My worst nightmare, set in a kitchen the size and temperature of a sauna, features a wild-eyed, Medusa-haired celebrity chef attempting to strangle me with a table napkin. Its recurrence this week, after watching Marco Pierre White fiercing all over Masterchef Australia contestants (my kids are addicted to the show) was hardly surprising, given that some years ago, he did the same to me.
My Marco Moment has in some ways scarred me for life (had it happened in the States, I’d have been urged to sue for attempted homicide!) Mythology maintains that Marco is ferocious only for the camera, but is an absolute pussycat in real life. Having worked with him, I can report from experience that the man is mean for real. He's an eccentric, imposing, enormous (6’ 3”), sexist, volatile, demanding perfectionist. A multi-millionaire flirtatious father-of-four with a foul mouth and an evil temper. An essentially cruel man, given to vengeful, egocentric behaviour, who treats women like dirt - hence two and a half divorces.
I forget now whose bright idea it was to second me to Harvey’s restaurant kitchen in Wandsworth, where Marco was still building his reputation as the hottest chef in town. Harvey’s, off the beaten track, boasted two Michelin stars, one of only four restaurants in Britain at the time to do so. My brief was to spend a week in his kitchen, experience his mad methods first-hand, and report back on the outrageous rumours that he treated his staff like animals. Because my employers at the time, the Daily Mail, were about to serialise recipes from his cookbook ‘White Heat’, he agreed to it.
Not the softest of gigs, I mused, as I crossed Wandsworth Common one August afternoon with the Firstborn, heading for my initial meeting with the Beast of Bellevue Road - who allegedly throttled staff, hung chefs by their aprons from hooks, and slashed their uniforms with knives if they complained. Before I could interview Marco, he demanded to interview me, retorting that he wouldn’t have ‘any old f-ing riff-raff skulking about in his kitchen’.
When a stale, bleary-eyed Marco finally appeared as if directly from a mattress, it was without apology or greeting.
‘You know we’re going to f---, don’t you?’ were his first words to me, I kid not ( no of course we didn’t: as shock tactics go, he had nothing on rock stars.)
His second utterance, to my little daughter, was ‘would you like a drink?’ She said yes please. Handing her a wine glass, Marco wrenched the top from a bottle of mineral water and instructed her to ‘Say when’. Mia stared at him, dumbstruck.
An Italian Yorkshireman (the posh-Brit accent is affected), Marco spent his early childhood near Genoa. He returned to England aged only six, after his mother died. He has admitted that he took up cooking because he was ‘thick at school - a real doughnut. My brain didn’t start working until I was sixteen.' His wild appearance was enough to terrorise an adult, let alone a toddler. Despite having been the teenaged protege of legendary Albert Roux of le Gavroche, he’d have looked more at home frying onions outside Wembley Stadium, or rearranging amplifiers for the Stones.
He poured the water without stopping. It overflowed from the wine glass and glugged down Mia’s dress, splashing into her new white leather sandals. I sat in silence, not daring to speak. I feared that an angry reaction from me was precisely what he was trying to provoke, thus giving him the perfect excuse to pull out of the proposed arrangement. When Mia laughed, so did I. An hour later, Marco and I were chums.
Two weeks later I took my place backstage at Harvey’s. Within ten minutes, I'd heard him give a fictitious address to two telephone callers who according to Marco ‘sounded far too common, we don’t want his/her sort round here’. ‘Let’s face it,' he reasoned, ‘there is only one reason why a man takes a woman out to dinner. But let’s try and be a little refined about it, shall we?’
The kitchen was so tiny, the chefs, cooks and bottle washers (I was one) were bent like hunchbacks. Marco had reached sublimation point already.
‘Oi - UGLY!’ he rounded on me. ‘Yes, you! Could you get any uglier? Got a nice little family, haven’t you? Want to see them again? No? Well carry on the way you are doing and you won’t, know what I mean? Who’s nicked my sodding clingfilm? I’d like it back! Whoever’s taken it, give it back, now!’
Orders flooded in by the table-load: salt cod, pig’s trotter, pigeon. Frantic chopping of herbs, massacring of tomatoes, violent slicing of fish. Marco yelled orders like a surgeon:
‘PLATE, William! Olive oil, William! Pan please, Bertrand (he said PLEASE!!) Caviar! ... Lemon juice! ... I said, f-ing CHIVES!’
It was not so much hands-on cookery as hands IN. Marco tested, not with his fingertips, but with his entire fists. Every spoon he used went into his own mouth (and several into mine ... then straight back into the mixture.)
In flitted the maitre d’ Jean-Christophe, with a menu and a Biro in hand. Somebody wanted an autograph.
‘That’s six quid on the bill!’ Marco roared, sweat dripping off his ringlets into the seafood as his chipolata fingers flew. He plopped a prawn onto my tongue, licked his palms and carried on creating.
By the end of the night, we were all quivering wrecks. And we knew what we could do if we didn’t like it.
Very late, that Saturday, he took me to the Chelsea home of his fashionista girlfriend, Nicky Barthorpe, for whom he had left his first wife Alex and baby Letitia, and who didn’t last long herself (he went on to marry model Lisa Butcher, then Spanish firebrand waitress Mati. They are separated.) After gambling all night in Nicky’s kitchen, Marco drove us all at dawn to Albert Roux’s Sussex estate to go fishing. Later, the great chef, Marco’s mentor, cooked us sauteed aubergine and courgette in garlic, coq au vin and summer pudding. With Albert and his wife Monique, Marco was a different pan of trout. Meek, respectful, lapping up the affection they lavished on him, he was the perfect surrogate son.
A couple of nights later he was throttling me and booting me onto the pavement ... for making a tasteless joke about spitting in a customer’s food (for the record, in case he sues me, he didn’t do it).
The next time I saw him, he was all over me like a rash. I still have it.