Marco Pierre White will be back on board P&O’s Ventura this autumn. Here he tells James Steen about the defining moment of his life and why he’ll never forget his roots
My life is quite strange to a lot of people, but I enjoy it. I do not have a computer – wouldn’t know how to switch one on. I have never sent an email and do not have an email address. My phone is an old one that others laugh at, but recently I was on a speedboat in the Caribbean. Everyone else on the boat had lost the reception on their fancy smartphones and my phone worked perfectly. They say modern technology helps in your life, but no one seems to have any free time. Whereas I just carry on with my own thing and am perfectly happy.
The newspapers still describe me as ‘fiery’ but those who know me will tell you that I’m pretty mellow and don’t raise my voice. When I came on the scene and opened my first restaurant, Harveys, gastronomy was in a different age: head chefs wore tall white hats and remained invisible behind the swing doors. Here I was, the lanky Yorkshireman with long hair and I looked knackered because proper chefs do look knackered and pale because they work 18 hours a day and don’t see daylight.
I’ve been judged by people who don’t cook, and criticised by food snobs who consider me a Michelin-starred chef who is fussy about food. I happen to have won stars, but I also grew up on a council estate on the outskirts of Leeds and have never forgotten my roots. I’m not interested in eight-course meals made up of fancy dishes of tiny portions of food that’s cold by the time it reaches the table. There are millions of people who can’t afford to spend hundreds of pounds eating a fine meal, and I’m on their side.
I won three Michelin stars in 1995, when I was 33 and had my restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel. I didn’t really pause to celebrate; just got on with the job. But when I look back on it, the achievement deserved a glass of something special. I was the first British chef to win three stars, and the world’s youngest. The strangest bit is that Michelin is a great French institution and I had never been to France, yet was cooking in classically French style.
Travel was infrequent. Holidays weren’t planned and didn’t happen often. Suddenly, my life changed when I joined P&O about eight years ago and since then I feel like I’ve seen the world. I’ve taken my sons Luciano and Marco and they’ve had the most wonderful time and made lots of friends.
For so many people, cruises are all about the food. I remember visiting Marseille and having the most sensational bouillabaisse, the glorious fish stew with rascasse and gurnard and the flavours of Provence; fennel, saffron, olive oil. On Ventura, I’ve got a restaurant, The White Room, where the food is wonderful and I do book signings which have been known to last for eight hours. There are people from every walk of life and they share their stories, which I love. I also do my master classes with about a dozen passengers. I do dishes that they can do at home as well, seafood risotto, lobster spaghetti, or I might teach them how to cook the perfect steak or carbonara.
I moved out of London and don’t spend as much time there now. I love to be in the countryside. When I was a kid I used to sneak into the Harewood estate and use the parkland and woodland as my garden and that’s where I established my love of nature.
My mother died when I was six. She suffered a brain haemorrhage. That was the defining moment of my life. Later on, I worked in some terribly tough kitchens, the hours were exhausting and there was a lot of screaming and shouting. There were some difficult moments in my career and what has got me through was this: my mother died when I was six, so what could be worse? I was pretty much unbreakable.
Dad was a chef and I was always required to help him in the kitchen and so I think I was always surrounded by food, preparing vegetables or helping with the cooking. It might have been picking mint from the garden to make mint sauce, or shelling peas. In the late 60s and early 70s, tinned food was very much a middle class luxury. We never, for instance, had tinned baked beans. My father would get haricot beans, soak them overnight, drain them and fry them in bacon fat for breakfast. The only tinned food we had was sardines, which my dad served on toast. Sunday lunch was Yorkshire pudding with onion gravy, followed by a roast, and then a dessert of crumble.
My next book is called Simply Marco and I’m teaching the tricks and revealing the secrets of great comfort food, including a stunning ‘floating islands’ of meringue in crème anglaise. Simplicity is crucial. At home, I like to cook roasts and one-pot dishes that can be plonked in the middle of the table, for everyone to help themselves. I was thinking last night about what I’d eat for my last meal. Fresh crab, gulls’ eggs and wild smoked salmon. Funny, isn’t it? There’s all that Michelin-starred food out there but I’d just be thinking, give me some good English food and keep it simple.
Marco Pierre White will be travelling regularly with the P&O Cruises fleet throughout the year.
Adonia – D404 – May 21/24
Oceana – E416 – July 2/5
Arcadia J409 – July 19/22
Aurora – R413 – Aug 20/23
Oceana – E425 – Sep 19/21
Ventura – N421 – October 8/10
For more information or to book, visit pocruises.com or call 08433740111.
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