Marco Pierre White's reputation precedes him. Vaunted as one of the original bad boy chefs, Marco is infamous for his history of kitchen rage: legendary incidents that include kicking out customers from his dining room if they clicked their fingers at a waiter, and cutting open the back of a young chef's uniform with a sharp knife when he complained about the heat in the kitchen.
And yet there is no denying his talent. At age 33, he became the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars (since eclipsed by Massimiliano Alajmo who won three Michelin stars for Le Calandre in Italy at age 28).
Chefs who have passed through his kitchen include Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali, Curtis Stone, Shannon Bennett (Vue de Monde, Melbourne) and Donovan Cooke (est est est, Melbourne).
He has crossed paths with countless chefs, reputed to no longer be on speaking terms with Gordon Ramsay. British chef Antony Worrall-Thompson was quoted as saying "He's without equal in cooking. On the other hand he's an arsehole, but he knows that."
Marco Pierre White cutting his own onions for his mise en place
This is why I'm more than surprised by the gentle and soft-speaking Marco Pierre White I meet at a masterclass held for media last week, in town to promote a new jellied Stock Pot range from Continental. It's an extension of his relationship with the brand in Europe, where the Continental stock range is sold under the name Knorr.
This is his first visit to Australia, and they've packed four masterclasses into his busy schedule. He demonstrates the same two dishes at every one of them: a pumpkin soup and an asparagus risotto, each using jellied stock.
He insists on preparing his own mise en place, I'm told, even though the PR company have supplied him with assisting chefs. Every cube of pumpkin and every dice of onion has been sliced personally by him before every session. "He doesn't want anyone to chop his veggies," I'm told.
Pouring carrot juice into the pot of sauteed pumpkin
Marco admits he'd never made pumpkin soup until he arrived in Sydney. In the UK pumpkin is mainly sold as carving pumpkins. "At home only the Italians and the Spanish use pumpkin," he says. "The Italians put it in risotto, and the Spanish - like my wife - put chunks of it in soup."
You can tell that Marco is entranced by the idea of pumpkin. It's quite fascinating to hear this Michelin-starred chef analyse the benefits of cooking with pumpkin, an ingredient all Australians take for granted. "Pumpkin can be quite woody," he says, "but it has a good texture. It breaks down quite quickly and then it becomes really smooth." He pauses. "It can be quite good when you get your head around it."
We talk about the way that Australians use pumpkin: in soups, roasted with vegetables and added to scones. "Scones?" he repeats with a start, and looks confused by the mere concept. Talk meanders to the American-style pumpkin pie but my appetite is whetted when Marco describes one of his favourite ways to enjoy pumpkin: stuffed into ravioli with an emulsion of sage and mustard fruits, and garnished with a crumble of amaretti on top.
Ladling out the pumpkin soup (the super-sized pumpkin was sourced from a farmer in Wiseman's Ferry)
Garnishing the pumpkin soup with extra parmesan
ON USING STOCK POWDERS AND JELLIED STOCK
The idea of a chef promoting a ready-to-use stock powder or jellied stock may sound like a sell-out to the cynical, but Marco is quick to remind us that all commercial kitchens are filled with tins, jars and bottles in the pantry. Every commercial kitchen uses pre-made ingredients. He has no issue with them as long as as quality is good, and that the customer can't tell when they eat the final product.
Marco admits that he uses stock powder at home. "Who has room for a full-sized stock pot at home?" he asks. "It's very hard to make a good stock at home. You need a big pan to fry the carcass, and you can't make a good stock from one little chicken. You need at least a few carcasses. It's all about building flavours and levels."
He rarely uses salt in his restaurants, preferring to season with bouillon which he says is a lot more forgiving. His tip for steak is to prepare a paste by grinding olive oil with a bouillon cube until it becomes a wet paste. He then adds some chopped rosemary or lemon thyme and rubs it lightly into a steak before frying. When he makes pepper steak, he mixes coarsely ground pepper with a little cornflour and pats it on the steak. When the steak is seared, the starch acts to stick the pepper to the steak, preventing the pepper from falling off.
The pumpkin soup is a simple recipe of diced pumpkin, grated parmesan, thick cream and jellied stock. He's added carrot juice for extra sweetness in this instance, and the soup is nourishing although a little thinner and less creamy than most Australians are used to. The addition of parmesan cheese is an Italian twist that works well.
Adding butter to the cooked asparagus risotto
ON PREVENTING WASTE
"I'm from the old school of training where the head chef would search the bins at the end of every shift. He was like a mole looking for waste," Marco explains. This is why he saves the asparagus peelings and uses them to create a light vegetable stock which he then supplements with the jellied stock.
"This is how we made cream soup in the 1970s," he says. "Back then we didn't have stick blenders to process soups. Even a fine sieve was a rarity back then. We'd boil up vegetable peelings in water and slowly reduce the stock thickening it with a little cornflour to serve as cream of vegetable soup."
Garnishing the risotto with blanched asparagus
ON INDUCTION STOVES AND SOUS-VIDE
Marco is adamant on the topic of induction stoves. "I don't like them. They make weird noises. It beeps at you. I don't like the cold kitchen you get from induction. The food goes cold. I'm from the era where you used to throw a match into the stove and whoomph! Do you like induction stoves?" he asks the PR person sitting to his right.
"Well actually we represent a client for induction stoves," she replies. Marco just laughs.
He's not a fan of sous vide either, where ingredients are vacuum-sealed in a bag and cooked at a low temperature in a water bath.
"I'm not a fan of water baths. Well it's not really cooking, is it? You can cook lamb in water so it's tender, but where is the flavour? When you cook lamb in a pan the fat renders and you get caramelisation and that's when you get the flavour. Chefs should have a knife, not a pair of scissors. I mean, I guess it's good for banquets or boeuf en daube but I prefer to cook with heat.
"But that's just me. Maybe I'm too old for it. I come from that old world of gastronomy - when there was show in the dining room. When restaurants had romance. So many of today's restaurants are like a posh canapé party. Where every course is a cold canapé on a plate."
Asparagus risotto with chervil
ON FOOD BLOGGERS
There are a few food bloggers here tonight and when he moves around the corner to blitz the pumpkin the food processor, he asks that someone accompany him. "I need a witness in case you think I've switched the soup," he laughs. "I know you food bloggers!"
Have you had a bad experience with a food blogger, someone asks. He laughs. "I've never read a food blog in my life."
Plating the asparagus risotto
This is his first trip to Australia and he appears enamoured by Sydney. "Sydney is quite magical," he says with earnest. "It has such a village feel. It's a gentle village. It reminds me of San Francisco but a little warmer. I've never been to a big city like this with such a village feel. And I know it's winter here but I'm from the UK. This is better than our summer. I even asked someone if the sun was closer here."
ON MEETING LEO SCHOFIELD
"I met Leo Schofield. What a lovely man. He has so much knowledge about all the old restaurants in Europe. We had a really good chat. He's a beautiful man and I felt very humbled. He's a proper critic, you know? He looks at things for what they are are. It's not about him. But I thought his judgements were perfect."
ON HIS FAVOURITE FOODS
"I love sour cream." His eyes close at the mere mention. He points the blade of his knife into the chopping board and leans on the handle, thinking wistfully.
"I love Branston [pickled relish]. And Lea and Perrins [worcestershire sauce]. And ketchup vinaigrette! Have you had it? It's just ketchup with olive oil. And shallots, chervil, tarragon and Worcestershire. And some white wine vinegar. Have you ever had it before? Oh it's delicious!"
"I think our palates are born out of our childhood. It's what we always come back to. Like I remember Colman's mustard on a ham sandwich. Oh!" He exhales with a happy sigh at the thought.
Does he have a favourite dish? He thinks for a few seconds. "I don't have one but I like food in a pot. I think it has more flavour. And then you just serve it in the pot on a table."
He thanks everyone with a personal handshake and a deep look into your eyes. He says he can't wait to make pumpkin soup for his daughter, served in the pumpkin shell. "I think she'll like it."
A little bit of Australia in the Marco Pierre White household. I like the sound of that.
Grab Your Fork attended the Marco Pierre White masterclass as a guest of Open Haus.
Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Masterclass with Peter Gilmore, Quay
Masterclass with Tetsuya Wakuda, Tetsuya's
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5/25/2011 01:31:00 a.m.