White Slave by Marco Pierre White

I do not consider myself a bad cook, but I am certainly not interested in doing all the fiddly bits that go with being a top class chef. So when I saw this auto-biography on the “read me before I go” shelf in my local library, I decided to do just that.  This autobiography was actually ghost written by James Steen for the legendary chef who is open-handed in his acknowledgement of Steen’s work

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It is clear from the very start of the book that the early loss of his mother, and being brought up with two much older brothers by a strict,lone-parent father had a marked affect on White.  His father was also a chef, but of the old school. So as he was dyslexic, Marco left school early and lurched unquestioningly into cooking for a living. Where his talent and his determination came from is not specifically identified.  However, perhaps it was luck that drove him to the stoves of Yorkshire’s then most serious restaurant, the Box Tree at Ilkley.

There he was introduced to the demands of haute cuisine and well directed towards the Michelin-style kitchens of the Roux brothers, Nico Ladenis, Raymond Blanc and Pierre Koffmann. He never left England, yet he absorbed enough French kitchen lingua franca to convince Michelin he was the peer of Bocuse, Guérard and Robuchon.  White tells progressively of his achievements – one star, two stars, then the final accolade of three (as well as four and then five red knives and forks) in the Little Red Book.  These were his by the age of 33, a world record. He must have been an exceptional chef: extremely fast, with a very good eye, unerring taste and great skill in absorbing and reinterpreting the knowledge, and recipes, of others.mpw2

However, Marco Pierre White always seemed to be more than a chef and in this book I became sure that I would not like him if I met him.  He portrays himself as a bully.  He justifies this by arguing that he was striving for perfection.  That seems to me to be no excuse. His antics during his career earned him lasting notoriety and he seems happy to boast of and justify behaviour that would land most employers in a court or tribunal.

Society urges the extinction of bullying in school or workplace while embracing its vicarious experience in a host of reality shows including those with Marco Pierre White and fellow three star chef Gordon Ramsay. Today, happily, there are many kitchens turning out excellent food where dysfunctional personalities do not rule.

I did not warm to White’s endless boasting. Although I admire his feats of culinary genius and also his  success in changing from humble cook to Savile-Row-tailored restaurateur, I found the book particularly self-serving.   Nevertheless, I did unearth some truth among the bombast. For example, White was a chef who attained celebrity by the printed word alone: no TV. Just gossip, scandal, news and good reviews. Although White mixed with the international greats of the Michelin set, his experience of cooking and, indeed, of life seems to have been quite restricted. He focused purely on what was required to achieve success within the Michelin Guide.

I was surprised that White rarely mentions taste and flavour when talking about cooking: he does go on about the look of a plate. Equally, there seems little sign of respect and affection for the dining public (unless they are rich or famous or both – and even then he seems to have terminable arguments with them). The profession of chef-restaurateur is rightly described as being part of the “hospitality industry”. This term conceals a big truth: the man in charge of a restaurant has to like his customers more than he loves himself. To this end White does not seem to me to be a good role model. I found this book fascinating and am very glad I read it but I suspect I did not come away with the thoughts the author wanted of me.

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Amongst the other biographies and autobiographies reviewed on this site are: Sir Alan Sugar https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/sir-alan-sugar…charlie-burden/,   As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/as-far-as-my-f…-james-m-bauer/, Wasted https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/wasted-by-mark-johnson/, Humble Pie https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/humble-pie-by-gordon-ramsay/, Black Like Me https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/black-like-me-…howard-griffin/, https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/the-islamist-by-ed-hussain/.

Valerie Penny

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