Following his latest restaurant opening, Marco Pierre White Grill at Conrad Dubai, Penelope Walsh untangles tangents and teasers at a meeting with the British chef extraordinaire during his recent visit to the emirate.
MPW: the only chef for whom initials alone are enough for recognition; the first ‘celebrity chef’ from a time before the world knew what that meant; and now at the age of 52, ever remembered as the youngest chef (at the time) to be awarded three Michelin stars, aged 33. Since his own precocious salad days, the man has spawned, not just that very famous protégé, but has also (however indirectly) been responsible for generations of home-grown kitchen talent in the UK. Think of it like a butterfly effect on the British restaurant industry, had the butterfly had the wingspan of an owl. So then how do you dissect such an iconic character with respect?
In our celebrity-obsessed times, the spotlight can make and break a character, and Marco Pierre White’s private life has provoked as much interest and column inches as his food had in the days when he stood behind his stove. In Dubai, for better or worse, you’ll barely meet a chef without an opinion on Marco. You’ll have heard stories, we’re sure. So we carried conflicting expectations when we got to meet the man in person and at his newest Dubai restaurant, Marco Pierre White Grill located in the Conrad Dubai.
First came the anecdotal tangents, utterly engaging, but abundant and a diversion tactic finely tuned into an art, as Marco later admits with a grin. Yes, there’s a glimmer of steely-eyed irritation if he’s interrupted. This aside, from the chef that once reputedly ripped the whites off the back of a junior with a knife because he literally couldn’t stand the heat of the kitchen, comes nothing but charm and vintage etiquette. While the subject of food flows through Marco’s conversation, the biggest surprise on meeting the man is his reticence to talk about his Dubai restaurants and their cuisine. We tender another invitation, this time to regale us with the concept of his latest opening at the Conrad Dubai, but the question is politely declined.
At this point, the restaurant’s coffee grinder pipes up instead, and with obvious irritation, Marco halts and says: ‘Shall we wait until that noise has stopped? I hate coffee machines in restaurants, I prefer them out the back. This isn’t a coffee shop. It’s my pet hate. They are always grinding. Or else you hear the milk frothing in the background.’ Cue the sounds of milk frothing. We laugh, but surely we venture he can insist that the coffee machine goes where he wants it to go? ‘It’s not about that,’ he says. ‘If there were people in here and the piano was playing, you wouldn’t even notice it. I happen to notice it now.’
We take another stab at asking him about Marco Pierre White Grill. ‘Lots of restaurants open and I always think they take time to mature. No restaurant is ever right from day one. It just never happens. There’s always teething problems. There’s always mistakes. Something may look fantastic on a drawing board. How many times have you seen a photo of a restaurant in a magazine and you think it looks good. But when you get there, it hasn’t got that feel. This is something you begin to develop afterwards, as you realise the lighting is not quite right or you have to re-arrange furniture. It takes time.’
Having opened in September 2013, we wonder if Marco feels the restaurant in the Conrad Dubai has developed that ‘feel’ yet. ‘No, it’s down to the personnel. It will mature over time. It’s like going and buying a brie, and taking a slice of it straight away. Out of the fridge.’
With quite a hefty list of restaurants to his name already, we wonder why Marco continues to be drawn to opening in the UAE.
‘I like Dubai. It creates opportunities for a lot of people. A lot of younger people. When I was young, I was given opportunity, I was guided. In later life, I think you have a duty to give all that back.’ So Marco is drawn to Dubai, to facilitate an opportunity? ‘No. It’s a reality. I’m a speck.’
As far as the wider Dubai dining scene is concerned, Marco comments that it is ‘maturing’. It is certainly growing too, and with Dubai restaurateur Markus Thesleff quoted earlier this year commenting that Dubai’s fine dining market is over-saturated, we ask for Marco’s take on things. ‘You’ve got to look at individual models, haven’t you? The thing is longevity. In London for example, a lot of restaurants close like that. They become flavour of the month, then they drop. I’ve survived for 30 years. I’ve survived through my integrity. I’ve seen Michelin star chefs come and go. You have to believe in what you do. It is about maintaining a standard, and being consistent as well. We all make mistakes in life, it is about rectifying and dealing with them.’
Has he drawn any lessons from his restaurants in Dubai? ‘Of course. The most important of any restaurant is the position of the site. If it is in the wrong place, the crowd might go there once, they might go there twice. In the end, it’s off pitch. Restaurants that do well, always have great locations. It’s easy to make mistakes, once you step out of your comfort zone. Restaurants that tend to be off pitch, tend to drift.’
Which brings us neatly to the elephant in the room. Is this what happened to his restaurant Titanic? (Formerly in the Melia Dubai and now closed). ‘It was on the wrong side of town. And not every permutation works,’ Marco responds. Was it something you had a deciding factor over or was it out of your hands? ‘No, because it was a franchise. So I wasn’t involved like I am with other venues.’ Is the Marco Pierre White Grill a franchise? ‘It’s a franchise from [hotel and restaurant development buisiness] RMAL here, yes. Most places here are franchises. It’s the reality.’
Again, we try to learn more about the menu at Marco Pierre White Grill: ‘I’ve been to Wheeler’s today,’ he says, with a trademark redirection of the conversation. ‘That has changed enormously. I have to respect them, because they know this market better than I know it. They are here seven days a week, I’m not here seven days a week. What’s important to me is that things are at a standard, at a price point that represents value.’
How much involvement do you have in the development of the recipes on the menu? ‘Well this is why I’m here at this period in time now. Because things stray and things drip, and staff change, but you’ve got to bring them back in line. When chefs leave, the food goes up, or it goes down, it never stays the same.
‘What’s important is the food is the same consistency, because you are paying the same price each time you go there.’
‘There will be changes,’ MPW suddenly announces. He has thrown it out into the ether, and just as quickly it seems it is gone as the announcement is quickly followed by a discussion of Dubai’s ‘mesmerising’ qualities, the beauty of the Burj Khalifa and praise for the work ethic of the emirates. We ask about the cooking style on the menus, and Marco redirects us geographically to the delicious sounding menu of his old-school inn in Ludlow in the UK. But here, finally is the heart of Marco’s own cooking philosophy, and tellingly, it is the first time in our conversation that he will satisfy our desire to hear more about his food: ‘It’s very straightforward. You will have the most delicious fish pie, you will have a roast partridge with vegetables. It will be very down to earth. I don’t like fluff.’
So how does that simplicity translate to the menus in Dubai? ‘I’m here for seven days, and there will be changes.’ Marco responds. ‘There will be changes, because I think change is good.’ And at this point, despite our attempts to coax any more out of him, Marco’s lips close. ‘All in good time, you will see. I will reveal all next time we meet,’ he says. Marco Pierre White Grill, Conrad Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 444 7111). Wheeler’s of St James, DIFC (04 386 0899).