Marco Pierre White
He may have retreated part-time to the country, but Marco Pierre White is still naughty. "I'm very naughty", he admits with a look that suggests his verdict is an incredibly attractive predicament. By Jane Pruden.
The Marlboro Reds that he still smokes (despite the challenges of a smoking ban), his ever-changing obsessions and an overwhelming sense that he's having fun seem as prevalent as ever. These days however, he's more likely to be seen with a Browning over-under or a fishing rod than his armoury of kitchen knives that he once used to slash the trousers of a chef who dared to complain.
Born and brought up on a Leeds council estate, neighbouring the Harewood Estate, provided plenty of opportunity to learn the fundamental skills of shooting and fishing. Two older brothers introduced him to the art of poaching. One technique, amongst others, was basic; chuck a log at a roosting pheasant and rugby tackle it as it makes a run for it. It was fun but also a necessary diversion from the indelible effects of tragedy and hardship at home. When he was six, his mother died of a brain haemorrhage 12 days after giving birth to Marco's younger brother and six years after that his father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His Dad, a chef and son of a chef, lived for another 25 years, but even at such a tender age Marco discovered hard graft was essential not only to make a financial contribution to the household but because he preferred to be busy.
Catching his first fish, a trout, when he was eight introduced him to another form of escapism and another opportunity to develop his love of the countryside. Fishing has been a passion ever since. "I go tench fishing before dawn in the summer. I like fly-fishing and I take my young teenage boys pike and mackerel fishing. Catching a pike is very exciting for a boy. You could catch a three-pounder or it could be 30lb."
The only no-go fishing areas for the White family are where rivers are dependant on heavy stocking programmes. "The Test used to have a lot of salmon and, although they released stocked fish, their programme was constructive and sympathetic to the environment's natural cycle. Salmon were put in a tank, taken upstream and put in a bigger tank until January when they were anaesthetised; stripped of milt and spawn with the resulting smolts being released further down the river. But the Environment Agency put a stop to it because they said it wasn't natural. How can that be right when they put big brownies and rainbows in the Test? I just don't agree with it. I have a problem with 5lb and 6lb rainbow trout being put into the Test and into the Kennet as they are totally unnatural when we should be encouraging wild fish back. I would rather catch a 10oz wild brownie on a fly than a 5lb stocked fish.
"I started salmon fishing on the Test and on the Hampshire Avon and there is something rather nice about fishing chalk streams for a salmon. You've got to be quite combative, quite versatile, you've got to be prepared to paternoster a Devon Minnow or float fish a shrimp through a gravel bar. I used to catch up to 50 fish a year which is a lot on an English river. The head keeper of the Broadlands Estate and I caught 30 fish between us one day, extraordinary isn't it?"
His heart is in the country and he admits to not liking London very much, despite still owning a string of fine restaurants and a home there. Social gatherings are not his cup of tea either. He doesn't even attend weddings. He would far rather be picking wild mushrooms in the woods around Highclere or looking through books of pictures or adding to his extensive art collections than partying.
He is a self-confessed obsessive and one of his focuses at the moment is stalking roe deer. It also fits in well with his work commitments. Because he was always in a kitchen he never learnt to drive so Mr Ishii, his personal assistant, drives him to various friends' private estates in the Home Counties. "I can go stalking early on a summer's morning and still do a day's work when I get back or I can go in the evening and not lose any unnecessary time. But I have a love affair with roe deer, they are the prettiest; they are the fairies of the wood aren't they? And to protect them they have to be culled and managed.
"I used to shoot pheasants and partridges 85 days a season in Devon but I was basically living there and then it became a job and it wasn't nice. I don't need to go and kill anymore. I had a double gun for 500 bird days but I can't justify shooting that much in my own mind. If I go with some mates now, I'll shoot the high birds only. I like to watch my friends shoot, and watch the dogs work."
Much of the game he shoots finishes up on the plates of diners in The Yew Tree Inn, the 17th century pub with low ceilings that he bought near Highclere, in Hampshire, three years ago. After an unrivalled cooking career spanning twenty years that included working with Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffman, Albert Roux and Raymond Blanc, culminating with three Michelin stars of his own at the age of 33, the pub is a complete contrast to the rigours and at times overrated expectations of the Michelin inspectors. "I just want to feed people; I'm in the country and I like to sit down and have my shepherd's pie, fish and chips with peas or a smoked mackerel, but smoked on the bone which you don't get anywhere else."
The food is honest and surprisingly affordable but there is also no mistaking the force of greater culinary influences. Croustade of quail eggs Maintenon, an egg and pastry dish finished with a light hollandaise sauce is attributed to Michel Bourdin, chef at The Connaught for 26 years. Herrings a la Baltique, another favourite of Marco's, is a delicious fresh delivery of herring finished with a salad of beetroot. Marco is adamant though, "We are an eating and drinking house," he says "and I like a good pint of either draft beer or cider."
It has a clubby atmosphere with leather benches, crisp white table cloths, heavy cutlery, roaring fires and huge framed cartoons depicting the chequered aspects of Marco's career. It's a fun place to be, the food is definitely more than your average local and the menu, including one from the oyster bar, resembles more than a hangover from a Michelin starred restaurant. The beauty of it being that you can eat well for £10 with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for £14.75 or go the full hog feasting on several of the beautifully crafted dishes and wash it down with a £200 bottle of Chateau Lynch Bages. Six individually decorated bedrooms all jam-packed with beautiful artworks from photographers, sculptors and cartoonists and furnished with very comfortable beds, have all been decorated under Marco's supervision and will be ready for 1st September for the shooting season.
It is from The Yew Tree that filming started for his new series to be shown in September for ITV 1. It is yet to have a title but it will be about living in the countryside. It will cover shooting, fishing, visiting specialist food producers, endorsing all the rural traditions and valuing our heritage and of course cooking. It is not a contentious programme. "I'm not there to defend the rights and wrongs of bloodsports but I do think the countryside in many ways should be left alone because when politicians who have no understanding of what goes on in the countryside start to dictate, then there is a problem."
Filming for the next series of ITV's Hell's Kitchen will follow on from the new programme ensuring that life will be as busy as ever. Having recently sold his Quo Vadis, Mirabelle and Drones restaurants in London, more time will be given to developing his European chain of the child-friendly Frankie's restaurants that he owns with champion jockey Frankie Dettori, and other business interests.
There is a sense that if his temper was stretched something could still get broken but Marco Pierre White is a happy and contented man; the countryside definitely seems to suit him. He could even be tempted to live outside London and there is little doubt that his country pub is a new obsession with greater potential. The grieving child who threw himself into work in his teens to achieve his three stars and the respect of his industry is grounded and still proud to be a Yorkshire man. His genius at times may be questioned, but his straight talking and passion are as undeniable as ever.