Marco Pierre White: The Devil in the Kitchen

The Devil in the Kitchen, by Marco Pierre White with James Steen Well, bollocks if Marco Pierre White is anything but relentless! His autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen (Bloomsbury 2007) written with James Steen, is about a man driven to perfection. It is also a terrific look into how chefs were trained in the 1970s and 1980s in an apprentice system that was often brutal and always highly competitive.

Were you in your teens and read Marco Pierre White’s autobiography, he might persuade you to avoid his example and try another career altogether.

His story is a coming-of-age saga in the heat of the kitchen. Whether his age is 10, 20, or 40, he seems the same determined, driven workaholic who never really learns to question the lessons handed down to him by other chefs, who mete out brutality as if it were a gift. No one ever seems to have explained to him that there was another way to get top performance from a kitchen crew:

I created fear but I don’t remember anyone ever saying, “Marco, enough is enough. Pack it in. “I am convinced that a mild streak of sadomasochism ran through the Harveys brigade. They were all pain jockeys––they had to be. They couldn’t get enough of the bollockings. (pp. 122-23)

Swearing is an important part of the chef’s personna. The word “bollockings” seems to appear more than once on nearly every page. His method, inherited from the French and British chefs he worked for, including Albert Roux and Raymond Blanc, was to brutalize, both verbally and physically, any cook who worked for him. That included chucking pots and pans, hot food, or even an entire tray of ripe cheese as he does in the opening of the book:

I picked up the first cheese. “Not right!” With all my might I threw it against the wall. It stuck to the tiles. I picked up the second cheese. “Not right!” I chucked it at the wall… I shouted, “Leave them there. Leave them there. Leave them fucking there all night. No one is allowed to touch them.”

What is Marco’s rationale for such behavior?

…If you are not extreme then people will take shortcuts because they don’t fear you. And to achieve and retain the very highest standards, day after day, meal after mea, in an environment as difficult and fast and chaotic as a restaurant kitchen, is extreme, well, in the extreme. (pp. 2-3)

Something in Marco’s method of madness must have worked: he earned three Michelin stars. In fact, he was the first and youngest British chef to do so — and without ever having worked in France.

Marco Pierre White, ITV

Marco goes over his life in amazing detail, from the death of his mother to his father’s racing dogs and his first job in the kitchen after leaving school. He writes about what it is like working in the kitchen and the lonely life of a young man away from home. He works with and eventually hires some of the most famous names among British celebrity chefs. He befriends Alan Crompton-Batt:

You may never have heard of Alan but there is every chance you’ve heard of Jamie Oliver, Gary Rhodes, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal. Would you have heard of the chefs, I wonder, if it weren’t for Alan? He was the creator of the modern-day phenomenon that is the celebrity chefs. (p. 59)

Many of them worked for Marco.

Some chefs fair well under Marco’s pen.

Mario Batali, who worked for him at his first restaurant the Six Bells, comes off as a hard-working no-nonsense cook:

What he needed was a bit of discipline, so I found myself treating him as harshly as I had been treated by my former head chef. I used to murder Mario every day, physically, mentally and emotionally. I called him “Rusty bullocks” but he was funny and intelligent. (p. 64)

Gordon Ramsay, who worked for Marco at Harvey’s learns how to treat customers with Marco’s brand of directness:

When my former boss Nico Ladenis came to Harveys, he too came into the kitchen and said, “The meal was superb.” I thanked him before he added, “The veal with parsley puree was a little oversalted.” I turned to Gordon Ramsay and said, “Gordon, tell him to fuck off.”
Gordon obeyed. “Nico, fuck off.” It was Gordon’s first taste of abusing a customer.” (p. 134)

And mild abuse at that!

Marco goes much further when he doesn’t like how a customer is treating his staff, or how a customer characterizes his food. There are scenes of Marco in his office almost caught by a cuckolded husband, and insight into his relationship with his three wives, his father and even his driver – but it is mostly about Marco in his restaurant, pursuing Michelin stars and gaining insight into what cuisine is all about.

Charles Dickens The Devil in the Kitchen is a Dickensian study in culinary “attraction of repulsion.” Marco paints no pretty picture of himself, yet he is sympathetic and his food sings sublimely throughout. He lives by the rule that if a friend disappoints him, then he breaks off the friendship forever. That includes one-time partner Michael Caine and chefs like Gordon Ramsay. The book describes the rise of British chefs and of celebrity chefs. It is must reading.

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