There is a lore about chef Marco Pierre White. He’s the guy who earned three Michelin stars by his early 30s and gave them back a few years later, who has helped train the likes of Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay — and instilling fear into his charges with flying pots, profanity, even (as he relates in his book The Devil in the Kitchen) hanging a cook on a hook by his apron.
He’s a guy who will “just terrify the living [bleep] out of you, just by looking at him,” as fellow chef and Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain put it to the Washington Post recently.
White is also the host of The Chopping Block, a new culinary competition that premieres Wednesday (March 11) on NBC. The show features two teams (comprised of four sets of couples) opening restaurants on the same block in New York, with the winning duo earning $250,000. White presides over the series with an intimidating but — earlier stories to the contrary — mostly encouraging hand, offering up pronouncements about food and cooking in between the competition segments.
A conference call interview with White a couple weeks ago produced some insights into the nature of the show but was just as much about White himself. It’s a conversation filled with long pauses and digressions into other areas of the culinary world, including his thoughts on Ramsay (the two reportedly haven’t spoken in years) and what he enjoys cooking. Here’s a sample.
Q: Is there anything you won’t tolerate, either in your own kitchen or from the contestants?
White: I will not tolerate bad language. I will not tolerate anybody raising their voice unnecessarily. I will not accept lack of respect. A chef must be respectful. You have a job at hand to do, and that is feed your customers to the best of your ability. If somebody doesn’t want to follow the rules, they want to be loud, if they want to be disrespectful, they wish to swear, then they have to go. They can’t be part of that kitchen.
Q: What sets The Chopping Block apart from shows like Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen? I was reading that Gordon Ramsay said, “If only Top Chef would stop stealing our ideas.”
White: Firstly I’ll go to Ramsay’s statement. Originality is only original if you’re the first. And I have seen nothing original there at Hell’s Kitchen. And if someone does steal one of their ideas, what a great compliment. What a great compliment. Now what was the question again?
Q: How does The Chopping Block stand out from other cooking shows?
White: Thank you very much. Firstly is, I will never be a performing seal. I do not perform for a camera. I am myself. I’m a great believer [that] if you do reality TV, then you have a duty to put reality into TV.
If you don’t do that, then what you’re doing is questioning your integrity. You’re questioning everything you ever worked for. And I didn’t work 22 years in a kitchen as hard as I did to be a performing seal. I didn’t — I didn’t set out to turn Chopping Block into a circus. Some people may find it boring. Some people may find it interesting. But the one thing that we do deliver is reality.
Q: How did the contestants get the word out about their openings? [In the first challenge, the teams have only a couple of days to plan a menu, transform their broken-down spaces and open to paying customers.]
White: Well the reality is like us all, when I first opened — when I first opened my restaurant in 1987, it was thick in snow and I had no customers. Three weeks later I still had no customers. And one day a man called Egon Ronay walked through my doors. He was the most powerful critic in Britain.
He was fascinated by my name. In those days I was called Marco White. I never used my second name. He was intrigued by me being called Marco. And I said to him my name is Marco Pierre but I’ve never used it before. I was always embarrassed as a child being called Marco Pierre in the ’60s, from humble beginnings from the north of England.
And so he said what are you — Italian, French, English, what are you? And I told him I was English with an Italian mother. … He did this enormous piece about this young boy with long hair who had three names and cooked like an angel. And ever since that day I’ve never looked back.
And so what I learned through that when I look back over my life success is born out of luck. Luck is being given the opportunity. It’s awareness of mind that takes advantage of that opportunity. And all I was was a lucky boy who had a break and, you know, I took full advantage of it.
Q: I wanted to find out what you enjoy most when you’re cooking. What pleasures to you derive from cooking, cooking a meal?
White: Well firstly I’ll drift a little bit. This is just to give you insight into my answer. I believe that a chef’s palate is born out of his childhood. There’s a lot of brilliant chefs in this world, but their food is soulless, and there’s a few chefs who cook beautiful food which is very simple and tastes delicious.
Now, I believe that great chefs have three things in common. Firstly they accept and they respect that Mother Nature is the true artist and they are the cook. Secondly, everything they do in life is an extension of themselves. Thirdly, they give you insight into the world that they were born into. The world inspired them. And they share it on their plates. That’s what a great cook is. Painting by numbers is one thing. Cooking by numbers is something else. As I’ve often said, the most poisonous source in a kitchen is a chef’s ego. My pleasure is to take beautiful produce and allow it to be itself. That is my pleasure. I’m not a person who likes overworked food.
Q: NBC is billing you as “the world’s greatest chef.” Are you?
Q: Who is?
White: I can’t answer that question because I don’t have a different palate. Everyone sees beauty in something — in something differently. What I did do to my industry is I showed people what was possible. I helped people create their dreams. And when you can make young boys and girls in the kitchen dream, you know, if they got that fight within them and they truly want to do it, they’ll get there.
I remember Heston Blumenthal on his first day in the kitchen. I remember Mario Batali on his first day in the kitchen. I remember Gordon Ramsay as a little boy coming in to work for me. I never taught these people how to cook. All I did was share my dream with them. Everything else they made themselves.
So all you can do is share a dream, your story, your philosophy. As I’ve always said in life, cooking is a — cooking is a philosophy. It’s not a recipe. And all I did was make young boys and girls dream.