Marco Pierre White in Abu Dhabi

Chef-turned restaurateur on food, fame and UAE business Discuss this article

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Sitting at our desk in an empty office on a Friday morning, and staring at the phone, isn’t something we usually do on our weekends. But today’s the exception. We’re about to interview Marco Pierre White. And since it’s the first time we’ve spoken to him, there’s a degree of apprehension. After all, this firebrand chef has been presented in the media as a man who’s as temperamental as he is talented. The last thing we want to do is irk him and risk cutting our conversation prematurely short.

It turns out that Marco is a man who does most of the talking; a man so self assured that asking him questions is an almost pointless pursuit – he’ll steer the conversation any which way he wants. However, there is one question he can’t escape from, the question on everybody’s lips at the moment – why is he coming back to the UAE?

Marco Pierre first made his mark here with the launch of his award winning steak house and grill at Abu Dhabi’s Fairmont Bab Al-Bahr in 2009. And now he’s opening two more restaurants in Dubai – Wheeler’s in DIFC and Titanic in the new Meliá Hotel in Bur Dubai.

So why the UAE again, and why now? It’s a double-barrelled question, to which Marco gives a double-barrelled reply. ‘I don’t go global,’ he says, sharply. ‘I’ve chosen the emirates as a place where I want to open. I’ve turned down many places – Australia and South Africa, for example. I can open more than one restaurant in the emirates because I have very good partners [here] – partners I trust. It’s just impossible to maintain the quality [if I had] restaurants in Canada, America or Australia. Therefore I’ve identified the Middle East – Abu Dhabi and Dubai – as being a good place to open and to operate. The thing about the UAE is that it has [high] standards like very few places in the world. You go to a hotel in here, you’re always well looked after, you’ll always have a good meal, there’s always lots of staff – you can’t say that about many places in the world.’

It’s a nice complement for our restaurant scene, which has certainly come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, though we wonder what Marco would have made of some of the lesser-known, less polished venues in which we’ve eaten recently. But we don’t mention these to him. Instead, we ask which restaurants in particular he’s referring to, so glowingly in his assessment of the UAE as a great dining destination.

‘I’ll be honest: I only ever go to my own restaurants,’ he says. ‘It’s the same in England – I’m only interested in my restaurants, not what other people do. That’s not arrogance – actually, I think it’s being sensible. I’m in my own restaurants, endorsing my own products. To be sat in somebody else’s restaurant is the logic of a madhouse. Can you imagine? You’re in Abu Dhabi, you walk into a restaurant that I’m not associated with and you see me sitting there, then you walk into my restaurant and I’m not sitting there. You’ll think: “Hang on a minute, he’s in that restaurant, but not his own restaurant – that’s not cool.”’
He’s got a point, but it begs the question: how on earth is he so positive about UAE restaurants if he hasn’t actually eaten in any of them? But you don’t waste time trying to be smart with a man like Marco, so we let him continue with what’s turning out to be quite an ode to the UAE.

‘The importance that’s placed on food and restaurants and hotels in the UAE is extraordinary. You don’t see that anywhere else in the world,’ he muses. ‘The talent that Dubai and Abu Dhabi has attracted is enormous – the number of talented people who have left London and other cities to work here is amazing. I mean, it’s a place filled with talent.’

We can’t argue with that: the UAE’s top kitchens are filled with chefs who have trained under some of the biggest, most revered names in the industry, and have been hand-picked by their mentors to run these special ventures. At the Fairmont’s Marco Pierre White steak house and grill, Chef de Cuisine Jeffery Brothers has taken the gauntlet. In Dubai Marco will be placing his faith in Burgundy-born chef Frederic Kulczak, whom he says has the rare gift of being a great cook as well as great chef.

‘[This is] one thing you have to look for in a chef – someone who can deliver consistency day in, day out. There are lots of chefs in this world who can cook, they’re great cooks, but they can only do one dish at a time – there are very few who can do a service. There are one or two rare individuals who can do both – they can cook and they can retain consistency. A lot of restaurants you go to, if you go in early you get a good meal, but a lot of restaurants start to fray after 9pm. It’s about finding staff that can retain consistency throughout the whole of the service.’

The conversation inevitably comes around to the name of his new Dubai restaurant, Titanic, which we point out is rather ominous. The name derives from Titanic in London’s Regent Palace Hotel, Marco’s 1990s hotspot that he parted company with in 2002, before it closed with the hotel in 2006.

But why the name Titanic? ‘I’ve always been fascinated by the Titanic and those giant cruise liners – it’s just one of my fascinations. In [London’s]Grosvenor Square, every day on my way to work I pass the building where they signed the deal to build Titanic. And, by pure coincidence, Titanic [in Dubai] is opening in the same year and same month that [the original] Titanic left Southampton harbour for it’s journey – April ’12. It’s extraordinary, really. It’s not planned – it’s just by chance. And it’s a great word, “Titanic”, a great word. They were going to build a second ship called the Gigantic, but because of the Titanic’s misfortune, they never built it.’

Marco is a man of many layers, and if we learn anything from this quick lesson in nautical history (other than facts about boats), it’s that he’s as sharp-minded and quick-witted as he is eccentric.

We try to regain control of the bridge and steer us back on course to talk about what Marco is best known for: his food. ‘It’s very, very, very straightforward,’ he assures us when we ask what we can expect to find in Titanic’s kitchen. ‘It’s not trying to be the emperor’s new clothes. Often when you go to restaurants, [the food] sounds very nice on the menu, but you get small portions that aren’t representative of what you’ve ordered. I’m a great believer that whatever you order, you should get on your plate.’

It’s this simple philosophy that made Marco Britain’s most successful and most celebrated chef. Considering his long list of accolades, including becoming the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars (a record since broken by Italian Massimiliano Alajmo, who won three stars at the age of 28 in 2002), it’s easy to forget that Marco has not donned chef’s whites since he retired in 1999.

Is there anything he misses about those heated, heady days in the kitchen? His answers are typically curt and self assured. ‘Nothing, to be honest. I’ve achieved everything I set out to achieve.’ Coming from anyone else this could be dismissed as arrogance, but Marco really has scaled culinary summits that most other chefs can only dream of.

After we’ve spent 30 minutes talking about everything and nothing – quite a surprise considering the gruff tone that initially greeted us on the other end of the phone line, our conversation winds to a close. ‘When I’m in town, I’ll show you around,’ he says to us before signing off. The gesture affirms our suspicions that Marco Pierre White is in fact a consummate gentleman, who has succeeded simply because of his passionate and aggressive pursuit of his boyhood dreams.
At the time of going to press, Titanic is scheduled to open in early May, with Marco Pierre White’s visit to the UAE coinciding with the launch. Titanic, Meliá Dubai, Bur Dubai, (04 386 8111). Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill, open daily 7pm-midnight. Faimont Bab Al Bahr, (02 654 3333).

By Oliver Robinson
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

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