M.P. White beyond commonplaces

Genius and wildness, professionalism and commercials for a chef who changed the history of cuisine


Tokyo Cervigni presents – debated yet charismatic - Marco Pierre White, the English chef who conquered the French without ever visiting France. Photos are taken from www.marcopierrewhite.co

“Have you bought White Heat because you want to cook properly? Cook like a chef? Forget it. Save your money. Instead, go and buy a pan”. This is the first paragraph to one of the most important cookbooks in the past 30 years: with an invitation to turn on one’s heels and get into the kitchen instead of reading. When White Heat was published in 1990, Marco Pierre White had already received two stars at his restaurant Harvey’s, in South London, at a time when, culinary speaking, the British metropolis only existed in the triangle between Mayfair and Knightsbridge.

Marco was a pioneer, a narcissus infuriated with the world: capable of conquering three stars when the Michelin guide was still the Michelin guide, presenting French cuisine without having ever visited France. His teachers were enough to train him and make him acquire the sensitivity to create a dish à la française. After all, not everyone can say they trained with Albert and Michel Roux at Gavroche, Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire and Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir.

White Heat is the first cookbook to move the compass from food to chef in such a violent way. The coloured photos of the dishes, clean and perfect, are in contrast with the black and white portraits of the kitchen team. It stood out as it really was, not as it had been depicted until then: no more white hats but plenty of rush hour anxiety when composure leaves space to nicotine, dark circles under the eyes and friends teasing each other.

For the first time, those who worked in the kitchen read a book that spoke as if to a friend. For the first time, those who had never set foot in a kitchen could understand that behind the beauty and precision of a dish, lies the brutality of hours of work, burns and cuts. The genius of White Heat is not just based on Marco Pierre White’s ego, but also and mostly on the visionary idea of fashion photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, perhaps the book’s real author.

Those portraits, today 25 years old, are ethereal because the portray not only Marco’s truth, but that of a profession. This is how it was, this is how it is today, and perhaps will always be. With a single portrait of White, Clarke managed to capture the soul and essence, the young rage and the look of someone who in fact is looking at himself in the mirror and is in love with his own impulsive nature.

All that we see today on television has in fact roots in that book published 26 years ago and which has, since then, totally changed the rules of the game in the restaurant industry. This is why this book is so important, and it’s for this reason too that speaking about the book is possibly the best way to portray Marco Pierre White’s nature and chef role.

In fact, most chefs have dreamed about being White: the work pain, the three-star glory, the courage and the arrogance of giving them back. At the same time, most people hate White. The reason this time is only one: he sold himself to a corporation, Unilever, to become the sponsor of their Knorr stock cube.

If you start from the principle that we’re all the makers of our fortunes and misfortunes, in fact this gesture is coherent with his character. Marco, as a predestined hero, became the antihero out of his own choice. He’s like a culinary Zeno, a chef aware of what the world of cooking is really like and who denounces it by taking a cheque with who knows how many zeroes stimulating the demagogic hatred of many others who saw their legend crumbling in front of their eyes. All according to plan.

A much more recent – and clearly less fascinating – photo of White, with a reprint of the famous book

A much more recent – and clearly less fascinating – photo of White, with a reprint of the famous book

For those who are still speaking ill of him, who left cooking over 15 years ago to dedicate himself to family and hunting, reading the motivation with which, in 1999 he refused the honour of being awarded with the Michelin stars would probably be enough. In those lines they will also find the answer to a futile thought “White sold himself out”: “I was judged by many people who were much less expert than me. Was it really worth it? I gave too much respect to the Michelin inspectors, forgetting myself. I had 3 options: be a prisoner in a world of which I was a slave 6 days a week; live in the lie of making clients pay for a dish when I wasn’t the one cooking; or very simply I could give my stars back, live with my children and reinvent my future (Marco Pierre White).

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Tokyo Cervigni

A media professional divided between Paris, London and Tokyo. He writes about restaurants as an excuse to speak about many more things