Luxe

Shades of White

Govind Dhar | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 16, 2016
Getting a taste of local cuisine in Colombo

Getting a taste of local cuisine in Colombo

Learning to cook from fisherwomen in Sri Lanka

Learning to cook from fisherwomen in Sri Lanka

Starred: Marco was the youngest chef to receive a Michelin star – and the first to return it

Starred: Marco was the youngest chef to receive a Michelin star – and the first to return it

Experimenting and taking risks are vital, says Marco

Experimenting and taking risks are vital, says Marco

Luxe_1703_Marco1.jpg

Luxe_1703_Marco2.jpg

Luxe_masterchef2.jpg

luxe_marcopierre1.jpg

luxe_marcopierre2.jpg

On his tour of Sri Lanka, British cooking’s enfant terrible Marco Pierre White talks about the importance of making mistakes and staying true to himself

There’s only so much you can tell about Marco Pierre White in 40 minutes. One of those things is that he is incredibly charming. But if you go by what the food writers and tabloid journalists say (the distinction is blurry at times), the sentiment is unadulterated vituperation. Marco Pierre White is a Michelin wunderkind of the 1990s who achieved three Michelin stars at the age of 33 – the second-youngest ever – only to famously give them back, five years later. Now he is regular tabloid fodder for being a brand ambassador for Knorr stock cubes and opening restaurants where he does not cook. He is regularly sensationalised for having once made Gordon Ramsay cry. “Most of my reputation is a product of exaggeration and ignorance,” he tells me with finality, by the poolside of the Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo. “The English press represents hypocrisy beautifully – like nobody else.”

White has just spent a fortnight adventuring through Sri Lanka’s tea estates, villages and beaches on the invitation of one of the country’s leading hotel groups, Cinnamon, and the British High Commission. Having learned to cook from fisherwomen and enjoying gallons of the island’s famous tea, he says it’s the most beautiful country he’s ever been to. “I’ve never eaten so consistently well anywhere else,” he says. You begin to suspect hyperbole, when he says “I don’t have to say that. I could just say it’s beautiful and the food’s good. But I say it because I mean it.” The freedom to do and say as he pleases is paramount to White.

Why did he return his stars so early? “When you are being judged by people who have less knowledge than yourself, what’s it worth?,” he asks. “I’d realised my dreams from when I was 17,” he says. “But we’d become so slick that the emotion had gone out of it. You don’t experiment or take risks anymore.” White explains that the Michelin guide had become compromised after its most respected editor-in-chief, Bernard Naegellen stepped down. He cites the food bible’s ratings in Japan and the USA as evidence of this. “When you start dishing out stars like confetti you have to question their integrity.”

Might White’s desire to do as he pleases explain his relationship with the Unilever brand, Knorr? How does a food purist justify championing stock cubes? “I’m not here to defend myself,” he says. “But I will explain. I use it as a seasoning, not as a stock. When I make pig’s head or a Hollandaise sauce, stock works better than salt as it is less aggressive. Strip off the blinkers!”

At a marquee dinner event in Colombo, White’s executive chef Andrew Bennett prepares a six-course meal for 180 guests, ostensibly to showcase White’s guidance, and the best of British fare is flown in for the occasion. The dishes are, sadly, hit-and-miss, with rainbow trout and lamb singing off the plate, not for their technicality of preparation, but for their provenance. The opening brandade of salmon was underwhelming: cold and congealed, and the pumpkin soup that followed was so sweet that it seemed to border on dessert. White conceded it was hard to cook for so many people, so he had to keep it simple.

“A chef is allowed to stray from the stoves, but he must stay close to the flame,” he says cryptically. “I’ve never strayed from the flame.” But the critics disagree; their disillusionment with White harks back to a time when he was all thunderous poetry in the kitchen. I suspect it’s a two-way street with White. His own disillusionment with the establishment seems to have led him to rebel against the world that spawned him; one he now calls shallow and disloyal. Would he change anything if he could do it all over again? “I wouldn’t change a thing. Had I not made all those mistakes, I wouldn’t be the man I am today…to sit here and give an interview with full integrity. Of course I have my freedom. What sends me to every corner of the earth to work? Security for my children. I can do what I like because I don’t have a three-star Michelin restaurant any more.” White sends this message home. Sadly, his endeavours as a businessman and restaurateur post-Michelin have not been forgiven by those who crowned him for his cooking. Cursed by his own talents, White seems forever doomed to censure for sharing gifts other than those, with the paying public. “You may sit there and think I’m the cleverest snake charmer you’ve ever met,” he says. “I’m not a snake charmer, though I promise you, I’ve met some along the way.”

Govind Dhar is a journalist, currently based in Sri Lanka

Published on March 16, 2016
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor