WHEN I ARRIVE at Wheeler’s of St James’s, I spot Marco Pierre White sitting at his usual corner table.
This is a relief. You see, you can make plans to meet him. You can ring to confirm. You can call him while you’re on your way to meet him. You can arrive certain that he’ll be there. But none of this is any guarantee that he’ll actually be there.
You see, Marco likes to do things on the spur of the moment. He can tell you that he’s on his way to his restaurant and that he’ll see you in just a second. It’s just that at the very last moment, as his car turned on to the street, he decided to about-turn and head to Berkshire to go stalking.
Experiences with Marco come in waves, or indeed tornadoes. They can be intense and long. He can all but kidnap you and shower you with generosity. One minute you reckon you’re having a quick glass of wine with him, the next you are dining, then travelling, then fishing or stalking or sharing a shooting lesson.
You join the whirlwind and only know that it’s over when you find yourself being dropped off home by his personal assistant, chauffeur and factotum Mr Ishi.
Mr Ishi is his super-loyal, super-polite Japanese sidekick — a kind of mini-style Odd Job (as in the James Bond baddie). He takes Marco wherever and whenever in a large Range Rover. Marco sits in the front, you in the back.And when Mr Ishi’s day of driving and suffering the humorous abuse of Marco ends, he plugs in his mobile earpiece and does deals of his own. Mr Ishi keeps Marco’s diary. But that doesn’t mean his boss does what it says he should be doing.
Then, when you are released from Marco’s presence and a few days later you call him for something, you might not get hold of him. You can call and call his mobile, and call his restaurants, call Mr Ishi, call your contacts who know him and you may fail to track him down. His presence can be as elusive as it is fully intensive.
So when I see that Marco is in the restaurant as arranged, it is something of a relief. But you still don’t know if you’ll get time with him. He once asked me for lunch when he owned a restaurant in Belgravia. I sat down at a table and he joined me, then, after a minute of chat, got up to leave, saying, ‘So, who are you having lunch with?’
And if you do get time with him to chat, don’t reckon on having him to yourself. There will be calls on his mobile, visits from suppliers, business contacts, friends. So if you’ve got an interview to do, you need to understand that it might be shared with half a dozen other people.
Today I approach the table and he offers his hand. He also looks at me. He doesn’t always look at people when he meets them. Marco's time is his and his alone. Perhaps this is because he feels that he did his time at the stove, that he worked more hours than might be mentally and physically possible, he reached the top of his profession, he went beyond the dreams he had as a working-class boy from Leeds — winning three Michelin stars at the age of 33.
So these days he has earned the right to do what he wants, when he wants. Or more simply, as Michael Winner once put it: ‘Marco Pierre White is highly talented and amusing. He’s also nutty, Machiavellian, mercurial, utterly childish, irrational and dangerous.’
And while he may not be traditionally academic he has a brilliant mind. He has a great memory — he remembers everything influential and interesting that he ever hears. He has steely determination and can be ruthless both in business and in relationships. His loyalty to people he trusts is absolute. He can be gossipy and he is, as Winner says, very funny.
As we chat today he reflects on the subject that dominates his life.
‘In my early years food was an obsession; now it’s a passion,’ he reflects. ‘I see food differently now I have left the kitchen. I like cooking at home and I cook the food that I like to eat.’
As opposed to the cuisine that Marco is associated with — that of high-end French gastronomy.
‘I used the classical French method of cooking,’ he says. ‘The French have the best restaurants in the world and it all starts with the ingredients. They have a true love affair with food.’
It compares less favourably with that of the British, as Marco puts it: ‘A tree without roots is just a piece of wood.’Yet he does see what food culture we do have in Britain. ‘Our cheeses are fantastic, we have the best smoked salmon, the best bacon. What’s more delicious than a great apple crumble? Think of roast beef with Yorkshire pudding — genius. The French could never have worked that out.
‘But the further you travel out of London, the further you get away from good food served in restaurants. It’s because too many of them are run by accountants and conglomerates.’
The problem, he says, is to do with our psyche. ‘In France or Spain or Italy it’s a way of life. As Napoleon said, we are a nation of shopkeepers. In this country people are more interested in bricks and mortar. We’re obsessed with dying and leaving a freehold to our children. Unlike the French, who eat great food and rent their homes.’ THESE DAYS MARCO is focusing on Wheeler’s of St James’s, a restaurant brand he has bought, and on his TV career. ‘I do TV to retain my status within the profession,’ he says. ‘So I’m still up there without having to work in the kitchen. And it gives me the opportunity to inspire young boys and girls into my profession — I don’t swear or shout or scream. But I’ve never watched one of my shows and I never stay for the wrap party.’
He finds security in his own lair, which these days is Wheeler’s, and with Garry Hollihead in the kitchen he’s serving classic fish dishes — everything from deliciously simple fish pies to oysters, Dover sole, crab and much more. ‘Why would I want to sit in somebody else’s restaurant? I’m not seen in public. I don’t go to social gatherings or dinner parties. I don’t have a craving that I need to be recognised. I was famous in the Nineties for not turning up to parties.’
So does he watch any TV or buy newspapers? ‘I don’t have a television, I don’t listen to the radio, no newspapers or magazines,’ he says. ‘I’m more interested in what’s going on in my own life. I really am.’
Who needs news when you’re at the epicentre of the Marco Pierre White world?