The Uber Chef- Marco Pierre White in Conversation with William Grimes, former New York Times food critic, and Thomas Keller
November 4, 2007, 92nd St Y
Last year I went to hear Danny Meyer speak at my alma mater. He was promoting his book, Setting the Table, a tome more about hospitality than about his restaurants (Meyer owns the Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and Shake Shack, among others). I loved Danny’s book, loved him in person, and thus, loved his restaurants even more. From that moment I declared myself a Danny Meyer groupie, and vowed to patron all of his restaurants (I have yet to try Tabla--- though I’ve been to Bread Bar--- and Eleven Madison Park).
Months ago I had planned to attend “The Uber Chef” talk, mainly to encourage myself to read The Devil in the Kitchen. I knew who Thomas Keller was, but wasn’t at all familiar with Marco Pierre White. I did not know what to expect from his book--- I unfortunately do judge by the cover and I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy Devil--- White appeared on the cover in a black-and-white photo, toting a butcher’s knife and wearing a menacing glare. However, it was a quick read (200+ pages) which efficiently detailed Marco’s rise from his humble Leeds beginnings to legendary status as a master of French cuisine (though having never set foot in France). Throughout the book, he assumes a know-it-all tone, and reminds you on more than one occasion that he has earned this right. His three Michelin stars (he is the youngest British chef ever to receive the honor) is proof of his expertise and his passion for, and obsession with, for cooking. The book ends with his revelation that being the perfect three-star Michelin chef isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, never having had the time to get to know himself outside of the kitchen. That epiphany led him to phone the Michelin guide to return his stars (pretty bold maneuver, in my opinion).
As the three panelists walked onto the stage, there was not a single doubt whom White was. He towered over the others in his large trench coat and, as my companion accurately pointed out, bore a striking resemblance to Sweeney Todd. He made Bill Grimes, with all this vast knowledge of restaurants (from the critic’s perspective, not the cook’s, as White would kindly remind us) look sinewy and meek. As each flawed response (at least, in his personal opinion) Grimes gave tumbled out, Marco quietly stared. The affable Thomas Keller, seated opposite White, established another interesting juxtaposition. Keller actually faced the audience while giving responses, while Marco focused on some distant plane and sighed heavily into the mic when not speaking. As the discussion progressed, the audience began to anticipate White’s snarky comments, and plain laughed out loud when delivered them.
Despite his unapologetic bluntness, White made some very interesting points about pursuing a cheffing career, and life career in general. When asked what it takes to become a good chef, White said the following 3 qualities were necessary:
-Accept that Mother Nature is the artist
-Everything you do should be an extension of yourself
-What you do should provide insight into the world you came from
This was some pretty sound advice from someone who appeared slightly crazy. For all his curt answers and standoffish mannerism, my friend and I had to admit that the talk would have been lacking without Marco Pierre White’s daring personality.
Next up on my 92nd St Y Food Talk list will be Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) in January 2008, discussing how to make healthy & delicious eating choices while limiting impact on the environment. Buy tickets at www.92ndsty.org
The Devil in the Kitchen
by Marco Pierre White on amazon.com