“My mother didn’t raise me to be a c***”
So said Marco Pierre White as he draped his suit jacket around my shoulders and beckoned over a waiter to top up my glass of Prosecco.
This wasn’t what I was expecting when I set out that evening to interview the man who once made his protege Gordon Ramsey cry.
I was at Marco’s in Brentwood – the restaurant which launched in December and serves a mix of Italian-inspired dishes and American classics – to have a brief chat with the 57-year-old chef, while he was in Essex.
I expected a difficult, challenging man. I thought I’d be granted mere minutes with him. Let’s face it, this was the fiery fella who once cut a hole in the back of the chef whites of one staff member who dared to complain about the heat in his kitchen. He HANDED BACK his three Michelin stars after five years and retired from the kitchen – despite being first British chef to be awarded three – and the youngest (age 32 in 1994) in Michelin history.
So, I did not expect to still be chatting to him about family, children, and comfort food, six hours – and several drinks – later, in the wee small hours at the spot, just off the M25.
“My mother died when I was six,” he told me, glass of rouge, swirling in one hand, cigarette in the other, as we sat on the decking outside the restaurant – hence the jacket, chivalrously given to ward off the chill of the evening.
“That shaped me. I had to help. We were poor, too poor for tinned food. I remember peeling potatoes or peeling onions.”
He left high school in Leeds, the third of four boys to Frank White and Maria-Rosa Gallina, without a single qualification. And, as the son and grandson of chefs, he says “just ended up” working in a kitchen.
“I did what my father told me. If he’d been a miner I would have gone down the pits. If he’d been a miller, I’d have worked in the mills.
“The truth is, it was a job. I had no love affair with it.
“He told me to become a chef, because people will always need feeding.
“But as I said to my dear daughter Mirabelle – she is living with me at the moment and it’s my greatest joy – ‘You must understand one thing about your father, he was never ambitious as a young man.’ And I’m still not. I was ruled by a fear of not being good enough, a fear of failure.”
Talk of his mother peppers conversation throughout the evening. He credits her love – and the tragic loss of her to a brain haemorrhage – with making him the man he is today.
“The softness was stripped away. I took up a career where I would be knocked and pushed and would have to work and work. But I am my mother’s son – gentle and sensitive.
“I worked out to the day exactly how old I was when my mother died, and when my sons were that exact age, I looked at them and thought, that’s the child, the baby I was, that is when my childhood ended.
And now, decades later, and a father of three himself, he’s not lost his taste for food that comforts.
Indeed, he gets properly stuck into a plate of buffalo wings (telling the head chef to make sure to add more of the blue cheese dip in the future) and speaks more effusively of omelettes, ham sandwiches – with English mustard – and simple pasta, than any of the award-winning dishes of his past.
He spots a burn on the top of my hand, “from the grill?” he asks wryly? (It was, courtesy of cheese on toast, for my toddler.)
“I’m not a fussy eater,” he shrugs.
“I have been spoilt and privileged because of my job. But I’m the same as most people, of an evening I do not want fancy food.”
So why pick Brentwood to be home to his first eatery in Essex?
“I suppose the real question is, why Marco’s at all?” he says, with a piercing glance over the top of his glasses.
“I’m in the business of selling a night out. It’s about affordable glamour. Food is three down on the list of priorities for that.
“Number one is the environment you’re sitting in. You have to feel comfortable, if you don’t you won’t go back. Number two, service. Number three, is food. Food of a very high standard at a fair price, that the average person can afford.
“Some of the best restaurants I have eaten in, didn’t necessarily serve the best food. When people go out to spend their hard earned money, they want to be treated with respect and courtesy. If the service is good, then you don’t mind waiting a little longer for your meal.”