Style of the City sat down with chef Marco Pierre White at Cardiff’s Hotel Indigo to talk career success, veganism, travelling the world and the importance of having goals and dreams.
Your career has been so inspirational. How have you found making a career out of your passion?
Everything I do in my life has been by default. Nothing was manufactured, and the only time I applied strategy in my life was when I was in the kitchen; and by applying strategy you deliver consistency, which is the most important thing.
How do you balance family life and the business world?
My children basically all work for me – or should I say they work with me! And so it’s very nice having my children there. But I’ve never thought about that, you see – I came from a world where you go to work and do your job. When I used to cook full time, I’d never do less than 100 hours a week – six, sometimes seven days a week. And you’re allowed to do that when you’re a young man, you’re allowed to be selfish, but there comes a stage in life when you realise your dream or achieved what you set out to achieve, and you’ve got to start looking at the children.
Who has inspired you?
I’ve got to say, the person who inspired me more than anyone was my mother, and the memory of my mother. But then when I go back to being a boy, when I was 17 years old and I went to work at the Box Tree in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, Mr Reid, Mr Long, Mr Lamb and Mr Lawson – they were the people who laid my foundation, who gave me my dream.
I think it’s very important to have a dream – I was just speaking to some college students about this. You have to have dreams, because if you don’t have dreams you’ll never realise your true potential…if you have a dream, then you have a duty and responsibility to yourself to make it come true. Whether they come true or not it doesn’t matter, you’ve still got to work for them. When I was a young man I would have always have five-year dreams, a vision of where I wanted to be in life. Otherwise it just becomes a job…the more you put into your work the more you get out of life. And success at work and knowledge is your passport to freedom – without knowledge, you have no freedom.
They asked for advice today, those young individuals – the first bit of advice I’d give is when you go to an interview, never ask how many hours you’re going to work and how much you’re going to get paid. They’ll tell you how much you get paid when they give you the job, and what your hours and expectations are – so why ask? Don’t turn the person who’s employing you, or hoping to employ you, into the one who’s being interviewed….
The real bit of advice I gave them was read – read as much as you can about your world. Read all those other individuals’ works, because without realising, they’re inspiring you and teaching you, they’re educating you and assisting you in being a better writer. Reading is the secret, in my opinion.
As a young man, I was ruled and fuelled by my insecurities and my fears of failure. So if you don’t have a fear of failure, how are you going to ever achieve? Most young people are ruled by their insecurities and their fears, and that’s got to be your fuel to achieving. And you’ve got to be brutally honest with yourself – if you think you’re fast, you’re not fast enough, if you think you’re good, you’re not good enough, if you think you’re talented, you’re not talented enough. And never take things for granted – a little knowledge is dangerous, and it’s very easy for a young person to think they’re better than they are. Always stay humble, and always be a servant to your world.
What is your proudest moment, professionally?
I suppose my greatest achievement was being invited to the Oxford Union to address them. For the Oxford Union to think that you’re sufficiently interesting, to be invited to Oxford to address the Union – especially when you’re uneducated like I was, and left school without qualifications – to be given that opportunity to share your story. Because for me it’s all about a story, it’s not about achievements, it’s about your journey, and how you got from A to B to C to D. And along the way, there are more mistakes than there are achievements – you’ll make lots of mistakes…but you have to have the humility and the ability to take knowledge out of that experience. It’s about questioning and being brutally honest with yourself – knowledge, really, is the passport to happiness. To obtain knowledge you have to work hard; without hard work, without knowledge, you’ll be a prisoner of society. You’ll always have your critics, because there’s sections of society who are jealous, who can’t analyse and work out why you’ve got ahead and they haven’t. You have to ignore those people and keep on pushing forward.
What’s your opinion on the rise of vegetarianism and veganism?
Well I was a vegan for nine months of my life, so I can speak about being a vegan. It was an interesting journey – for the first three weeks, it didn’t impact on me in the slightest. Weeks 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, I became very weak, and there were times when I was quite faint and quite dizzy.
Was there a reason why you decided to do it for nine months?
I told you, I’ve never applied logic or strategy to why I do things! So I became terribly weak, and after that 6 week period, the first thing I noticed is that I’d lost a tremendous amount of weight. In that nine-month period I lost five stone in weight…I slept better, I had more energy….I didn’t do it as a diet, I just wanted to experience it. My sense of smell became more acute to bacon, coffee, bread. The visual manipulation of roast chicken was extraordinary…what was interesting was how the mind kept on trying to drag me back to being a meat eater. The body continuously craved meat. What I would also say, on reflection of that nine-month journey, is that I never felt fulfilled; I was always hungry.
I don’t think you’ll ever really understand what veganism is until you are a vegan, and how it impacts on you. It was an extraordinary journey, but for me personally I never felt fulfilled…like in everything in life, there’s got to be a balance. I’m glad I did it; for example, you’ve asked me now about veganism, and I wouldn’t be able to speak about veganism had I not been a vegan. You can’t speak about it until you see.
I think by being a vegan for nine months, which is substantial, and also with no carbs, no alcohol, no coffee – I can actually speak about the pros and cons of it. The main thing…is just never feeling fulfilled. I think eating enriches our lives, food enriches our lives, cooking enriches our lives – for me it’s all about enrichment of life, and I found it didn’t enrich my life. In the end what I turned to was a lot of pulses. Spices and pulses are really important, and then delicious salads. If I had to make a choice I would go vegetarian rather than vegan – I can eat cheeses, I can eat eggs. It’s very hard not to represent hypocrisy [when it comes to veganism].
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs?
Most aspiring chefs are dreamers, so what I would say is just be honest with yourself – do you really want to make the commitment that it takes to be a great cook? That’s it…you really have to believe in what you do, and that’s when it brings out the best in you. If you don’t believe in what you do, then you’re just going to represent mediocrity.
How important is it to you that your restaurants are accessible and affordable to the public?
I think what’s important in life is that everything is accessible. It’s like you see certain chefs criticising farming methods, saying you should buy organic, you should buy free range; well not everyone can afford free range or organic, not everyone is that privileged. If everything was organic, how much would a loaf of bread cost? So therefore what’s important to me is prevalence, because food is one of the most important aspects of our lives, if not the most important. Let’s make food affordable, whether it’s in the house or in a restaurant. I don’t get small portions…I don’t want canapes on a plate, I’m quite happy with just a main course. I’m eating to live, not eating to grow! It’s about quality of life, not about being patronised by gastronomy and making food too highbrow. When I used to cook we were very generous, because by being generous you create that sense of occasion.
What’s your favourite thing about Cardiff?
Wherever I travel in the world, if I think of the cities I like going to…what makes you want to return are the people. I’ve just come back from India, and I thought it was one of the most magical places I’ve ever been – there is poverty, and you may find it shocking, but everyone’s happy, and everyone eats really well. The smiles are larger within poverty than within great wealth, and there’s so much honesty. Jamaica’s my favourite island, and when you go to Jamaica…they’re naturally kind.
Some chefs are doing their own take on traditional dishes like the Jamaican staple of Jerk. What’s your take on that?
I like traditions. And I don’t like cricket, for example, but I went to a Jerk shack in Jamaica and if you have Jerk with a bottle of Red Stripe and watch cricket, that’s the way to eat Jerk. Why try and make it fussy? It’s not meant to be fussy…it’s not the same. They’ve been cooking Jerk for centuries; why change it? What I want is the earthiness, the realness of it, and that’s what food, for me, is all about. Wherever I go – whether it be India or Africa or the Caribbean – I just want to sit with the locals and eat what they eat. I want to enjoy their culture.