When Martha Met Marco
Martha Stewart is in big trouble for daring to disrespect the food bloggers. Brave woman — but then she does have a fearsome reputation. It reminded me of the time I spent at her side in New York.
I was in America profiling the real master chef, Marco Pierre White. We were feeling the worse for wear after a night on the sambuca – ‘the house cocktail’, as White called it. The aniseed spirit is lit, extinguished (with the palm of the hand) and shot – in one. Sure, it’s against New York fire regulations, and everything that is good and decent. But burns don’t appear to bother Marco Pierre White. So we ended up in a Manhattan park, eating the most sublime burgers and hot dogs we’d ever tasted — it was the day I decided to try and kickstart the street food revolution in Britain. Anyway…
White was in Manhattan promoting The Devil In The Kitchen – the American edition of his autobiography. His publicists at Bloomsbury were selling him as the original rock-star chef. The one who made Gordon Ramsay cry – who would string up his kitchen juniors by their aprons before dumping them in the dustbin. He was about to do a live cooking demo on The Martha Stewart Show. If he could keep the hot dogs down long enough.
Somehow, he still managed to look handsome – despite a grey demeanour and a tangle of greasy hair. He hadn’t spent any time at the mirror, but it wouldn’t have hurt – The Martha Stewart Show is, after all, the American standard for gracious domestic living. White’s turbot with citrus and cilantro would sit alongside a leaf-covered candleholder how-to, and a tip on using old navigational charts as gift wrap.
In the taxi to the studio, White was quiet. Because, even though he was the youngest chef ever to win three Michelin stars, he gave them back. And that was 1999. He hasn’t cooked since – not even at home. Like he says, where’s the adrenalin fix in cooking a family dinner for five? The Martha Stewart Show was to be his first ever cooking demo. And then he was flying home to present Hell’s Kitchen – the show that transforms celebrities into adrenaline-fuelled line cooks. It was the day White turned into a tv chef.
The staff at the Martha Stewart prep kitchen, on West 26th Street, were thrilled to be cooking with one of the world’s great chefs. But White specified a 10lb turbot – the turbot he finds on his board is 5lb. “Well, we’re down in the first, aren’t we…”, he says, quietly. White loves a boxing metaphor. “Sorry chef” says the commis responsible. White doesn’t like to be called ‘chef’ – you’re only a ‘chef’ when you’re running a kitchen, and White doen’t run a kitchen any more. This is not going well.
In White Heat, his manifesto on food, White wrote “Without fear, no discipline”. But he doesn’t create fear by shouting. Not any more. Not since he cut up a chef’s whites while he was still wearing them. And not since he poured a tureen of soup down a chef’s pants – followed (even in full temper, White liked to do things properly) by the croutons. Because the staff in the Martha Stewart kitchen have heard the stories, White doesn’t shout. He doesn’t need to.
He used to raise his voice – but now now raises his eyebrows instead. And he’s got a lot to raise his eyebrows about. The oranges are too fucking big, the fennel is too fucking old, and the knife is too fucking sharp. However, after some frantic ringing round, the commis has managed to lay his hands on a 25lb fish. “Too fucking big” says White, without looking up. “And are these the only pans you’ve got? They’re fine, but fucking really?”
After 30 minutes of quiet, interrupted by the odd, barked instruction, White’s shoulders drop. He is ready, and has thought of a reference he’s going to make to Martha Stewart’s jail term for insider trading. He’ll use a pinch of sel de cuisine (French for kitchen salt). “Get it – cell de cuisine!” One of the sous-chefs tells how apparently Martha had to give a urine sample in jail – and tested positive for nutmeg. They laugh. For the first time since White arrived, they really laugh.
Martha Stewart is known for being selfish with the camera. She has a knack of bringing everything – even candleholder how-to’s – back to her. But White handles her well, and speaks when he’s spoken to. And as he tells his cheese story (“I picked up the first cheese…‘Not right!’ With all my might I threw it against the wall. It stuck to the tiles…” etc), he tips his pan forward, allowing the camera to pick up the way he turns his potatoes. He’s a natural.
The floor manager holds up a big number one. “I’m not sure if I’ve got one minute left, or if they’re marking me one out of ten” laughs White. It feels very warm and natural. In the world of the tv chef, it’s what makes White different. Cooking on tv is all about making the food look pretty – and White’s food looks as pretty as a picture. But, if White is about anything, he’s about taste. And if God made anything tastier than the turbot with citrus and cilantro, he’s keeping it to himself.