‘There’s nothing worse than a mean chef’

Pooja Pillai
‘There’s nothing worse than a mean chef’

Marco Pierre White is in Delhi now as the “principal judge” at the second edition of the DLF Food Excellence Awards.

“Our job is to cook the food and allow it to present itself. Allow Mother Nature to be the artist,” says Marco Pierre White. It’s a pronouncement to be heeded. When he won three Michelin stars at the age of 33, White became the youngest chef in the world to have ever won the honour. Never mind that he eventually ended up returning those stars when he retired in 1999. “I was being judged by those with less knowledge than me,” he says. Even after he hung up his toque, White has remained a name to reckon with in the world of gastronomy, as a restaurateur and mentor, besides being one of the most recognised faces on food television. He’s in Delhi now as the “principal judge” at the second edition of the DLF Food Excellence Awards. In an interview, he spoke about what makes a good restaurant (hint: it’s not a Michelin star). Excerpts:

On judging a chef’s work

I look the chef in the eye, taste his food and listen to his story. His story must be consistent with what he puts on his plate because great chefs have three great qualities — they accept and respect Mother Nature as the true artist. Secondly, everything they do becomes an extension of them as a person, and thirdly, and more importantly, they give you great insight into the world they were born into, that inspired them and what they put on their plates.

On the most important

Food has evolved enormously, but when something evolves, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. When we look at the food today, it’s Instagram cuisine. It’s not for eating. If you’re giving small portions, where’s your retention of heat? They’re not thinking about the eating, only the presentation. Look at the ratio of garnish to protein, ratio of sauce to protein. It’s incorrect. It’s just a little line of sauce. And you end up eating a plain meal. The greatest presentation in the world, in my opinion, is generosity. Generosity tells you everything, there’s nothing worse than a mean chef.

I live near Bath, and there’s a Chinese couple serving Sichuan cuisine in their restaurant. I’ve dined there maybe 20 times. The environment is not one I enjoy sitting in, but the food is very good. It’s very generous, it’s very authentic. I go there because I’m going there for the food.

Indian cuisine is best when it’s presented in the traditional way. It’s not for me to tell people how to cook and how to run their business. But I won’t go back to those businesses for dinner. Why do I keep going back to that Sichuan restaurant? Because they give me authenticity. The food is real, hot and delicious.

On why the scent of food matters

When I was about 11-12, I was once walking down the side of the river in Yorkshire where I used to fish. I came to this big field and smelled something that reminded me of my mother, who died when I was six. I didn’t know what it was, so I put my fishing tackle down and started smelling each individual plant, and I found the plant which reminds me of my mother.

Almost 12 years later, I’m with my girlfriend in her house and she gave me some chamomile tea. That’s when I learned that the scent from the field that day, which reminded me of my mother, was chamomile. It’s because she would drink chamomile tea. That’s the power of scent.

When I went to work at The Box Tree (a restaurant in the UK), I walked into the kitchen and the smell was amazing. They were making madeira sauce with a mass of mushrooms. A few years later, I went for an interview at Chez Nico, and said to Chef Nico (Ladenis), ‘you’re making madeira sauce’. He asked me how I knew that and I said, ‘it’s the same smell as at The Box Tree’. Just because of that memory, I got the job. It shows you how important smell is to me.

When you walk into restaurants today, can you smell the food? No, because it’s all small portions of tepid food. When it comes to eating, the first thing you want is the smell.

On why Michelin stars are overrated

A Michelin inspector was interviewed for a book called Au Revoir to All That, and he said that they were told when they were sent to Japan to give stars, because they wanted to build the Michelin brand there. So in the first year, 13 restaurants won stars. (It led to) Headlines galore. When Michelin went to Singapore, they did the same trick. They gave one star to a hawker centre and it made to the front page of the Strait Times. So, for me, Michelin is devaluing their own currency.

But let’s not forget, Michelin has done more for gastronomy than any other institution in the world. They’ve made chefs dream of winning stars, so it’s not all bad.

My two favourite restaurants in the world do not have stars: La Colombe D’Or in St-Paul-de-Vence, just outside Nice, France, and Harry’s Bar in Venice. Is it the best food? Not really. But are they romantic? Because the only thing in this world that never dates is romance.