Marco Pierre White's essentials of French cooking

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Alana Landsberry

How does the true master chef like to roast his chicken and dress a salad? Marco Pierre White talks to Pat Nourse about French tradition and the enduring allure of hot food.

One of the ironies of Marco Pierre White's professional life is that, though he was once England's most vocal exponent of the power of French cooking, and although he fetishised the Le Guide Rouge perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, he had never actually been to France. But French cuisine was (and is) his passion, and he made his name cooking food that was a hybrid of French tradition (learned from Pierre Koffmann, Albert Roux and Raymond Blanc) and his own peculiar genius. His views on the way restaurants should be run, and on how food should be served are famously particular (the incident in which he threw the contents of a cheeseboard at a wall at Harvey's, his London three-star, has become the stuff of hospitality legend), so we thought this French issue was a fine occasion to catch him, between his MasterChef commitments and appearing at the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, for a chat about some of the essentials of French cooking.

How do you dress a salad?
A lot of the time I find salads overdressed. And I think as soon as you dress a salad, you've got to eat it immediately. That's why I never really put them on the menu when I used to cook full-time. Once you dress a salad, it might take three minutes to go out and by the time it's got to the table, the way you serve things in restaurants, it's started to die.

When I first started out in the restaurant trade, salads were always dressed in the room. So there was the maître d' or his assistant, and they had their glass bowl and they had their oil and their vinegar. They'd season it and then dress it. You see some people dress it and then season it. But that's wrong. Because once you dress it, you can't season it - the salt sticks wherever it lands. So they'd put the salt on it, then the oil, then the vinegar. Always the oil and then the vinegar.

I like my salads very, very, very lightly dressed.

I was taught as a young boy, at the Box Tree in Ilkley in West Yorkshire, which in '79 was one of only four restaurants in Britain to have two stars in Michelin.

The bosses said when you've finished eating the perfect dressed salad, you should see no dressing on the plate. If you overdress a salad, especially if you're dressing very delicate leaves such as mâche, it dies very quickly.

How do you roast a chicken?
Very simply. I never season a chicken I'm roasting on the outside - only on the inside, because I prefer to season it after cooking. I'll take it off the bone in quite big chunks rather than carve it. I'll chop a chicken into eight, so it retains its heat and retains its juice. And then, once the flesh is exposed, I'll season it. Because it's impossible, when you're seasoning a chicken on
the outside, for that seasoning to penetrate right inside. You've just seasoned the skin.

Phil Howard, one of your old cooks, tried cooking meat sous-vide alongside traditional butter-basted roasting at The Square, and didn't find it improved the taste or texture of the food. Why do you prefer conventional roasting?
Howard's an intelligent cook. Very intelligent. First off, you'll never get the caramelisation. And you'll never create the flavour. When you want to water-bath something, or sous-vide it, whatever you want to call it - I went to a restaurant here in Sydney that cooked its steak in a water bath and then rolled it in a pan. That's not a steak. I love a pan, I love a flame, I love a knife, and I love a large board. Everything's got to be an extension of you. Once you start making little foams (and they're tepid and the majority of the time tasteless), when too much emphasis goes into the presentation and starts to look like something other than what it looks like in real life, there's a problem. You roast a chicken perfectly, you make some juices with the gras and the caramelisation. You don't need much more - it's just as simple as that.

What did your protégés learn cooking with you?
I was always a classicist. I believe we live in a world of refinement, not invention. When I was a boy and you walked into a restaurant, you'd smell food. When it was put down in front of you, you'd feel the warmth on your face. Today, you go to top restaurants and the chefs have turned food into canapés. How do they retain heat? They're tepid at best. Once food starts to go cold it dies.

It's all so sterile now. It bores me. Give me two great courses, and I'll come back next week for another two. But I was also guilty of it when I was a young man. We're taught to cook and you get this opportunity maybe when you're 24 and you want to show off all your technical ability, but as your confidence and your ability grows, it becomes simpler, and it's all about eating. Just cook what you want to eat. I look at all these courses in these restaurants and think, is that what they really want to eat?

Catch Marco Pierre White at Margaret River Gourmet Escape, 20-22 November

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