“Mind if I smoke?”

I want to say yes, but I shake my head instead. “You’re very kind, thank you,” he replies and puffs away. “So what do we have here?” I hold my breath, a little terrified. Little did I know I’d be sitting right here at the Intercontinental, breathing in secondhand smoke from Marco Pierre White’s cigarette. He comes to Singapore quite often, but today, he is here as an ambassador for a Masterchef Dining and Bar pop-up.  

Perhaps you didn’t already know. White, 55, with his semi-barbaric mane and all, is one of the best chefs in the world. He is nothing short of a culinary genius, and not just in his native Britain. Certainly, he is also infamous for his three tumultuous marriages, his explosive temper and never hesitating to eject unpleasant patrons. Which includes BBC’s Louise Minchin, whose famous words were: “As if you didn’t have an ego. I know your ex-wife. I know all about you.” So out she went, along with her husband and two friends.

Inevitably, when you are as famous as White, there will be detractors and people who will thrive on your shortcomings. To become the youngest Brit ever to land three Michelin stars was a big deal. It still is for a country that began with a cuisine that’s quite monumentally rubbish. 

Regarded as Britain’s craziest and most talented cook, the half-Italian has groomed talents like Mario Batali, Heston Blumenthal as well as Gordon Ramsay, his protégé who is now an arch enemy. (Out of petty revenge, Ramsay brought a television crew to White’s wedding without his knowledge.)

It wasn’t pure luck that White became Marco Pierre White. He fought his way up from a poor, working class family to the top of his profession because he knew what he wanted. He did so with a frightening amount of passion, only to retire from the stove and return his stars, which he assumed weren’t all that important in the end.

It is interesting that you didn’t become a chef because you wanted to.

In the world I was born into, you tend to follow your father’s footsteps. Had my father been a miner, I’d have gone down the mine. It wasn’t my choice, but I was lucky that I found myself in a trade with which I fell in love. It gave me opportunities to see what I’ve seen in this world. 

So it wasn’t so much of luck?

Yes, but let’s not forget. Success is born out of luck too. Luck is being given the opportunity. It’s the awareness of mind that takes advantage of opporunity. Without that, you can’t realise your dreams. Think about that.  

Do you ever look back?

I look back every day. I don’t look forward. All the answers to your future are in your past. A tree without roots is a piece of wood. That’s what my mother used to say. Never forget where you came from. Don’t become seduced by materialism and position. When you have the ability to look someone in the eye and be honest, that is power. 

Your mother left you when you were six?

Oh, she died. She didn’t leave me.

I’m sorry.

That’s all right. I’m very happy talking about her. By doing so, I keep her alive. Without her death, I’d never have the insecurities that I do have. Without those insecurities, I wouldn’t have the fuel to push myself forward. It was that drive, fuelled by insecurities that realised my dreams.

People seem to have mixed ideas about you.

Most of my reputation is a product of exaggeration and ignorance. If I was this boy they say I am, how did I win three stars? How could I be this party animal when I was in my kitchen six, seven days a week? I’m an introvert, and so I hid in the kitchen, only to let my fingers and palate do the talking. When I retired, I was socially inept. I’d been institutionalised by the world I was born into. And so I hid from that for five to six years.

The world can be an unforgiving place.

I’m not here to judge. It’s not where I want to be. If I do another interview, it doesn’t make me more famous. I’m paid to do interviews, otherwise I wouldn’t do it at all. For me, cooking was a love affair. I never did it for money, unless it is to feed my children.

Why did you retire, though?

At the time, I felt I had three options:
1) To continue what I do, working ungodly hours and hardly seeing my children. Sitting at the top of the tree can be lonely. 2) To live a lie, wear a chef’s jacket and pretend to cook. 3) To return my stars. I was being judged by people with less knowledge than I. So what are three stars worth? Zero. Those stars were little stepping stones to where I wanted to be as a person – to inspire young men and women all over.

If you have a dream, work for it. No one else will help you. We live in a world of refinement and not invention. People can think they can invent a fantasist. They are lunatics. You can’t reinvent the wheel. You can refine it, but you can’t reinvent it. 

One last thing, the story is more important than the recipe. The recipe can confuse you, but the story can inspire you. That’s what you need to know.

This story was published in the January 2017 issue

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