Americans often don’t know who Marco Pierre White is — which is probably why he was the third most often Googled chef this year, after Anthony Bourdain and Guy Fieri. But if you’re British, there’s no way you haven’t heard of him, because not only has he been a major player in the UK restaurant scene for nearly 30 years, but also because he’s also a frequent judge on British cooking competition shows. Even if you’re already familiar with him, we’ll bet that there’s a lot you still don’t know; if you’ve never heard of him, now’s the time to get on board.
While running the kitchen at a pub called Six Bells on the King’s Road in London, White’s apprentice was none other than a young Mario Batali, who has just completed his training at the city’s Le Cordon Bleu.
White’s restaurant Harveys earned a Michelin star shortly after opening in 1987, and was awarded its second star the following year. The Restaurant Marco Pierre White received a Michelin star in 1994, making White not only the youngest chef to earn three Michelin stars, but the first British chef in history to do so.
White shocked the culinary world in 1999, when, like a great musician retiring right after releasing a double-platinum album, he returned his Michelin stars and retired from the kitchen. “I gave Michelin inspectors too much respect, and I belittled myself,” he told The Caterer in a great interview. “I had three options: I could be a prisoner of my world and continue to work six days a week; I could live a lie and charge high prices and not be behind the stove; or I could give my stars back, spend time with my children and re-invent myself. I never left the stove, I never lived that lie. I’m not that trusting that someone could do what I did. That’s why I bowed out.”
Gordon Ramsay honed his skills during a nearly three-year stint at Harveys, but left after becoming fed up with White’s “rages and the bullying and violence.” It’s reported that on more than one occasion White reduced Ramsay to tears. The relationship between the two chefs has been strained ever since.
White had no qualms about throwing unruly customers out of his restaurants, and would do it regularly. (“There was always a reason. I was trying to create something special, and they were trying to spoil it,” he told The Guardian.) He also once famously spent an hour making an off-menu order of chips for a customer who requested them — but then charged him £25 (about $32 in today’s money) for his troubles.
Another (completely true) story tells of a young apprentice at Harveys who complained to White about the heat in the kitchen. White grabbed a paring knife and sliced open the back of the cook’s chef’s jacket and pants in order to give him some ventilation. The cook never got his uniform fixed.
Famously reluctant to appear on television, White surprised the food world once again when it was announced that he’d be appearing as the head chef on the UK’s Hell’s Kitchen in 2007. Shortly into the series’ run, however, he said “I don’t think it was a pikey’s picnic tonight” in referring to a meal, which offended some and was noticed by the Commission for Racial Equality (“pikey” is a derogatory term for Romany or lower-class Brits). The controversy quickly passed, however.
Even though White’s had great success on television across the pond and around the world with appearances on MasterChef Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand (he also hosted a British show called Marco Pierre White’s Kitchen Wars in 2012), his one American outing ended in failure. Called The Chopping Block, the show premiered on NBC in March 2009 but was pulled after only three episodes due to low ratings, returning after three months to quietly complete its only season.
According to Piers Morgan, one evening he, White, and two other friends drank six bottles of wine whose cost totaled £28,000 (about $35,600), including a 1911 Château D'Yquem. White signed the empty bottles for Morgan, who still has them. On the Yquem, White wrote “£1,500 a glass, love Marco.”