Marco Pierre White does not read news reports of what he’s up to, but he sure knows how to sell himself. Well enough for filmmaker Ridley Scott (‘Alien’, ‘Gladiator’) to buy the rights to White’s autobiography ‘The Devil in the Kitchen’.
While we are gleefully hoping Scott will include the salacious bits (like when White confessed to having a quickie with a customer upstairs while her husband enjoyed his main course downstairs), don’t expect White to turn up for the premiere.
“I mostly won’t watch it,” White deadpans. “It’s not important to me; it’s just business,” says the straight-talking rogue. I probe further on the issue and he fixes me with an intense stare: “Why do we do most things in life? Simple. We use you, and you use us.”
“It’s a two-way street, isn’t it? We both get something from it.”
White, as always, dares to provoke. Never mind if he strays far beyond the line.
Celebrated chef Raymond Blanc is known to have introduced a young White to his kitchen team at Le Manoir as “the new boy who has worked for Albert Roux, Pierre Koffman and Nico Ladenis. None of them could break him”.
White would go on to make a name for himself as the youngest British chef to be awarded three Michelin stars, only to return them all; the chef who had no qualms charging 25 quid for a plate of “hand-cut, blanched, lovingly-fried” chips served with some sauce in a little silver dish; throwing 54 guests out of his shop for being “far too rowdy”; and of course, as the first chef to make the tough-as-nails Gordon Ramsay cry.
It’s the thunderous stuff of legend from the man who openly remembers those times as filled with sex, pain, and madness. Now 56, White has mellowed. These days, when not working on a project, he prefers hiding out on his farm in Wiltshire, UK.
The English House, his first restaurant in Singapore, is clearly designed from the perspective of a man who enjoys being alone. The lights are turned down low. Ceiling fans swivel lazily overhead. Framed photographs on the wall — White’s personal collection of photographer Terry O’Neill’s portraits — can be company enough for the solo diner.
Keyyes talks to White about life, love and his secret to a good night’s sleep.
Why did you pick these two shophouses along Mohamed Sultan Road for The English House?
This was a very easy decision for me, because of the size (of the space). You expel the same amount of energy on a small restaurant as you do on a big restaurant. It’s exactly the same. You use the same amount of time, same hours every day. Therefore, I don’t do small. I only do big.
What’s your go-to drink at the bar?
I don’t really sit in bars, I sit in restaurants. I don’t feel comfortable sitting at bars. That’s why these counters (at The English House) are for service only. I like to have a drink with my dinner, rather than just go to a bar and have a drink.
I’ll usually get a pint of English beer. I like to drink the beer with the head still on. I drink the first pint very quickly, and then I sip the second pint. The third pint, I just look at it. Even if I order a half pint, I’ll ask for it in a full pint glass. I like the heft and weight of a full pint.
What’s the music policy at The English House?
It’s just jazz. It’s neutral, really. It doesn’t offend you, it may please you. You don’t really notice it, unless you’re listening for it.
It’s there to complete the ambience… It’s like these fans — why do we have these fans, when we’ve got air conditioning? It’s to create movement. So if you’re the first table in, there’s movement. You don’t feel like you’re sitting in a big restaurant by yourself. The eye must always be amused.
Is it the same music you listen to at home?
When I’m at home, I listen to classical music all day. I just find it peaceful, calming. It sets me thinking.
How did you meet your good friend, photographer Terry O’Neill?
I met Terry O Neill in 1987. He came to take my photograph for The Sunday Times. Over the years (we became friends)… And we have mutual friends. He did my wedding photographs. He’s very talented, this Terry.
How good are you with a camera?
I don’t take photos. Never. My phone (an old-fashioned Nokia from the ’90s) can take photographs, though.
I sometimes take pictures when I hit the button accidentally.
You consider romance a vital ingredient in your restaurants.
Romance is the only thing that never dates. Without romance, what is that?
Write letters, don’t send emails. That’s romantic. Make someone a card, don’t buy them a card. Press flowers and put them inside a handwritten letter and send it to somebody. Make things, don’t buy things. Walking on the road, if you see some flowers, pluck them for the one you love. See, romance is free.
You might not want to pluck the flowers here in Singapore. You’ll get fined. Offenders can be fined up to S$5,000.
Really? Are you serious? That’s extraordinary. That’s a lot of money. That would definitely stop me being romantic!
Come next year, The English House will be Singapore’s first ‘Restaurant with Rooms’. What will that experience be like?
It will be like staying in my house, not in a hotel. It’s basically a townhouse… a home away from home.
What kind of bed will I sleep in?
The beds are made to traditional design from colonial Singapore. So, they are made by a Singaporean firm to a Singaporean design of a hundred years ago. And with very good quality (Maison du Monde) mattresses.
How about room size?
The bedrooms are very generous. I don’t like small. There will be a TV, a shower, and a sink. There will be a radio — Roberts radio, very old fashioned. And we have lots of books.
What keeps you up at night?
I have no problems sleeping.
The secret to a good night’s sleep?
A hard day’s work. Physical or mentally. You have to be exhausted, otherwise you don’t sleep.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
First thing in the morning, I turn on the news. Not on the TV, I don’t have TVs in my home. I turn on the radio. And I have a cup of coffee, with milk and hot water.
What’s your go-to snack when too busy to eat?
I am never too busy to eat. And I think you have to take time out to eat. I enjoy eating. Even if it’s something as simple as a ham sandwich with some English mustard. A cup of tea. I’ll take 10 minutes out to enjoy it.
I’ll never sit at a desk and have a sandwich.
Because for me, you have to take pleasure out of life. I like to drink a coffee outside, not inside. I enjoy it more, even though it’s the same thing. It tastes better.
You have to take time out, and you’ll be more productive. People who eat sandwiches at their desk, they’re being distracted from their sandwich. They’re not enjoying their sandwich because they’re being distracted by their work. Just stop. Go outside. Take half an hour off.
What’s something your father taught you when you were young?
When I was a boy, my father taught me the importance of punctuality. And when I went for my first interview, he said, ‘Marco, never be late in life.’
“In an interview, never ask two questions: How many hours do I work, and how much will I earn?”
I never did, and I always got the job.
If you’re ill, still go to work. Let the chef send you home, because you’re not well. Too many people in this world, ring up and say ‘I’m not well today’. It’s staggering.
What’s one thing that amazes you about Singapore?
My glasses steam up (when I come out of a taxi). It’s very weird. It’s like fog, it’s amazing. I’d never experienced that in my life until I came to Singapore.
What’s interesting is that when I wake up in the morning, I can read my texts. But as I go on in the day, the texts get more blur. Interesting how eyes get tired. You don’t realise your eyes can tire.
My dad taught me to look at something green to relax your eyes.
I don’t know if that helps. I look at green all the time when I’m in England. Doesn’t work for me (laughs). But see — looking at green, that’s a romantic idea.