Marco Pierre White was the first British chef and the youngest ever to be awarded three Michelin stars. But he is perhaps more famous for his fiery temperament and "bad boy" reputation. Helena Frith Powell meets him ahead of the opening of his two restaurants in Abu Dhabi, a region he calls the "eighth wonder of the world". I am sitting at Frankie's restaurant in Knightsbridge, central London, waiting for Marco Pierre White to arrive. For anyone not familiar with him, he is the original bad boy of British cooking. At 33, he became the first British chef ever to win three Michelin stars and the youngest in the world to be awarded the famous accolade.
But in his homeland he is probably more famous for his Byronic good looks and unpredictable behaviour, along with his appearances on the TV show Hell's Kitchen and the fact that he made his protégé, Gordon Ramsay, cry. We are scheduled to meet at 9.30. I am early. At 9.30 on the dot, someone arrives. "Are you enjoying your coffee?" he asks. "I have a message from Marco " Oh, help. This could be anything. I have known White now for more than 20 years. He is possibly the most unpredictable person I have ever met.
"He will be here in five minutes," the messenger continues. Phew. Unpredictable except for one thing. White, now 47, is extremely reliable and correct. He may fire someone on the spot because they annoy him or get engaged to someone after just three weeks, but make a date for breakfast and he will show up when he says he will. Less than five minutes later he arrives, wearing a shooting jacket, cords and a baggy blue jumper. His trademark hair is as unruly as ever, he is pale and has dark circles under his eyes. I don't remember a time when he didn't have dark circles under his eyes. Back in the 1980s I used to think it was from the long hours he worked as he trained his way to the top. Maybe nowadays he stays up late partying?
He sits down opposite me and lights a cigarette. He is possibly the only man in Knightsbridge wearing wellington boots. But they are, at least, designer wellington boots: Le Chameau, to be precise. He looks like a gamekeeper, which funnily enough, he tells me, is what he always wanted to be. We are meeting to talk about his plans to open two new restaurants in Abu Dhabi; a Frankie's Italian Bar & Grill and a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill. Both are scheduled to open at the new Fairmont Hotel in October and he will fly in to oversee the event. Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, has agreed to be here at the official opening. White already has a Frankie's in Dubai and has plans for further expansion there.
"I love the Emirates," he says. "To me they are the eighth wonder of the world. Whether you like the architecture or not, you just have to stand back and be amazed at the fact that 50 years ago there was practically nothing there except for sand." The two restaurants here are the latest addition to an empire that has made him worth an estimated £50 million (Dh303 m). It includes dozens of restaurants all over the world, books and television shows. Not bad for a boy who was raised on a working-class council estate in Leeds, West Yorkshire, and who saw his mother die from a brain haemorrhage when he was six years old.
But White says he has his early environment to thank for much of his inspiration. "I might have grown up on a council estate," he points out, "but at the top of the hill was the Harewood Estate [ancestral home of the Earl of Harewood] with gardens designed by Capability Brown, so I had the most beautiful playground you can imagine." He says his Italian-born mother's death left him vulnerable and damaged, so he felt safer surrounded by nature and animals than on the streets. This "love affair with mother nature," as he describes it, began when he was a child and is still evident in his signature dishes.
"I never stray far from nature in my cooking, so for example, I will cook salmon with wild chives that grow next to the river," he says. "All great chefs accept that mother nature is the artist and they are just the cook; they allow her to show herself off." White left school at 16 with no qualifications and got a job at the Hotel St George in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, at the behest of his father, who was also a chef.
He describes his first job as one of the "defining moments" of his life for two reasons: "Harrogate was a very smart town and going there took me away from the world I grew up in. If I had stayed there it could have been a handicap, because if you are born into that world it is very hard to get out of it." The second reason was that while he was there he came across a restaurant guide. "I started flicking through it and realised for the first time that restaurants have stars and that the finest restaurant in England was 15 minutes down the road," he recalls.
He applied for a job at that restaurant, The Box Tree in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. "When I started working there my world went from black and white to colour," he says. "There I was, 17 years old and working in a two-star Michelin restaurant. The boys who ran it were totally passionate about cooking. Every other weekend they would go to France to visit the great restaurants. Every night after service when I went upstairs to say goodnight to the bosses, they would tell me all about their trips.
"It ignited something in me and I started to dream about great restaurants like the Gavroche - I started to want to be part of the legends of my world." White fell in love with the idea of the Gavroche, the London restaurant opened by the Roux brothers, Albert and Michel, in 1967 which had become and remains the first British landmark restaurant. He wrote, asking for an application form. "I got the form back but it was in French so I never responded," he laughs. Instead he took another job in London as a pastry chef. But one night when he had missed the last bus home and was walking the streets of London, he came upon a "slick-looking place", discovered it was Le Gavroche and reignited his determination to work there all over again.
"In the morning I went back and was told by the pastry chef to go to head office, so I did. I walked in and saw Albert Roux sitting on a desk. He said, 'Hello, what can I do for you?' I told him I had come for a job and he gave me a job as a commis chef." He stayed with the Roux company for two and a half years before taking on other jobs at establishments including Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, and Chez Nico in Oxford and London. He was heading for Paris to complete his training when he ended up working for nothing for a friend who had fallen on hard times, a move that would lead to him opening Harvey's, his restaurant in the south London suburb of Wandsworth. Harvey's boasted a staff including a young Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, and it was where White earned his first two Michelin stars.
"I firmly believe that karma had something to do with it," he says. "I helped my friend and his partners for six months, organising the financing of Harvey's. Suddenly from being that young boy, I was catapulted and elevated to that top echelon of restaurants. It was amazing. I believe that if you expose yourself to good and you do good then good comes back at you." But in spite of his success, White still wasn't happy. "Harvey's was a tricky moment in my life," he says. "I was still in a lot of pain and it doesn't matter how much success you have if you're not from that world and you don't really belong there, then you're not happy. Added to which, if you haven't dealt with the demons of your childhood, your chances of making mistakes are very high."
White has been married three times. First in 1988, to Alex McArthur, with whom he has a daughter. Their marriage ended in 1990. In 1992, he married the model Lisa Butcher (now the presenter of the BBC's What Not To Wear), after a whirlwind romance. He told her he didn't love her on their honeymoon and their marriage ended after 15 weeks. In 2000, he married Mati Conjero, a bartender at one of his restaurants. They have three children together but were divorced in 2007.
"I was very co-dependent because of my mother's death," he explains, lighting another one of five or so cigarettes he will smoke during our two-hour interview. "My three brothers never married and never had children. I went to the other extreme, always trying to recreate what was taken away from me, due to the death of my mother. I had three marriages and four kids, which I think shows you how enormously the tragedy of childhood can affect you. It's a kind of destructive madness which I have finally come to terms with."
How has he done that? "By discovering yourself you start to accept yourself, and by accepting yourself you can then start to realise your true potential as a human being. You start to become content with yourself." And why has it taken him so long? He leans back on the leather sofa and laughs. "Well, I was never the sharpest tool in the box, let's be honest. I was a member of Densa for many years. But seriously, it's like my whole drive was born out of co-dependency and a need to be accepted by my father, by society, by those around me. My success as a chef was born out of co-dependency and co-dependent behaviour."
In January 1995, when White was 33, he won his third Michelin star, as chef-patron of The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at London's Hyde Park Hotel. He was at the top of the cooking tree. Was he finally happy? "No," he says emphatically. "First of all I was very sad because my mum wasn't there to see it. I was quite lonely. And I realised I had spent 17 years working for something I never wanted. Don't forget, I didn't win three stars because I wanted to win three stars or wanted to be famous. I just wanted to be accepted and that was the reality. I remember as a young boy never feeling accepted. You try being called Marco Pierre in Leeds in the 1960s. Don't forget, it wasn't that long after the war and the Italians were regarded as cowards and fascists. Added to which, most lads in Leeds would think, 'That's a flippin' poncey name.'"
White says he has his co-dependency to thank for picking himself up after the disappointment of winning three stars. He set his sights on achieving something no restaurant in Britain and very few in France had ever managed: three stars and five red knives and forks (The Michelin Guide's top award for service). In January 1998 he got what he wanted. Was he happy now? "I had achieved my dream," he replies, rather evasively. "I had replicated everything that had inspired me in my life, everything the great French restaurants had. I felt that I had achieved everything and that there was nothing left to achieve."
In September 1999, White told Michelin he was retiring. When I suggest that this was a very clever career move, he smiles. He came out of cooking retirement in 2007 to appear as the head chef in the British reality TV show Hell's Kitchen. A strange move for a man who is notoriously publicity-shy and prefers stalking stags to partying with celebrities. "I did TV purely because I don't like the way certain people represent my industry on television - I don't believe they give a true insight into the world I came from," he says. "When I was a young man there was no such thing as a celebrity chef. Chefs were acclaimed - young boys and girls came to the industry to learn a craft, a trade. Now they come in wanting to be famous. This is the wrong attitude, which is why I am planning to send my boy to a three-star restaurant in Burgundy, where he will get that three-star discipline."
I am guessing when he talks about "certain people" on television he is referring to his old protégé and former friend Gordon Ramsay. What does he really think of him? And is it true that he once made Ramsay cry after a fierce telling-off at Harvey's? He is silent for a moment. "Look," he says leaning closer, his voice dropping, "I didn't make Gordon cry. Gordon chose to cry. As to what I think of him, well, I have known Gordon for many years. He worked for me at Harvey's and I got him a job at the Gavroche. I also helped him to get to France. There is a side of me that is very fond of Gordon and you have to respect everything he has achieved in his life, but sadly I think he will be remembered for other things. Watching him on TV is like watching his legacy melt.
"Gordon and I have a lot in common; we were both raised on council estates, for example. But whereas he is excited by power, I am turned on by influence. He will be remembered for all the swearing and all the belittlement and all the bullying. When I do Hell's Kitchen I don't swear or scream or bully." But he does have a reputation for having an extremely fiery temperament. He laughs. "I mean, I'm like the calmest person in the world. I don't shout, I don't scream and I never lose my temper. Most of my reputation is a product of exaggeration and ignorance."