Marco Pierre White on pubs and British food
Steve Meddle, Rex Features
Marco Pierre White is one of the UK's original celebrity chefs, with over 30 years in restaurants, a string of successes, not to mention the odd run-in with the Gordons of this world. What's less well-known is his championing of British regional foods. MSN relaxed at his Marco's restaurant in Chelsea Football Club's Stamford Bridge to discover his thoughts on the Michelin guide, our love affair with fish and chips and why so many rural pubs are going to the wall.
It's a pleasure to meet you Marco. Michelin recently leaked its 2013 guide results - do you pay attention to the Michelin results?
No. I don't think it has the buzz it had 20 or 30 years ago, 15 years ago even. There are more awards now than there's ever been. It's a bit like who's the heavyweight boxing champion of the world? I haven't got a clue anymore. In the old days you knew who it was because there was only one belt. There are more awards now, which is good in one sense because it creates enthusiasm and it inspires people to want to cook.
There's pop-up street food and recession-driven dining - do you think things have changed much?
People's interest in food, whether it's on the street or in a restaurant, whether it's at home or whether it's in food markets, has increased enormously. If I go back 30-35 years ago when I first started in the industry, there were very few restaurants; now, if you go down the street there's a bit of everything, it's amazing. I was walking down Goldborne Road the other day and there was street food there, I thought it clever and I kind of liked it. Three or four little chairs. It just shows you that people's interest and love for food is growing.
Why do you think things have changed?
I think a lot of it is to do with the media. If you go back to the 80s it was Michelin stars, the Egon Ronay stars, the Good Food Guide. It all stems from then. Then people's interest and want for produce. Then you see TV put the spotlight on food, papers and magazines... The attention chefs get now is enormous, compared with what it was 30-40 years ago. I mean, to see a chef in a newspaper was impossible. Chefs weren't celebrities, they were acclaimed in their kitchens.
Things may have changed but our readers still tell us they love fish and chips, and pies.
Well it's recognisable food, isn't it, done well? And so when you think fish and chips, done well, it's delicious. You get some fresh haddock, proper batter, marrowfat peas, good chips, malt vinegar - very nice! A great pie, a great stew, a great steak. What we like is recognisable food, that's what we tend to go for. In my pubs I would say - except for Friday and Saturday - 85% of people have a pie or fish and chips. It's interesting, isn't it? The menus change daily but not regionally - it's the same. I think people want just good, honest food. We like comfort food. We're quite straightforward when it comes to eating. Then there are times when we want to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant, because we want to celebrate a birthday or treat someone.
Jamie Oliver is claiming he's had 30,000 napkins stolen from his Jamie's Italian restaurants.
Do you see people swiping things from your restaurants?
In the days when you could smoke in restaurants, we always used to have ashtrays, little individual fish ashtrays. Underneath we used to put 'property of Marco Pierre White', which would encourage people to steal them. Anything that's branded... People don't think of themselves as a thief, taking an ashtray. [Richard] Branson used to put on his airplane blankets, 'property of Virgin' so that people would take them. It's a marketing thing. But we're collectors, aren't we? Having 30,000 stolen is the biggest compliment that can be given.
Since the smoking ban, we don't have the ashtrays or the matchboxes, because there are no smokers anymore. I was thinking the other day maybe we should re-introduce the ashtrays, I kind of miss them actually. Even though there's no smoking, it's quite nice having an ashtray on the table - it dresses it. Just because there's been a ban, why should we stop having matchboxes? I do like ashtrays on tables.
Is a cookbook for the coffee table or the dining table?
The last book I did was Marco Made Easy, which was for the kitchen - it's there to be used. It's an easy book, it's fool-proof. But then there are others for the coffee table, which are pretty and nice to look at. Whether you want to cook from it isn't really the question. They're far too complicated. These two- or three-starred Michelin restaurants have an army of staff behind them. The thing about books is, when I was a young man, a man called Ken Lamb said to me: 'if you take one idea from a cookery book, it's worth buying.' Therefore all cookbooks are good value because you can take an idea from one.
Heston and Jamie have gone big with their empires, how do you rationalise your own choices?
I don't think like that. Not everything you do in life is going to work. But it's nice building things. I like making things - I'm making one at the moment, in Banbury [Oxfordshire]. We've had the builders there for a month. It's rather nice restoring pubs. A lot of the pubs we take on are dilapidated and they're old and they've lost a lot of their original features, but there's something nice about restoring them and putting life back into them. It doesn't always work - when pubs have gone through several hands and they've a reputation, which is a negative one built over 10-15 years, it takes 1-2 years to get them back to where they should be. But when those pubs worked, there was no drink-driving law; today people tend to stay close to home. The reason a lot of pubs are closing these days is because of where they're situated.
Do we celebrate regional restaurants enough?
I've a lot of businesss in the regions and they're celebrated by their local papers and magazines. In a way that's far more important than a national.
There's a lot of talk about new food trends, for example, sliders, ceviche. Do you care?
I like pies, I like fish and chips, I like shepherd's pie, I like a roast on a Sunday, I like my roast game with bread sauce and breadcrumbs and gravy - I'm quite straightforward and that's what my pubs serve. We're not there to win Michelin stars, we're there to create environments and serve good, honest food at a fair price. It's as simple as that.
Francois Lenoir, Newscom, RTR
Do you think some people are scared by game?
Maybe in London, but in the countryside lots of game is eaten. You go to country pubs this time of year and they've all got game on. I think people like game. It's not a big seller in supermarkets but butchers do better because there's someone there to talk clients through it.
What's next for you?
When I've done that [Banbury] pub, I'm working on another pub. I've just taken on another pub in Ripley, in Surrey, although with 47 bedrooms it's more of a hotel. I feel sorry for pubs really - I don't like seeing them close down. It's quite staggering what's happened to that world over the last few years. There are as many pubs now as there were 30 years ago, but the pubs are different today. For example. there's 1,000 Wetherspoons now. There are X All Bar Ones... So there are as many licences but they're not pubs.
The sad thing is when pubs in villages die. When a pub dies in a village, almost the heart of the village dies too.
What about the theory that bad pubs close and good ones stay?
No. There are many bad pubs in this country that are doing very well. And some very good pubs close. It's just the way it is. There's no rhyme or reason to it sometimes. Positioning is key, the demographic is key. What we do with our pubs is turn them into restaurants that do a pint, rather than a pub that serves grub. We also have bedrooms, which starts to make things work.
Will you be taking part in Movember, the men's health charity event each November?
I can't do it - I couldn't grow a mo'! Physically. In a month's time I might have a little stubble but that's about it. My brothers could do it - they're bald and hairy, I'm hairless and have my [head] hair at 50.
Marco has been working with Knorr to create delicious one pot recipes for the comfort food season. For inspiration, head to knorr.co.uk
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He isn't a arrogant big head. He's just a man who speaks his mind.
Give me him over a foul mouthed Mr Ramsey any time !!
If I was asked to make him his lunch I'd make him a nice Home roasted Ham sandwich, served with some homemade colslaw on the side. Plain and simple thats what cooking is all about. There are many excellent restaurants out there who serve good honest food, and they manage very well with out any stupid stars. Thats why he became a chef and thats why I did. xx
Having eaten in MPW's restaurant when he was at the top of his game he was a driven genius with great inventive and top quality recipes
He's now more a brand - he's taken over a couple of pubs/small hotels near me but its run by rentachefs cooking his style of food. I can remember him ranting about at his cookery school they used stock cubes anbd now hes plugging Knorr lol
And the smoking ban has nothing to do with restaurants and pubs being less full - thats just bollcks put about by stinking smokers - get outside and sit in your own death smoke