Marco Pierre White on his makeover of The Frogmill
I FEEL like I’ve been eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one sitting. Interviewing Marco Pierre White can do that to you.
Throughout our edgy encounter I feel as though I’m being fed just enough titbits of information to be fattened up for slaughter with the gastronomic giant my more than willing executioner should one question leave a bitter aftertaste.
It’s what I’d imagine interviewing fictional mafia gangster Don Corleone to be like – questions chewed up and spat back at me with a simmering undercurrent of contempt and mistrust.
Perhaps it’s fitting. Cult thriller The Godfather is said to be one of Marco’s favourite films and he has notched up more enemies with fellow chefs that you can shake a pack of Knorr stock pots at.
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I’ve been told that this is a good time to catch Marco. He’s being driven to The Frogmill Inn near Andoversford, just outside Cheltenham. The picture-perfect country hotel which dates back to the 17th century recently reopened its doors after an intensive ‘Marco makeover’ and the man himself is visiting as part of a Macmillan charity event.
I’ve barely been given 10 minutes’ notice for my impromptu interview, so it feels like I’m entering a beehive without so much as a pair of gloves.
“Stuck in traffic at the minute, ” Leeds-born Marco says as we exchange pleasantries before I hastily re-direct the conversation to his latest venture, sensing his irritation for small talk.
“The Frogmill is a very beautiful place in a very special part of England,” the 51-year-old says in an accent which betrays his working class northern upbringing.
“It was very tired and rundown and we spent 10 weeks renovating it. I just like to keep busy and I like to see places looking beautiful.”
It’s the sixth venue to come under his Wheeler’s Inn brand with Marco’s longstanding head chef Neil Thornley tasked with rustling up some of his trademark dishes.
Marco’s famous Governor steak and ale pie is among the dishes on the seasonal a la carte menu while a bar menu and afternoon tea are also on offer. Don’t expect anything too intricate and fancy here. Despite becoming the first and youngest ever British chef to be given three Michelin stars at the age of 33, Marco hung up his apron five years later to spend more time with his family.
These days when it comes to gastronomy you wouldn’t catch him anywhere near a splodge of foam.
“It is all about good quality ingredients,” he says and suddenly I feel like I’m listening to one of his commercials.
“I love one pot dishes, very simple food such as risotto (he adopts an accent that I suspect could be vaguely Italian), pasta, stews and roasts.
“What can be better than a piece of beautiful roast chicken or lamb?”
It’s this philosophy which may explain his latest cookbook, Marco Made Easy. Getting him to explain its contents – my feeble prep time didn’t allow me a flick through – is proving much more difficult.
After asking on two separate occasions about the book, the father-of-four merely recites the title back to me as though I was the one who had lost the plot. A third more carefully worded question yields a little more.
“It is about recipes that give things a sense of occasion. A lot of recipes in certain books are not suited for the domestic kitchen.”
For those of you who don’t read minds it’s a collection of more than 100 recipes with an emphasis on making the most of simple ingredients by adding jars, sauces and packets from your store cupboard.
Marco, who lives in West London but has friends in Slad, Birdlip, Northleach and Tetbury, has built up something of a gastronomic empire with his fingers in many commercial pies across the country.
In 2004 he acquired the Wheelers brand – a partnership with Sir Rocco Forte – and launched Wheeler’s of St James’ in London.
Soon he turned his focus to a collection of beautiful pubs and country inns in Wiltshire, Suffolk and Norfolk.
“I’m really interested in the history of gastronomy and Wheelers is one of the oldest fish brands in the world,” he says, talking so slowly you can almost hear the cogs of his mind whirring.
“Again, I just like keeping busy. I don’t like to take days off, I always feel guilty. I have done ever since I was a boy.”
When he does have time to relax he likes to go fishing. Not that he’s had chance recently having just returned from filming Australia and Poland’s versions of MasterChef: The Professionals.
Which, perhaps appropriately, leads me to his reputation as an extremely talented yet intimidating and volatile man.
His enemies in the culinary world are well charted. He’s vowed never to speak to Gordon Ramsay again and has had spats with the likes of Albert Roux, Michael Caine and Raymond Blanc.
Here’s a man who once threw out customers if they asked for salt and pepper, threw a board full of cheeses at a kitchen wall to humiliate a waiter for failing to prepare them properly and would make his cooks stand in the corner if they displeased him.
The acting profession had hellraiser Oliver Reed; the culinary circle has Marco.
“My reputation has been a product of the media, through exaggeration and ignorance which I’ve said many times before. If you look at my time on Hell’s Kitchen you’ll never see me swear.”
In that case could the same logic be applied for his protégé, Ramsay, I ask, knowingly stoking the embers of a fire which is sporadically lit.
“I think with Gordon what you see is what you get but let’s not forget what he has achieved which is something very few have achieved.”
And that, as they say, is that. Marco wishes me an enjoyable weekend and I wish him well in his latest venture.
Despite our exchange, he remains something of an enigma.
He’s a polite but difficult and at times frustrating interviewee who remains relatively tight-lipped and while his reputation may have been exaggerated, he still has the manner of a stern headmaster who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
A tagline on his cookbook states ‘for anyone who loves food but hates aggro’.
You can’t help but smile at the irony.