The Bigger Picture

The steaks are high

On a recent visit to his Belfast restaurant, Emma Deighan talks rags to riches with the Leeds council estate boy dubbed the first celebrity chef, Marco Pierre White

 

When Marco Pierre White, the man who brought the drama of a thriving kitchen into our living rooms, opened up shop at the Park Avenue Hotel in Belfast, he made a point.

His Marco Pierre White Steakhouse, which launched in the east Belfast hotel in 2015, set a precedent for others of his calibre to follow. And they have, namely Jean Christophe Novelli with his recently-opened restaurant at the new AC Marriott at City Quays.

And his Steakhouse Bar and Grill is doing well, he tells HRNI. To date, it has welcomed 50,000 people through its doors which seems like a pretty sound statistic for a restaurant two and a half miles from the city centre.

But it’s the backdrop and the location that have served it well, believes Marco.

“If you look at the number of residents in the area and convert that, it’s very high,” he says. “It’s the concept, it’s the environment that has done that.

“You can walk into a lot of these city centre restaurants and they’re dead so, for me, getting the environment right was important.”

Choosing the right spot which guarantees success is no challenge for a chef who has his name above 35 different UK restaurants.

Operating under five different brands, Marco’s chain of eating houses is scattered all over and, seemingly, they’re all doing well, just like his Belfast baby.

“Let’s be honest, there are very few hotels that have views of fantastic monuments like Samson and Goliath that talk of the past and an extraordinary history,” he says.

The move to Belfast was premeditated and not just about the scenic surrounds of the Park Avenue. NI’s booming tourism sector and influx of international visitors edged him closer to a Northern Ireland investment.

And he credits Paul Rankin for paving the way for such investments.

“The man who’s done more for restaurants in Northern Ireland than anyone is Paul Rankin,” he says.  “When you think of how dining out here has morphed, you think of him and how he taught the young. He nurtured talent and shared his knowledge and he’s done a fantastic job.

“I also have restaurants in Dublin and, when I look over the past 10 years, I’ve seen how the food scene has developed and evolved here and more and more people are dining out. And if you look at stats, more and more people are coming to Northern Ireland.

“I had an Indian family thank me for the food they had in Belfast. They’re coming from Asia to holiday in Belfast.”

The lack of similar competition in the area, and the close proximity to Belfast City Airport, were also advantage points for Marco, who was in Belfast to promote a menu change and sign his cookery books for fans.

He says the revised menu “is still about consistency”, using the same suppliers including Rodgers Meats in Gilnahirk, but it’s also about introducing seasonal dishes.

“I’m always thinking about how we can improve and refine things and this menu has things like prawns, asparagus and snails. We’re working with the seasons.”

It’s complimentary, if you consider it, that a chef of such global recognition has invested in the city and comes back annually to review the menu, operations and setup here.

Marco has been on the scene since the early 1980s, working his way around London from the late 1970s after upping and leaving his home town in West Yorkshire where he finished school before getting any qualifications.

At 33, he was the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars, accolades that he later gave back when he retired in 1999.

“I’d realised my goal when I retired in 1999,” he says. “If you climbed Everest, would you sit there?”

He references his success as ‘tall poppy syndrome’. “It’s lonely at the top. For me working towards three stars turned into 100-hour, six-day weeks. I was getting home at 1am and the children were sleeping.”

A father of three, Marco, while he may have retired from the Michelin race, is still very much ranked as the one at the top. And it’s a credit he accepts, being ‘the first celebrity chef’.

“It brings in the masses and I suppose they had to blame somebody but the truth is, I don’t even think about that,” he says. “I go to work, I do my job.”

What he does accept is that fame has brought him success, more than he could’ve ever imagined during his humble beginnings.

“I was born working class and I mean properly working class,” he says. “We worked hard and knew our profession and we took pride in what we did and worked hard to better ourselves, never to be famous.

“But I think if you end up choosing to walk onto that stage, then you choose to sit down and give interviews to journalists and it’s your duty to the public that if they want an autograph, you don’t begrudge that.

“You have to respect that someone chooses to dine in your restaurant, they’re someone who has worked hard to spend money in your restaurant and they are the individuals who buy your cookery books and contribute to family security.”

But it’s not all glorious. “It is a doubled-edged sword,” he says. “The one thing I’ve learned in my life is that privacy is freedom. I crave ordinary, not fame.”

But his fame is about to go primetime A-list, as he reveals a movie about his life is in the making.

Hollywood stars Russell Crowe and Michael Fassbender are set to play the chef in a movie inspired by his autobiography The Devil in the Kitchen.

“Ridley Scott approached me and bought the rights of my autobiography,” he says. “Russell Crowe will play the third Marco and Michael Fassbender has been announced as the middle Marco.”

Asked if he was flattered that the film director and producer of hits like Alien, American Gangster and Gladiator, chose his culinary life to portray on the big screen, he says: “I don’t know why he chose me, maybe he thought I was a bit more interesting than the others.”

And there are others out there. Colourful temperamental types like Gordon Ramsey, who coincidentally worked under Marco. Asked if there was any truth behind stories that he made Ramsey cry, he replies “he made himself cry”.

But back to Hollywood. Marco also revealed that he was called into a meeting with Harvey Weinstein and Bradley Cooper ahead of the movie Burnt – a story of a chef who tries to revive his once glorious career that was destroyed through a hedonistic lifestyle.

“Harvey Weinstein did Burnt and wanted me to groom Bradley Cooper, who I thought was perfectly nice when we met, but I had to decline because I agreed with Ridley Scott that we would work together.”

Marco wouldn’t confirm if his life was the original inspiration behind the 2015 movie Burnt. “When I sat down with Harvey, the director of the movie had three of my books on the table and it was obvious that they’d taken elements of my life but I didn’t see any of myself in the movie.”

It’s the ultimate form of flattery for someone in the public eye. Celebrity chefs with colourful personalities are plentiful on the small screen but none have made it to the big screen.

But then a man who’s not going to refuse to sign an autograph as a small act of thanks for “contributing to his family security” is hardly going to refuse the rights of his life for what could be a box office smash.

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