Ms. Tomato always wonders just how bad the "bad boys" are. If they are so busy being bad, especially in the food business where one must slog hours, day after day, to churn out a dollar, how do they get anything done? Granted, in every kitchen there is some romping in the walk-in, sometimes an illicit substance or two in a dark corner, and plenty of yelling and name-calling, but you find that stuff in middle school these days.
Guys like Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay, and Marco Pierre White have become famous for their vast talent, yes, but also their raucus behaviour, potty mouths, and in-your-face 'tudes, and that may be the point. Speed up to the present day and we find they've become doting dads, Bourdain included, whose gushing recent quotes paint him aglow in the thrall of new parenthood. Makes one wonder whether all along these guys have been sheep in wolf's clothing, talking up a good game.
Marco Pierre White, one of the U.K.'s best known chefs, and the first Englishman to be awarded 3 Michelin stars, has just released his memoir, "The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef". White's biography, which he wrote with former gossip columnist James Steen, documents his rise, in all its glory, from motherless child to infamous London chef with a batterie of restaurants and a regular spot in the tabloids. It's fun reading, a sort of People Magazine for food obsessives.
He begins his story with the Cheese Throwing Incident, wherein he teaches his maitre d' a lesson or two by flinging several chunks of soft, ripened, runny cheese against the wall and forcing the staff to leave them there. One cheese was not sized to code and he wanted to make a point staff members would never forget. "If you are not extreme," he says, " people will take shortcuts because they don't fear you."
Okay, well maybe the cheese scene is bad, but mostly because the smell would ripen further as evening progressed and offend both staff and paying customers. But this was the thing - White didn't care whom he offended or pushed into boycotting him - as an artist aspiring to the highest of standards, that goal was more important than mere human sensitivity or the occasional confrontation. His mission was to be the best with the ultimate reward of industry recognition...and he got a generous side of newsprint to boot.
He calls himself "damaged", and claims a fiery temperment to this day, but also found his outrageousness worked in his favor, magnetizing members of the press, young actresses and various rebellious members of the monarchy. Indeed, lady friends are a past-time he may be still fond of, but then that's according to current U.K. celeb-press, who track his incendiary marriage to Mati, a former employee and mother of three of his kids. The couple may hiss and spit in public, but in his book, White has only worshipful words for his Spanish born wife, who spent years dragging the kids into kitchens to spend 15 minutes with their father every day.
At the height of his cooking days, while roaring like a lion 'midst his troops, he turned out some of the best food in London - his cooking would be top-notch anywhere - in the manic campaign to get the guide rouge stars he wanted so badly. Besides the daily grind of creating culinary masterpieces, back in the day he was mentor, then arch-competitor to Gordon Ramsay, whom he now refers to as "the monster", and adds "I decided my life would be enriched if I saw no more of him." As a side note, White has now replaced Ramsay as the kick-ass divo of the television show "Hell's Kitchen", so the boys may still have some miles to go with their public feud.
But enough about them--let's talk about Us for a while. Ms. Tomato knows a little of which she speaks...she worked briefly with Mr. White in his Harvey's days. Harvey's was an early foray into the French food-inspired chi-chi eatery, a smallish, tastefully appointed restaurant on the outskirts of greater London, on Wandsworth Common.
Fresh out of culinary school, Ms. Tomato called the restaurant one mid-afternoon and got the man himself on the phone. "Do you ever take stages?" we asked. "Can you be here in an hour?" he answered.
What followed were some weeks of working for free (on purpose--that's what a stage is) about 18 hours a day, drinking for another 2, then sleeping the last 4. We got to witness first hand the nightly throwing of the chefs, the plates of food lobbed against the wall during crazed dinner service, the clothing ripped off the saucier when he started sweating, and the full-scale rampages when Chef would throw all the cryovacked foie gras out of the fridge and into the bin or eat all the mise-en-place for absolutely no good reason at all.
Wheeee! His hair was long and untethered, sweat dripped from his locks into the soup and his eyes bugged out with adrenaline. Still in his late 20's, he looked like a wild beast searching for some game doe he could consume in one ravenous swoop, but, to our mind, the antics always had a tone of pre-planning to them.
"Do you like ginger balls?" he asked Ms. Tomato on the first day. We'd been dispatched to the pastry department, where they used to put all the girls back then. The pastry chef was Roger Pizey, a redhead and excellent dessert chef who won awards for his work. "Because Roger here has ginger balls. You have to be careful of ginger balls!"
The food was inspiring, the environment a roller-coaster, the staff a delight, but eventually we had to leave Harvey's due to lack of funding. "Skint?" White asked over a bain-marie of cumin-perfumed tomato concasse. "Yes, completely," we said. "Me too," he replied. That afternoon he pressed a slip of paper in our hands. It was the phone number for Antony Worral Thompson, another celebrated London chef. "You're hired for the front of the house," he said. "Good luck."
That night after service the staff dumped all the slop from the day into the sink, then hoisted and dropped Ms. Tomato in it, in that sentimental, sweet ritual followed when someone leaves the kitchen for good. Trotting off home alone, raspberry coulis and shrimp reduction dripping down our crevices, we nursed a blue finger that started out as a hangnail and swelled into a sausage-sized appendage that was lanced at the hospital the following morning. Then we slept for about 36 hours.
Two days later we were, indeed, taken in by Antony at Bistro190 where we waited tables for several weeks, making enough cash to live on for a good while. It was also a grand old time. Worral didn't even require an interview, if Marco recommended you it was good enough for him.
At some point in the 90's, White realized he didn't want to be a chef anymore and preferred to hang out with his wife and kids, so he gave back his Michelin stars, a move he calls simple honesty, but one that rocked the conventional Euro food-world.
Which brings our ramble to some sort of conclusion -- perhaps the damage that causes one to tease out and revel in the reputation of being a badass may be the same damage that makes for a soft-hearted lout. For some reaon, that part's just not so good for business.
Photo of the dining room above is the Criterion, one of White's restaurants in London. Photo of the foo: Roast Pigeon From Bresse with a Ravioli of Wild mushrooms and a Fumet of Truffles, is from the book White Heat.