Wednesday night at 8 PM EST NBC will enter the culinary reality TV universe with an Americanized version of the hit Australian series The Chopping Block. At the helm is celebrity superchef Marco Pierre White, a man known in his home country of England for having an unpredictable temper, once even bringing notorious back breaker Gordon Ramsay to tears. In America, though, White may just disprove that nasty reputation once and for all.
So why do we need another kitchen show? Isn’t there enough violence in prime time? According to White, the first British chef to be awarded 3 highly coveted Michelin Stars, it’s “time to give something back.” In fact, in 1999, that’s just what he did when he retired from the kitchen and sent his stars back to Michelin. Before that he spent more than 20 years slaving away over a hot stove, building his soaring reputation, working 100 hour weeks establishing his packed restaurants and mentoring future culinary greats like Ramsay and Mario Batali.
But the day he realized that he knew far more about his industry than the patrons he was forced to endlessly impress, he hung up his apron and dedicated himself to teaching those lesser mortals who dared to dream that they too could one day open their own restaurant.
And it just so happens that the grand prize in this latest series is just that. That’s why 8 couples are pitting themselves against each other, and the toughest food critics in New York to achieve a lifelong dream. Overcoming the hurdles every new restaurateur faces (theme, menu, publicity, and most importantly… buzz) the 16 contestants will have to prove they’ve got the right stuff to succeed in the center of the culinary universe.
In an interview with Fancast last week, the 47-year-old discussed how he plans to set himself apart yet again in an evermore crowded field, and how he promises to do it without all the hysterics.
Chef Marco, what’s different about your version of The Chopping Block and why do we need another kitchen show on TV?
Well, firstly I only do TV if it’s going to be inspirational, educational and interesting. If it’s not those three things, then it’s not worth doing. What I try to do as best I can, is make it interesting, for the contestant and the viewer. And what is important about doing reality TV is to put as much reality into TV as possible. Not trying to turn it into a circus.
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What are your feelings about American cuisine?
I think firstly, American’s craving for knowledge about food, about gastronomy is extraordinary. We know they’re good eaters, and that explains why they have several great restaurants.
That’s an interesting take. I mean, it’s not difficult to be a good eater is it?
Well, let’s be honest. When you have restaurants which serve great food, it encourages you to eat, doesn’t it? When I’m in New York I go to Katz for my pastrami. Delicious. I go to Babbo, I go to Del Posto. The diversity of restaurants in New York is extraordinary and I regard New York as the dining capital of the world.
The style of the more popular American cooking shows seems to be conflict and contention. What’s the point of losing your temper in the kitchen?
The only reason a person loses their temper is because they’ve lost control. If you watch me do Hell’s Kitchen in the UK, I never lose my temper. I never swear, I never put people down. Because my job as the chef is to absorb the pressure and to distribute it through the kitchen. And the reason why I stepped back on to the stage is because I don’t like the way certain people portray my industry to the public.
I want to give a true insight into what the world is really like. Because the world of restaurants and hotels is without a doubt the last bastion. It is the French Foreign Legion. They don’t ask too many questions and they give everybody a chance. You don’t need too many qualifications. Keep your head down, be respectful, do your job. I’ve employed 50 people like that in my time.
And so it becomes a metaphor for life itself.
That’s right. And I was condemned many times in my life as being controversial. If you look back, I wasn’t controversial. I was just a boy fighting for what he believed in. Trying to turn a second class profession into a profession for the meritocracy. For everybody. To open those doors.
So this may be the Magna Carta of cooking shows.
I don’t know about that, I just know I hated being typed as a second class citizen.
The controversy raging now in reality television is over whether or not it’s scripted…
Originality is only original if you’re the first. Remember, I’m a boy who realized his dream many years ago. So therefore, I have nothing left to lose. My job today is to inspire individuals. To educate them. To make them want to live their dream.
I remember a very young Mario Batali working behind the bar, and I took him from behind that bar and put an apron on him and put him in the kitchen.
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He had no experience in the kitchen before that?
None. I shared my dream with that man. And today Mario Batali is, without question, the gastronomic king of America. And what he has done for dining out in America, or dining at home, in my opinion, is more than any individual in America.
Will we see Mario Batali on The Chopping Block?
Yes. He is on my show
Your reputation precedes you. In the past you have been known for a hot temper. But in the few moments I have been speaking with you so far, you seem to have mellowed. Which side will we be seeing in the show?
Firstly, most of my reputation is a product of exaggeration and ignorance. Secondly, we know how the media can take the smallest of storms and turn it into a tornado. But I was never contrived in anything I ever did. I never did anything for shock value.
I was ruled by my emotions and by a dream. I’m a great believer that you have to fight for what you believe in. My mother and father didn’t bring me into this world to do things for the wrong reason.
That certainly is an original approach for reality TV. Speaking of your past, you have achieved great things. Especially, earning three Michelin stars, which you famously returned. Do you wish you had them back?
Firstly, you’ve got to ask the obvious question; why did you do it, Marco? Being awarded three stars is very exciting. Defending them is quite boring. So therefore, my life had changed. I felt I had three options.
My first option was to continue to work 6 days a week, nearly a hundred hours a week. To retain my status and remain the king of my world. My second option was to live a lie. Will I pretend to cook, when I don’t cook? To continue to charge high prices and continue to question my integrity, and everything I’ve ever worked for.
My third option was that I pluck up the strength, and the courage within to give back my stars, and to realize that tomorrow morning, I will be unemployed. One day I had a thought. And that thought was “Marco. You are being judged by people who have less knowledge than you. So what’s it all worth?”
And it was that thought that gave me the courage to give back my stars. And by giving back my stars I created the opportunity which allowed me, firstly to discover myself. Who I am and what I am, since I’d spent 22 years of my life putting all my energies into my food and into my restaurant, denying myself. It was time to be kind to myself
By being kind to myself, I started to know myself as to who I was and what I was. And then one day I realized what my position was within my industry. Which is to be an ambassador to the world that I came from. To stand up and share my story with the young of today. To inspire them. To talk about the golden age of gastronomy. And the great people I had worked with who were behind those days.
And when I step onto the stage to do The Chopping Block, to share a little of my story with those individuals, and the viewers, to inspire them, to make them want to do it, to educate them. To make them want to live that dream like Mario Batali did all those years previous, to share that dream, to want to be part of it. I’ve shared my dream with many young chefs, like Gordon Ramsay. And that is my job. Not to live a lie. To pretend I cook, when I don’t cook.
Having achieved these well-deserved accolades, what would you say sets you apart, personally, as a great chef? How good are you really, and why?
Well firstly, I never think of myself like that. Secondly, I never think of myself. Many times in England I’m classed as a celebrity. I don’t think of myself as a celebrity. I’m just another bloke. One who’s shared and lived his dream with others. Today I share my story. I inspire young people. I create opportunities. I believe if you’ve been given in life, you have a moral duty to give back. If you’ve been given a talent, share your talent. If you’ve been given knowledge, share it off. If you’ve been given opportunity, create opportunity.
You said New York is the dining capital of the world, and the show is set there. Do you ever stop at random food carts and try the fare?
I’m fascinated by street food. I’m fascinated by streets. I like to walk down roads. I like to feel the energy. I like to wear the soles of my shoes out on those streets. In fact, when I go back home, and I walk down the streets of where I grew up, I think of how my mother wore her soles out on those streets for me. And the biggest failing of my industry, is how many people forget their debt of honor. Never forget what a man does for you.
Do you have any regrets?
None whatsoever. If I had regrets, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. I have to accept all the mistakes I’ve made in my life. I have to take the knowledge out of that experience. Nothing is perfect.
There’s an old saying, “you’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” Can you recall any major kitchen disasters?
I’ve created more disasters than anyone I’ve ever known. But it’s the experience that allows you to cover them up, to hide them. Stay cool. Never let them see you sweat, and you’ll win.
You’ve had a spectacular career, with your work, with books and now television. How can you evolve even higher?
Let’s be honest, that’s all materialism. I’m not inspired by materialism. I use those vehicles to share my story, to inspire people. To enable them. Go and cook. By inspiring people to want to cook, you enrich their lives. That’s our job. We’re here for a very short time. The heart of every house is in the kitchen.
Don’t miss the premiere episode of The Chopping Block with Chef Marco Pierre White when it airs on Wednesday, March 11 at 8 PM EST on NBC.