Pierre White rose to fame as the first British chef to earn three Michelin stars, despite never having set foot in France at the time. Having retired as a chef, he now gets his kicks from running restaurants, TV appearances and indulging his taste for travel. Interview by James Steen/Interview Hub
Typically, chefs don’t travel much, but exploring new places has always fascinated me. I grew up on the outskirts of Leeds, and when I was a kid we used to go for family holidays in Bridlington on the coast. It heaved with British families who couldn’t afford to holiday abroad and the beaches were packed with fathers walking along with their trousers rolled up to their knees. I went to Italy to see my Uncle and Aunt too. But between the ages of 10 and 33 I did not once travel abroad. Obviously most of that was because of work. So I managed to win three Michelin stars with classical French cuisine but had never set foot in France. Weird.
I didn’t have a passport when, in 1995, Rocco Forte asked me to go to Paris to cook at an event. I was travelling with Jean-Christophe Novelli and when we reached the Eurostar terminal the customs officers asked for my passport. I showed them my fishing licence. They waved me through. JC couldn’t believe it. I had to do the same to get back into Britain.
I’ve got a fear of flying. I’ve made and then cancelled meetings abroad because I was too scared to board a plane. I just don’t understand how planes are in the air. So while I like to be able to apply logic to everything in life, there is no logic that can be applied to flying.
I love to travel by ship. I’ve got restaurants on board P&O’s liners and I often go on cruises which seem to take me all over the world. But for me the cruises aren’t really holidays. I work with the chefs on the ships and we perfect recipes and make sure the restaurants are looking good. It’s a lovely way to travel, the cabins are luxurious and the food is extremely good. The ships are massive and I get plenty of exercise by walking around, along and across the vast decks.
Someone somewhere has stolen my identity. A few years back I was touring America, promoting my autobiography. It seems incredible, but there was a lunatic calling himself Marco Pierre White — and it wasn’t me. When I flew into Miami airport I was escorted to a room and held for several hours, along with 30 illegal immigrants. It gets worse: I was due to be guest of honour at a big dinner that evening. Eventually I arrived at the event, looking like a lumbering, jet-lagged beast. It was so late the guests were leaving as I was arriving.
I am extremely lucky to be someone who enjoys the weather of Britain. When it rains, I think, ‘great’. I’m not one of those people who needs to lie in the sun. In fact, I can’t bear extreme heat and become grumpy and search for the shade. I’m probably not the best holiday companion.
Mind you, Jamaica is hot and it’s a fantastic place. I always want to go back. They say Yorkshire, my birthplace, is God’s own country, but Jamaica is something else. I stay at the Royal Plantation, which is my favourite hotel in the world, and I love Jamaican food — the jerk pork and the massive avocados. There’s no doubt travelling inspires cooking. For my cookbook, Marco Made Easy, I came up with Jamaican Mess: think of Eton Mess, but this one is made with pureed banana, caramel sauce, custard and cream. Absolutely divine. The Royal Plantation sent a private jet to take me from the airport to the hotel. It was like a Robin Reliant with wings. It has to have been the smallest plane in the world, and I felt like a test pilot for Airfix. I think I left my fingernails in the plane seat.
Much of my time is spent travelling in Britain with my assistant, Mr Ishii. He drives me, too, as I don’t have a driving licence — I’ve never had the time to take the test. I’ve got hotels in Norfolk and Suffolk, the Lifeboat and the Angel. It’s a wonderful part of England, and I’ve got a few places in the Cotswolds: the Pear Tree Inn, the Horse and Groom and the Black Boy Inn. I live in London but it’s nice to head into the countryside and have a pint or two of Governor Cider or Governor Beer. It’s nice because I produce the stuff myself.
As for future travel, I would like to go the moon. China and India intrigue me so I might do them beforehand.
Hailed as Britain’s original ‘rock star chef’, Marco Pierre White was the world’s youngest chef to win three Michelin stars. His career began in the kitchens of the Hotel St George, in Harrogate, Yorkshire.
He retired from the kitchen in 1999, but continues to oversee restaurants which include Wheeler’s of St James’s and the Frankie’s chain, which he co-owns with jockey Frankie Dettori.
A thrice-married father of four, White’s TV credits include Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Wars, and he is a bestselling author of cookbooks and an autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen. RRP: £9.99 (Orion)
Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)