Marco Pierre White was the first British chef to win three Michelin stars. His take on French-style cuisine was inspired as well as an expression of his pure passion for cooking. He was also considered to be the original "bad boy" of the kitchen (the book was originally published in Britain as White Slave bad taste and lack of consciousness might also be part of that equation). One of the blurbs on the back cover of this autobiography is from Anthony Bourdain, who calls him "the original rock-star chef, the guy all of us wanted to be." Staggering success in a relatively short amount of time (he received his first star at age twenty-seven), gifted as well as driven, and a maniac who ruled his kitchen with physical as well as emotional abuse and ejected patrons who rubbed him the wrong way. What's not to like?
Quite a bit, I'm afraid. First of all, though the kitchen mayhem alone might garner quite an audience, it doesn't pay off enough of the time, which seems odd. After all, this is the man who made Gordon Ramsey cry. Ramsey's TV show Hell's Kitchen is a hit, at least in part, because, short of physical violence, he treats his hapless contestants the way he was treated by White. Entertainment at a low level, but entertainment all the same. And White does deliver at times with stories of screaming and non-stop expletives, unsatisfactory entrees being hurled at cooks or poured all over them, and men being hung up on hooks or thrown into dustbins for being too slow. Even more extreme was his refusal to let anyone eat between lunch and dinner service, insisting on working straight through. Plates were coming back licked clean because the starving waiters carried them into a hallway and ate whatever was left. And White doesn't apologize for a thing. He calls it his "theater of cruelty" (not quite what Artaud had in mind) and maintains that creating fear in his employees was the only way to keep them from taking short-cuts. He also figures that the men who stayed on with him were "pain-junkies" anyway.
Oddly enough, all this drama comes off as pretty ho-hum. After the first "c" wordâ€”which White takes a schoolboy's delight in sniggering aboutâ€”the swearing fades into the woodwork. The screaming fights and flying cutlery become equally numbing. We're told White's kitchens were wildly demented and violent, but we rarely ever feel it. And, along the same lines, when he recounts one of his "naughty" stories of "holding a rendezvous with" a patron's wife in his office during service while the husband sits alone at their table in the dining room below, it just comes across as tawdry and rather dull. Is this the best you can manage in terms of debauchery?
But White is no cartoon bruiser. He left school at sixteen and went to work as an apprentice at a hotel restaurant in Harrogate. It's impressive that in a very few years he gets himself work in the finest restaurants in London: Chez Nico, Le Gavroche and La Tante Claire. His gift with food isn't to be argued with, and his rise in a competitive field is staggering. And, by far, the best sections of the book are the brief moments in italics where White describes certain of his cooking techniques, like his approach to seasoning as flavor enhancer rather than a flavor in itself. Thus his use of cream to "stabilize" a sauce and not interfere with the existing flavor rather than butter, which adds its own strong flavor.
Yet it isn't only the food that drives him. He never tires of reminding us of his three stars. They were his goal, his reason for being. And his strategies for capturing the third star are quite shrewd. He makes the argument to Derek Brown, Michelin's head inspector for the UK, that if he can study the current London three-star establishments and "beat them on all levels, you cannot deny me three stars." So he visits these restaurants over and over, noting not just the food but the décor and "the illusion of grandness" that sets the stage for a three-star evening. He took what he could and improved on all of it.
So why is the book so easy to set aside? On the most general level, having an extraordinary life doesn't necessarily mean you can write a book that communicates that life to the reader. Writing an autobiography isn't simply remembering and recounting. We all have lots of stories, but not all of us knows which of our stories is actually worth retelling. And if you're not an experienced writer, that's where a good editor or even a co-writer comes in. Or should. I kept asking myself, "Who is this James Steen," the man cited as the person White wrote the book with, and why didn't he do his bloody job? Why does he let White drone on and on, free associating over several paragraphs about his passion for food, then his love of nature, then about the time he was searching in his brother's room for ammunition for his .22 and had to hide under the bed, only to witness his brother misbehaving and then their dad interrupting to ask where Marco was. Huh? Or when, in one paragraph, he begins with his wife's pregnancy and the birth of their first son, then jumps back before the birth to a car ride with friends where he had a nightmare that presaged an accident they survived to an accident at home later that night where he nearly crushed his head while trying to shut a window. This ends a chapter? Except for the few italicized sections on cooking and a few of the more serious descriptions of how a brigade needs to function, most of the book has a tendency to ramble on in this disconnected way. It almost reads like a transcription of a lengthy interview where the interviewer never asked a question or for elaboration. Unfortunately, either White's helpers found every word that came out of his mouth utterly fascinating, or they just weren't doing their jobs.
So if you want a book about bad boys in the kitchen that has some depth and style (as well as humor and genuine insights), read Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential And if you want to read a fascinating book about a working-class boy's pursuit of and (in part) destruction by the Michelin star system, then pick up Rudolph Chelminski's The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine. But if you want to know more about Marco Pierre White, you may just have to wait a bit. Clearly he has a story to tell he just needs someone who knows how to tell it.