Marco Pierre White is coaxing a pan of golden-yolked eggs to a gentle simmer in a generous puddle of butter. ‘It’s my favourite ingredient,’ he declares.
‘It makes everything more delicious. I cannot imagine a more wonderful death than drowning in butter.’
Today, when so much cooking is brisk, efficient and pared down to a few glum but healthy ingredients (brown rice and kale salad, anyone?), isn’t it wonderful that our greatest chef should be encouraging a little unashamed self-indulgence? Marco, the first chef in Britain and the youngest in the world (at the time) to win three Michelin stars, is demonstrating how to make the perfect Spanish tortilla (topped, for added luxury, with those fried eggs and a shaving of truffle).
He does so with such tenderness and attention to detail it amounts to nothing less than love.
Marco Pierre White, 58, (pictured) who was the first chef in Britain to win three Michelin stars, is revealing his cookery knowledge in a new e-learning service
He disparages today’s ‘conveyor belt cuisine’, detests miserly portions.
‘So many restaurant menus are written by accountants. I’ve never done a stocktake in my life. I’ve never worked to a gross profit. Cooking is about generosity,’ he says.
‘Chefs today have turned meals into canapé parties. You get knick-knacks on a plate and they’re tepid at best.
‘Food must be served hot, so take the pan to the table. It simplifies everything. I want to inspire, not impress.’
Even the everyday he invests with a kind of magnificence.
‘Potatoes. One of the most delicious and versatile ingredients,’ he announces, in a reverential voice, elevating the humble root vegetable to a status it has not enjoyed since Walter Raleigh.
Marco, 58, does not have a battalion of kitchen lackeys. He pares the spuds himself, carefully, methodically, demonstrating every step.
He is imparting his vast knowledge in a cookery course, Delicious Food Cooked Simply, on a new e-learning service from the BBC called Maestro.
No fireworks, no histrionics, just a quiet work of genius. And the tortilla is one of many dishes he will be serving up. Anyone can subscribe to Maestro – Daily Mail readers get a discount (see box, below) – and be inspired by the dishes he has perfected.
Marco explained the 35 lessons in his online course are designed to take participants on a journey from his teens to today. Pictured: Marco at his Wiltshire hotel
‘Cooking is not about recipes. It’s a philosophy,’ he says. His lessons are easy to follow because he explains every process with care.
‘Always taste, taste, taste, and season each thing individually,’ he says, combining the ingredients for his tortilla into a glorious mélange which he gently fries.
‘You can’t just walk away and leave her. You have to mother her,’ he explains (he gives all his dishes a female pronoun). ‘You have to invest all your time and understanding into making the perfect tortilla.’
Once it is golden he turns it onto a plate, tucking in the edges as gently as a parent tucks in a child at bedtime.
‘If you burn your fingers, it’s fine. It’s a growing pain. Have confidence with your fingers,’ he says.
Now the eggs, not so much fried as poached to buttery perfection, come in. He places them tenderly onto the tortilla, then grates a truffle on top, turning a simple meal into a gastronomic treat.
There are 35 lessons in Marco’s course, designed to take you on a journey – Marco’s own – from 16-year-old trainee chef to his three Michelin stars, then beyond to where he is today: a home cook who brings his supreme expertise to the domestic kitchen.
He aims to give an understanding of taste and classical flavour combinations and invites us to use all our senses; to fall in love with food and cooking.
He shows us how to elevate anchovies on toast to the sublime and lets us cheat with our langoustine cocktail. ‘There’s acceptable mayonnaise and ketchup you can buy. Don’t waste time making what can be bought well.’
He is a man of courtesy and charm, bereft of the braggadocio that made him the enfant terrible of British cuisine.
So what happened to the rock’n’roll chef once dubbed Jagger Of The Aga? Where are the boiling rages, the feuds? It was Marco who ripped a trainee’s whites with a carving knife (‘to give him some ventilation’) when he complained it was too hot in the kitchen; Marco who reduced a rookie Gordon Ramsay to a quivering mess of tears (their rocky relationship ended in still-simmering animosity after Gordon hid in undergrowth with a camera crew to ambush Marco’s third wedding).
I WANTED TO BE A THREE -STAR DAD
Marco famously handed back his three Michelin stars – the third of which he won in 1995, when he was just 33 – in 1999.
‘I was being judged by people who had less knowledge than me, so what was it really worth?’ he says.
Pictured: Marco with son Luciano in 2001
‘I had three options: I could be a prisoner of my world and continue to work six days a week, I could live a lie and charge high prices and not be behind the stove, or I could give my stars back, become a three-star dad instead of a three-star chef, and reinvent myself.
‘The stars never made me happy, but they gave me the confidence to be the man I am today. There is more pleasure in cooking for people I love than for people with a wallet.’
Yet the trainee with the ventilated whites still works for him today.
‘Never forget,’ says Marco, ‘when a chef screams and swears – he may even throw something – it is not personal, it is service. He has to shout his orders.
‘Perfection only lasts seconds. Food starts to die on the plate when it gets cold. I’m not saying I was a saint, but if I was such a hellraiser how did I have time to win three Michelin stars?
‘I put a tremendous amount of thought and energy into everything I did. I made huge sacrifices. I went to work in the morning when my children were sleeping and came home at night when they were sleeping.
‘I worked 100 hours a week. I’m not fiery. This reputation was created by the media. But,’ he concedes, ‘your emotional intelligence doesn’t grow when all your energies are going into food.’
Today the reinvented Marco lives quietly in rural Wiltshire where he runs his own hotel, the Rudloe Arms, set in 14 acres with views over rolling fields.
Imposing in stature – he is 6ft 3in – he wears ripped jeans (not artfully so; they were torn while he was gardening) and T-shirt. He still smokes.
Every morning, he jokes, he has the same three-course breakfast: coffee, a fag and a cough. He refuses to join the 21st century (his phone is an ancient Nokia and he’s never sent an email).
He is in the throes of a long and acrimonious divorce from his third wife Mati (she began proceedings in 2007), and their three children – restaurateur Luciano, 26, former Big Brother housemate Marco Jr, 25, and Mirabelle, 18, who hopes to be a hotelier – all live with him.
The children were photographed at his side during a recent appearance at the divorce court. ‘It says everything, doesn’t it?’ he says.
‘I had custody of the boys when we separated. I still look after the children. That’s what my mother would have wanted.’
Marco’s Italian-born mum Maria-Rosa died of a brain haemorrhage when he was six; he saw her collapse in the Leeds council house where he was raised, the third of four brothers.
There are photos of her, svelte and glamorous, in the room where we sit. She’s at the forefront of his conversation, too, as if his emotions – dammed up during his childhood by a father who regarded it as ‘weakness’ to show them – have been pouring out ever since.
‘My biggest fear is that I’ll die before my children are safe and secure in every sense,’ he adds.
We walk round the hotel grounds, through a copse of Japanese maples he’s planted, past the orchard he has named after Mirabelle. ‘I’ve exiled myself to the countryside,’ he says.
‘I live a very private life. My best times are solitary. I like fishing, birdwatching and, to be honest, gardening.’ (He’s almost apologetic.)
‘It’s a nice thing to do when you’re growing old. Monty Don is very good, isn’t he?’ he adds. ‘I don’t know him but I’ve watched him on TV. He seems kind.’
During his years in the kitchen he famously fell out with just about everyone – from Michael Caine, with whom he owned a restaurant, to food critic Michael Winner, who paid for his honeymoon.
Now, however, he is benign. He speaks of his ex, actress Emilia Fox (they were together for four years until 2016), with fondness (‘We were talking on the phone just the other day’) and says his current partner, whose name he won’t disclose, makes him ‘very happy’.
He’s even generous about women chefs, whom he seemed to disparage, saying they’re ‘too emotional’ and ‘can’t lift heavy pans’.
‘I wasn’t unkind!’ he cries. ‘I said women were better cooks. They have a better palate because their sense of smell is better.’
He is delighted, too, that Maestro will showcase other talents. Best-selling author David Walliams will be imparting the secrets of Writing Books For Children.
‘He is, without question, the most entertaining man in Britain today,’ says Marco. There are lessons from Gary Barlow, who is teaching Song Writing. ‘He’s a neighbour,’ says Marco.
‘He’s sensitive and understated. He taught me to sing solo. Quietly, so no one can hear me!’
Heston Blumenthal, who will teach Ingenious Cooking At Home, is one of Marco’s protégés.
‘He spent his first ever day in the kitchen with me, at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons [where Marco trained under Raymond Blanc]. I took him under my wing and we became great friends.’
It’s an awe-inspiring line-up, and such is the intimacy of each Maestro’s presentation that you feel they are speaking directly to you: inspiration, skills, insight and practical advice, all delivered from someone who is passionate about their field.
‘Cooking is about feeding,’ Marco says. ‘It is not a game of one-upmanship or showing off. If you don’t invest time, you will never get the desired result.
‘I’ve tried to make food simple so people at home feel they have the confidence and ability to make it.’
I spend five hours with him, and though he is an implacable foe, he is also a loyal friend. He tells me how he used to poach pheasants from the late Lord Harewood’s estate near Leeds as a boy.
Years later the earl – a first cousin to the Queen – came for dinner at Harveys, Marco’s first restaurant in southwest London. Remembering the debt he owed for the game, Marco insisted he paid nothing for his meal.
‘We became friends, and just before he died [in 2011] I had lunch at Harewood House. We drank a delicious bottle of Chateau Latour.’
A friendship with the earl’s widow, Patricia, continued. Mirabelle and he had tea with her six months before she died in 2018.
Their visit to Leeds was a nostalgic one; Marco also took his daughter to see the modest house where he grew up. So how does he describe himself now? ‘Council house toff,’ he says, and laughs.
Marco’s course, Delicious Food Cooked Simply, for BBC Maestro features 35 lessons with dishes including steak au poivre, linguine al pomodoro and cod with lentils. It’s simple food – with three-star flavours. For more details please visit www.bbcmaestro.com