neither my father nor I believed a word of it when, in what sounded like nothing more than a dig at his predecessor and former kitchen protégé Gordon Ramsay, Marco told the media: "I don't like the way my industry has been portrayed by certain people on TV. My approach on Hell's Kitchen will be about inspiring people and helping them, not belittling them and putting them down." The pair have not spoken, reportedly, since Gordon turned up at his wedding to Mati with a self-publicising camera crew.

Well, I've just watched the entire third series of Hell's Kitchen and I'm amazed. Don't get me wrong. I have no difficulty understanding the difference between television and reality. I understand exactly how much effort Marco's PR company will have put into his re-branding exercise and how much more effort the ITV production team has put into engineering the desired result from the initial ingredients, or should I say reverse engineering the initial ingredients from the desired result. The format - in which the editors had over 36 hours to cut the best from each episode - also helped a great deal. But as Marco himself said in the semi-final episode, you can't bluff your way through two weeks of this with good acting. And if Gordon had any editorial rights in the last series, he didn't use them wisely. Marco did.

Something driven home to me this year as a result of writing my CV in four languages was the real meaning of the word "chef". A chef is not a cook. A chef is a leader - someone with the experience, knowledge and charisma to lead a group of disparate individuals to work effectively and coherently as a team. "Chef" means "boss". Want to see someone who fits this bill 110%? Just take a look at this:

Marco's kitchen strategy

And if Marco's management skills are not enough, try his teaching techniques. And, last but not least, that other aspect of Marco that many criticise, but most men would secretly (or not so secretly) die for.

Marco's teaching technique

Marco's charisma and...

Well done Marco, you've truly done yourself proud.


Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Ditto! Yet another great post!
I almost didn't watch it, infact I missed the start but my husband watched it and said it was good. Clever editing, it doesn't really matter, whatever it was, it totally changed my opinion of him.

The Boston Foodie said...

What a concidence! I just reviewed a book on my blog called "Heat" in which White also figured prominently, as a mentor to the very brash US chef Mario Batali. Ramsay is both loved and hated here and TV viewers unfamiliar with his reatsuarnts regard him as a monster. Can't wait to see the new series.

Scott at Real Epicurean said...

Fair point. I can't speak any other languages except basic Polish - and you're spot on in that chef (of course spelt differently) means "boss".

I've missed all the episodes of Hells Kitchen, by the way :(

John said...

Excellent blog. I can't wait til the show airs down under. I'm a great fan of MPW, having worked alongside one of his chefs, back in those days. I know how it was then.

Anonymous said...

I think this blog is fantastic. And having lived in Hackney for the past two years, what a credit to you and your borough! I think Barcelona is an amazing achievement. Good for you and keep up the great blogs

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