If we had cameras around when Caravaggio painted this is what he would have looked like.
To get away with the mercurial genius routine, one actually has to be a genius.
Take the enfant terrible of modern British gastronomy. Frankly, had this paradigm of irascible behaviour not been blessed with the God- given talents destined to shape the course and change the perception of British food in the 1980s, as a young man he could just as easily have lived off his brooding good looks one way or another. Hooded of brow, chiselled of cheekbone, and obdurate of jaw, this wild-eyed youth crowned by a mop of irrepressible curls, of fag-in-scowling-thin-lipped countenance, possessed all the high testosterone markers on the masculine facial dimorphism checklist that women find so irresistible. And irresistible they did find this Adonis in the kitchen; legend has it that in flagrante delicto was an off-menu inter-course special at his restaurant Harveys, indulged in by a particularly pulchritudinous customer.
Music had the Stones, cooking had Marco. Before there was Gordon Ramsey, there was Marco Pierre White. This phenomenally talented chef mentored Ramsey in the late 1980s at his restaurant in Clapham. It was here that the chef’s famously explosive bollockings reduced Ramsey to tears. He was a savage on the line, and the very first to become famous for treating his team with a humiliating lack of respect. When you see Ramsey scream at contestants you are witnessing a watered down version of the real master. If Ramsey is Alpha then Marco Pierre White is Super Alpha. Whatever happened in Marco’s kitchens it worked. Of the chefs who could cope longer than a year in this hottest of crucibles six went on to win multiple Michelin stars while 2 others went on to win similar acclaim. Something about the man – his passion for food yes, but also his Alpha nature brought greatness out of others too.
00:21 – Marco exudes calm. Open, relaxed and dominant body language. He chooses his words like his ingredients, with care. How often do betas send forth their thoughts in a tangled nervous jumble as though in fear of being cut off. Ironically this makes it more likely.
00:33 – Mildly self-deprecating. If married to an Alpha aura this only serves to elevate that aura.
01:06 – He doesn’t give a shit that the interview’s purpose is to hype his own programme! Gives his true feelings – keeps his own frame, rather than fall into others.
01:10 – Doesn’t allow female to cut across his conversation.
01:13 – Sure enough here comes the tingles.
02:11 – Alphas don’t ask for respect they expect it.
03:32 – Deadpan delivery of humour. The man drips with intimidation. The tribe nervously laugh along.
05:03 – Marco doesn’t give a shit how awkward he makes others feel.
05:34 – Masterful denial/confirmation of his intimidating alpha nature. You know I am, I know I am, you aren’t going to know that I know that you know that I am.
05:50 – Sure enough the beta is now displaying all kind of submissive/nervous behaviour. Where’s Ainsley Harriott? We want him on the sofa!
06:22 – Perceptive. Ade Edmonson went on to be one of the finalists. There’s a lesson there – females and betas put a lot of emphasis on background noise, mindless gabbling. Sometimes staying stum and observing can tell you everything about someone in a minute.
Aura, charisma, intimidation. All words one could use to describe MPW in this interview yet he barely raises of varies his voice, let alone indulge in Tony Robbins-esque gesticulation. That’s the power of alpha body language, laser eye contact and most importantly his own frame emanating from within.
That was 2008, now we travel back in time to the Thacherite London of the late 1980s and early 90s…
There might be one true rock’n’roll chef: Marco Pierre White. Marco was a bona fide rock star – the hair, the wild-eyed madness, the soaring genius and prodigious destruction, the glorious photos from White Heat, all sunken cheekbones and fury.
“I had brains en gelee, followed by rabbit… and it was like the first time I read a sentence by Nabakov. I knew that was it – the works…” White’s cooking was “passionate, like receiving a love letter.”
-A A Gill Sunday Times
“That’s why I like to taste with my fingers and hands, because I need a natural, physical relationship with my food, I need the involvement and the understanding that the sense of touch brings. No fingers, no food. When I’m making the mashed potato in the morning, I give myself a fistful. Not a finger, a fistful.”
Marco speaks both the language of men – fearlessness, authority, leadership and achievement but also the language of women – raw emotion, artistic expression, passion and yes… pain.
“I used to go fucking mental.” He threw things; he broke things … When his head chef fell and broke his leg, White assaulted him: “How dare you? If you were a fucking horse, I’d shoot you.” Once, frustrated by the kitchen’s slowness, he ordered his cooks to stand in the corner at the height of service. … “All of you—in the fucking corner where you will watch me do your jobs. Let your consciences talk to you.”
“When I went for my interview Marco didn’t speak, he just looked at me and started whistling the theme from The Godfather,” says Lambie. “It scared the shit out of me.” But Lambie speaks of his three years with White as a great experience, despite the dramas and the bullying. Memorable events included White punching a waiter, White ripping the kitchen telephone off the wall and smashing it with a meat cleaver to make a point about staff receiving calls, White throwing customers out for being drunk and niggly. “It was horrific but exciting and I was a boy, I kind of liked it,” says Lambie. “We were working for the hottest chef in the world.”
Beta males respect and follow Alpha males despite how badly they often treat them for the same reason women flock to them – they expect them to change their world.
He spoke blasphemies other chefs recognised but preferred not to say “Any chef who says he does it for love is a liar,” White said. “At the end of the day it’s all about money. I never thought I would ever think like that, but I do now. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy having to kill myself six days a week to pay the bank.” Even if he didn’t believe it White had the hellraiser’s instinct for what would cause a stir. He had never been to France. For a top London restaurant whose foundation was classical French cuisine this was a big deal.
They came to Harveys for the food, but they also came for the Marco Pierre White show. It was a lively act, a sort of circus of tension, drama and unpredictability. They were there, eating this gorgeous food, while some poor kid was being murdered in the kitchen. It was hell out the back and heaven in front. Passion… obsession… a Byronic hero on an all-consuming quest to reach the very top of his profession. White certainly fitted a lot of Alpha archetypes: the Rebel, the Artist, the Tyrant, the Lover, the Hellraiser. During his rise to the top White lived an unbelievably tortured life of extremes, of 100 hour weeks, brawls with customers and obsession with the small details that make or break a haute cuisine restaurant. He smoked 60 Marlboros a day and lived on a diet of espressos and Mars Bars. By the 1990s White bestrode the London restaurant scene like a colossus. Eventually he reached the inevitable consequence of the life of the hellraiser alpha: burnout. In December 1999 White served his last meal at his three star restaurant in London and handed back his Michelin stars. Never one to mince his words, his reasoning? ‘I was being judged by people who knew less about cooking than me. So what was the point?’
The older MPW has mellowed somewhat. But don’t let that fool you, he was a hellraiser extraordinaire in his day who didn’t give a shit what anybody thought. I personally know someone who complained about the dessert they were served at Harveys and received the plate back with assurances he had stuck his cock into the mess.
But what drove the young man to such extremes? White has freely often said that it was witnessing the death of his mother at the age of six that gave him the drive to achieve greatness. After her death, in his words, all softness was removed from his life and he grew up under his austere chef father who instilled the working class values of hard work, attention to detail and a resilience to domination. His father was diagnosed with lung cancer when White was 12. He has often made light of the fact that he regularly considers his own mortality and it is this hyper-awareness of death and the way it touched him in the most brutal of ways that made him determined to be his own man. Twinned with a passion and unequivocal talent for cooking, as well as the tough background of his father’s upbringing he was an incredible force by and large destined for acclaim when he arrived in London at the age of 19. I will explore this combination in a future post.
As a childhood friend of Marco put it: ‘One of Marco’s strengths… is that he remains himself in all circumstances, whereas most of us, from courtesy, or self-interest, or fear, adopt a role or persona we think appropriate to the occasion.’
He had those deep, deep eyes and he was very convincing… The only one of my students I’m not in contact with is Marco Pierre White. We fell out, which is sad because he was the most gifted person I ever trained.
MPW was both a fearsome leader of men and artful seducer of women. Remember a lot of alphas are not both these things. He is a fighter, a man who had seen death so clung all the more closely to life, he rung every last drop out of it. Yet inside he partly remains the little boy waiting for his mother to come home. Here is one of the central tragedies of the human condition (particularly the male); that success is so often married to suffering.
Hennessy, C. (2000). Marco: The making of marco pierre white, sharpest chef in history. London: Ebury Press.
White, B. C. (2015). White Heat. London: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.
White, M. P. (2007). The Devil in the Kitchen. London: Orion Books Ltd.