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When Marco Pierre White met Gordo

Gordo gets to grips with the follically blessed Italian/Yorkshireman. If you like dining out you will like what MPW says. Pictures: Stephanie de Leng

Written by . Published on March 3rd 2010.

When Marco Pierre White met Gordo

Gordo: Given that you have just opened a restaurant up North, what do you think of Michael Winner's assertation that all northern food is crap.

MPW: I cannot engage in that conversation. Sorry.

Gordo: OK. But can Britain really claim to have its own cuisine?

I think restaurants should be quite dreamy creatures. I think you should step into them, get lost and then step back out of them again

MPW: We have great cuisine. Lancashire hot pot, steak and kidney pie, fish and chips. All done well they are delicious. One of my favourite foods is boiled beef and dumplings.

Gordo: Unlike the great cuisines of France, Italy and Spain, some would argue that British food has not evolved from the peasants and passion of the land, to a fine dining situation, for example.

MPW: If you look at the great Michel Bourdin of the Connaught, he refined British cuisine and showed off how delicious a Lancashire hotpot could be. Or boiled beef, a great trifle, a great syllabub, a great crumble, not forgetting Eton mess. Cambridge burnt crème. So I am sorry but I disagree with you, British cuisine has some very delicious food. And I am a big fan of British food.

Gordo: Do you think Gordon Ramsay ruined the Connaught?

MPW: I can't engage in that conversation. Sorry.

Gordo: OK. Were you upset, as I was, to see Mr Bourdin leave the Connaught?

MPW: Well Michel Bourdin is firstly a great friend of mine and I am a great fan of Michel Bourdin. And it was my favourite hotel in the world. The Connaught had that beautiful mix of classics, from Maxims in Paris, in the 70s when it was three stars. It also had great British dishes. Like I say, the hotpot, the trifle, the salted beef. I mean, truly delicious. And so Bourdin, in my opinion, was the man who showed off British food. And others like Gary Rhodes followed him. Bourdin was the man who actually put British food on the map and who actually made it really worthy of Michelin stars. He had two stars and was serving Lancashire hotpot.

Gordo: An interesting thing about your current menu at The Swan, is it takes on the chain restaurants in a high quality way. It's like the menu I ate at the Yew Tree Inn in Berkshire which I scored very highly as a critic – 17 out of 20 – I think it's a brilliant menu.

Gordo gets into anecdote mode: I went to the opening of Stringfellows about 392 years ago, I was 23 at the time, and they all wanted to go to the Connaught for lunch and we couldn't get in. So I phoned the kitchen and said is Mr Bourdin there? I'd never met him, but I knew of him, and he got us in. I remember the first starter I had being on the starter menu at the Yew Tree Inn. Do you admire other three star chefs, such as Alain Ducasse with what he has done with Benoit? I think he had a similar idea to yours.

MPW: Alain Ducasse is without doubt one of the cleverest individuals within the industry and he has this incredible ability of replicating and delivering to a consistent standard. He really is a genius.

Gordo: Have you dined in Benoit?

MPW: No I haven't been to Benoit yet.

Gordo: If you ever get the chance it's worth looking at. It's very similar to your model and absolutely fantastic.Now, apart from Bourdin - and I can see some of Francis Carroll, the co-owner's, input here as well - what other influences are there in this menu at The Swan?

MPW: It's straightforward. It's like how I've just done the Wheeler's Menu (MPW has just bought Wheeler's of St James, scene of many a Soho-goer's lost afternoons).

I like all those old classic dishes. If you look at the Wheeler's menu it reminds me of being a young boy at the Hotel St George again or at the Box Tree. So I like classical food, but I like simple food. I don't like fuss. If I order fresh crab with mayonnaise, that's what I want to see. I don't want a crab that is processed and delivered to me.

It's like herrings. I adore herrings but very few restaurants do herrings now, so we do lots of herrings and I think they are delicious. We do soft roes on toast which are delicious and you don't get them much any more. We buy them in kilo blocks, frozen, because you can't get them fresh. They are something like two quid a box which is extraordinary. But what is interesting is the generation that's fifty-five and over love them. It's trying to sell them to the younger generation that's the problem. It's like the calves tongue, fifty five and above they adore them. Younger they are not so keen on it. The opposite of the fresh crabmeat. On the Wheeler's menu we have just put on egg mayonnaise. We use organic bantam eggs, five minutes, 10 seconds.

Gordo: That's impressive.

MPW: We make our own celery salt too. How many chefs today make their own celery salt? Very few. When I was a boy we made our own celery salt. We pressed our own calves tongues. The milk came in the back door in a churn, not in a bottle or a carton.

I stepped into that old world of gastronomy. I saw the tail end of Escoffier's world really and Bourdin was the very last of that world. He was still flying the flag for classical cuisine which he did very well and if Bourdin was there today and my son wanted to be a chef I would have sent him to The Connaught. It's very important to see the old world of gastronomy because it's very romantic, it's very classical. I buy into that old world. It was quite simple. It was quite beautiful.

MPW continues: If you can cast your mind back it was quite simple what they created. They took the food into the front of house and you had this show. So if you got your duck a l'orange at Maxims for example, you got it and they carved it in front of you. If you looked at what was on your plate it wasn't overworked but actually you got the whole spectacle. That was the garnish really.

And they brought the smells into the room. So when I used to cook, sixty per cent of the food was served in the room. So you'd have a shoulder of lamb, roasted on the bone and taken apart at the table with the dauphinois and all the bits surrounding it and the jus. So we had 25 waiters for 70 customers. So therefore if you were a table of six and you ordered three dishes which were all served for two, you might have had six to eight waiters around you. Creating that show. The eyes constantly amused. You see the smells.

Gordo: When we talk about the chefs now, I believe that most chefs try to learn too quickly. They should be trying to learn to make a good sauce correctly, from Escoffier. They are all after glory.

MPW: When I was a young boy, and I am going back a very long time ago...

Gordo: You've still got a good head of hair, Marco. Better than me I tell you.

MPW: You may not have an Italian mother...(laughs) and not so much on the arms. When I was a boy, the boys and girls that went into my industry were all from humble beginnings. They were working class. You didn't get posh boys coming into my industry. And those boys went firstly to learn their craft and their trade, to do their job. We did five split shifts, minimum, never questioned it. We worked seven, eight, nine, ten days on the trot. You did it without question. And I am not saying this because I'm in the North West now, but the North West produced the best chefs. My kitchens in Harvey's, the Hyde Park Hotel, and the Oak Room were all filled with boys from the North West. A lot of them came from Northcote Manor.

Gordo: Which restaurant did you prefer to work in? Harvey's or The Mayfair?

MPW: Harvey's was, without doubt, the hardest job of my life. I got it when I was 25 one December and I opened in the January. All my life, all my energies had gone into learning my trade, but I had learned absolutely nothing about man management. Zero about business. And all of a sudden to be in a kitchen with two assistants, and two out front, trying to cook three star food, the pressures that you put on yourself as a young man are enormous. Really enormous.

I was fortunate that I survived. I remember the first man who ever gave me my break was Egon Ronay.

Gordo: Really?

MPW: He came along in the January but was more fascinated by my name than by my food. He did this whole piece on the boy with the very strange name. Before then I was called Marco White. I never used my second name. And Egon sat me down and he started going on about the name Marco. I said Mum was Italian and that's how I'd ended up with the second name Pierre and how my mother had wanted to call me Pompeo, because that was my grandfather's name, and my great grandfather's name. So he said “Your name is Marco Pierre White?” and I said “yes.” And so a week later there was a whole page in The Sunday Times, February 1987, about this boy Marco Pierre White, and that's how I got my name.

Then at the end of that year I won my first star which I think, in many ways, was the most important star I ever won because in those days there were very few restaurants in Britain with a star. So to win one, you join that elite club.

Gordo: What do you think are the most interesting restaurants? The one stars or the three stars?

MPW: I think the most exciting restaurant, whether it's in Spain, France or Italy is a one star restaurant that goes on to win three stars. You will see those touches of greatness. You can almost see that one day this person has the potential to go on to three stars.

Gordo: Do you think chemistry, forensic cooking is the emperor's new clothes?

MPW: I'll cast a little Marco-ism your way.

Gordo: I'm ready.

MPW: I always say that cooking is a philosophy, not a recipe. Unless it's pastry, then it's chemistry. Do you know what I am not into, is going to a restaurant and being told.

I told you that I was inspired by the great French restaurants. The bosses at the Box Tree, every weekend, would disappear to London and dine at places like The Connaught, or La Gavroche in those days, and then the following weekend they would go to these great restaurants in France.

And what we had to do every night after service, we used to have to go up and say goodnight to the bosses. Well, the boys hated it, so they used to always push me up first, because whoever was there first took the brunt of their stories, so you could be there an hour. The other boys would be so exhausted. They would be in the pub while I was still upstairs being told stories about these great French restaurants. It fuelled my imagination and I became totally inspired. And you go to these so-called great restaurants today and the food is very good, it is technically brilliant. But I am not into being told that I have got to have 12 or 18 courses and never have the choice.

You can have a mouthful, then the waiter takes it away and tells me the next dish I am having, and how I should eat it and I am afraid I am a bit old to be patronised by a waiter. Two courses and some nice cheeses to mop up my red wine and I'm over the moon.

Maybe I am too old fashioned. I love Escoffier's world. I was reading back in the history of Peach Melba which was a dish created by the Duke of Orleans for Nellie Melba. And how Escoffier did it in 1897 was he carved this enormous swan out of ice and filled it with all the peaches and then the spun sugar on the top. And then that was delivered out. And then there was that whole theatre. That's what I think makes a great restaurant.

Gordo: What was the best place you ever worked in?

MPW: The Box Tree was about the most magical restaurant I ever worked in. You stepped into this illusion. You had your three hours of this beautiful show and you stepped back out again. And, and I think restaurants should be quite dreamy creatures. I think you should step into them, get lost and then step back out of them again.

Unless you go to a normal restaurant, which is, as far as I'm concerned, an eating house. Where you go with your mate. You eat good honest food at a fair price in a nice environment with friendly service – that's what you want 99 times out of 100.

But there's that one per cent of the time when you want something imaginative, something quite special.

Gordo: From what I've seen at the Yew Tree Inn, it was a bit like stepping back in time. A restaurant in 1958. You walk in a place like that and it gives you a good cuddle. You have the same thing here. Is this going to be your trademark? You look like you are opening a few of these places.

MPW: I think what is important is that the future of dining out is affordable glamour. Feed people, feed people well, at a price point. Also your demographic is key, clients should be a cross section of society. What I don't like about a lot of London restaurants is that they are quite tribal. You walk into them and if you are not part of that tribe then you don't feel comfortable. It's like a lot of these new three star restaurants, you don't feel comfortable any more. There is no romance. And let's be honest, the only thing in our industry that never dates is romance.

As I have always said: great chefs have three things in common: firstly they accept that Mother Nature is a true artist and they are the cook; secondly, everything they do is an extension of themselves, as a person. And thirdly they give you an insight into the world that they were born into. The world that inspired them. It's very simple.

The working man today, he is not a fool any more, he does dine out on a regular basis, and he knows whether he is having the wool pulled over his eyes or not. I don't look at individual prices. What I do do is look at the final bill at the bottom and as I walk out the door I say to myself, ”did that represent value?”

That's what it's all about. We are in the business of selling fun. The business of selling a night out. Food and wine to a certain extent is a product. Because if we ask ourselves the obvious question – why we go out – we tend to go out with our loved ones and our families to have a good time. If it's £35 a head, and there's four of us and it's £140 and we have a fantastic time, there is friendly service and a nice environment with good food and nice wines, we walk out happy and we go back again.

How many times have we been in a restaurant that served great food and we have walked out thinking I would have preferred to have had my teeth pulled. I am not going back because no matter how great the food is, the ambience isn't right. We are not being looked after, we are not being pampered. It doesn't matter if it's £30 a head or £100 a head you want to feel special.

And that was that. The conversation ended with Marco PW giving Gordo his mobile number and inviting him to do things with gulls eggs and celery salt at Wheelers of St James in the next episode. The office is reminded of this every day. Four times. Meanwhile, if you want to sample the delights of The Swan, it's on Springfield Road,Aughton, Ormskirk. L39 6ST. 01695 421450.

L39 6ST
01695 421 450

Follow Gordo on twitter GordoManchester

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