You may not yet have heard of Marco Pierre White, unless, of course you are one of the untold numbers of commis cooks and line jockeys in restaurants all over the world for the last twenty years for whom the iconoclast British chef changed the food game entirely. White's new memoir The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef (published in the U.K. last year as White Slave) makes clear that while establishing his restaurants in England in the early nineties, White never did the obvious thing by flying over to France, the culinary epicenter of the world, in order to crib from the temples of haute cuisine, steal the secrets from other chefs.
Of course every chef takes things from other chefs, but for the most part, White just made his own (insane) way, winning a bunch of Michelin stars, leaving in his wake a younger generation of chefs to become stars in their own way, including Mario Batali and Heston Blumenthal. Gordon Ramsey learned under White, too, and later, infamously, the two became fierce competitors.
While The Devil in the Kitchen is never short on raw milk cheese-throwing drama or prep kitchen vignettes - it also includes appearances by Madonna, customers booted from London dining rooms, and Michael Caine - it is really the unlikely story of how a broke sixteen year-old boy with a sad family history and the faintest glimpse of fine dining arrived in 1970’s London, worked his way through the system, and later achieved greatness. By the 1990’s, especially in the New York City restaurant world, White was, like Anthony Bourdain blurbs on the back of Devil- “the guy who all of us wanted to be.”
It was true. I worked a bunch of stagiaires, or unpaid internships, at three and four star restaurants in New York, and saw it first hand. It is needless to say that working in a real, fine dining kitchen is brutal, nothing like the soundtracked “realness” of anything on television; it’s even harder to explain in books, even the good ones like Bill Buford’s Heat. White’s influence was palpable for such a long time because of what his story represented to all the perpetually defeated cooks in far-flung, subterranean kitchens. During short, merciless lunch breaks, we’d sometimes try and rush over to Kitchen Arts and Letters and back within a thirty-minute mark for the chance to score out-of-print copies of the chef’s cookbooks. Lateness meant being pushed around or burned by sous chefs with spoons heated on the flattop, which is something that happened to me once, and I had come back from K.A.&L empty handed, which made it worse. Cooks traded apocryphal MPW stories like baseball cards; one, for example, was that in London, the chef had deliberately sent out a plate to an obnoxious customer “demanding genius” with a lock of his unruly hair floating atop his entree. "Tell him there's his genius," the chef was alleged to have said, but sandwiched between a steady stream of expletives. It was insanity, disgusting, and not likely true. But it was also strangely inspiring.
On the first day of my first four-star restaurant job in 2001, I was assigned to work next to a kid named Jacob, who showed up late. He limped into the kitchen in chef’s whites, a black eye, and a two-inch laceration across his cheek. Nobody said anything, because talking wasn’t allowed; Jacob proceeded to work a ten-hour day without once complaining or slowing down. In the subsequent weeks, I learned other things about Jacob, like that he was beaten up because he had been temporarily homeless and had chosen the wrong spot to sleep; he also had a tattoo in the shape of Escoffier’s first kitchen covering his entire back. He was serious. When he left the restaurant a few weeks later to start over somewhere else with his pregnant girlfriend, he gave me a book he said would change me as a cook: It was his well-thumbed copy of Marco Pierre White’s White Heat. That book changed a lot of people.
Although White recently signed on to replace longtime sparring partner Ramsey as the host of the elimination-style ITV series Hell’s Kitchen in the U.K., and had never even set foot in New York City until a few months ago, he's not just a celebrity chef and remains a huge influence on what makes up chef’s menus here. Hair-in-food aside, White is still part of some cooks' code, if such a thing can be said to actually exist. I approached him after he had lunch at Momofuku with Buford and Batali in February (I was slurping ramen at a different table in the corner). Answering the inevitable question, White told me that a lot of chefs had been trying to convince him to open in New York, but that he wasn’t sure what to make of it all. In the end, whether or not White will appear across from Ramsey’s London anytime soon, re-igniting the feud, it doesn’t really matter, because the chef remains someone who has changed the way we cook and eat, and that’s important enough.
White will be reading from his new memoir The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef tomorrow night at the Columbus Circle Borders with Mario Batali.
Marco Pierre White, with Mario Batali
May 17 at 7:00 PM, free
10 Columbus Circle
New York, NY
Marco Pierre White photo taken by Ian Derry